Date of Degree

2-2018

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor

Joseph Straus

Subject Categories

Diagnosis | Gender and Sexuality | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Women's Studies

Keywords

autism, diagnosis, gender identity, passing, women's health, masculinity, disability studies, empathy, gender bias, neurodiversity, life writing

Abstract

The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder has increased dramatically within the last two decades, with males being diagnosed, on average, four to five times more than females. Although researchers in the medical community have searched for a biological explanation for this discrepancy, no definitive cause has been found. I argue that our understanding of autism is primarily a social and cultural construction, in addition to a diagnosable medical disorder. The gender disparity in diagnosis reflects cultural narratives surrounding social interaction and the widespread belief in two distinct gender roles. Furthermore, narratives surrounding the topic of autism tend to unintentionally highlight gender stereotypes and validate cultural, learned rules as inherent to individuals, which in turn may affect the diagnosis of autism. I explore the various reasons that we may locate autism in males more than in females, and highlight how areas that are usually thought to be objective are unintentionally biased, based on the binary gender system. A side-effect of the difference in diagnosis between males and females is that women and girls tend to be diagnosed later in life, or remain undiagnosed, which causes them to lose access to treatments and therapies from which they may have benefited. The anxiety this causes among autistic women is apparent when focusing on their memoirs and first-person accounts of their experiences. I offer an analysis of these personal narratives that highlights the embedded sexism in society leading girls and women to be underrepresented in the autistic community. Additionally, I’m looking towards a shift in the understanding of gender identity itself, and the future of diagnosis and neurodiversity.

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