So, Just How Many Asperwomen Can You Fit into Cinema #4 at The Showroom?

Illustration by Ivana Rezek

There’s a joke in there somewhere. But I’ll stick to the actual answer which is not as many as you might first imagine when you take personal space and relative proximity into account.

One or two asperwomen per row is probably ideal. You can comfortably intersperse a few NTs (neurotypicals) and/or men throughout the theatre too, just as long as they don’t attempt to occupy any of the end seats. And there really is no point arriving early in order to claim the seat: the one ideally located (from a sensory perspective – equidistant from the green glare of the central walkway and the inevitable, intermittent, brain-piercing feedback of the speakers) because everyone else is already there with exactly the same idea. Chair E10 is something of a compromise. E11 is better. E12 better still. Still, better check E11 again, just to be absolutely sure. No, the angle of eye line isn’t quite right. Definitely E12. Red velvet. Gold embroidery. Nice.

The first speaker of the day was there to open her heart and family photo album to a room full (but not to capacity) of complete strangers; an outpouring of memories, feelings and realisations which she hadn’t yet shared with her nearest and dearest. Why? Well, the cynical answer would be because she has another book or two ready for publication. The less droll, more congenial response would be that it was cathartic for her to do so. Her words got stuck in my throat and made me cry. I can’t find the word catharsism in the dictionary but that’s no reason not to use it. Catharsism in the arts has a fine and longstanding pedigree and mental health bloggers, including myself, are all over it.

I challenged myself to a game of ‘Spot the NTs’ which played itself out most amusingly over the allocated coffee break. Someone else was already conducting a social experiment, it seemed, in which the subjects’ reactions to rigged hot beverages were being observed and recorded. There was an unusually large selection of tea bags to choose from – Earl Grey, Green, Jasmine, Hassan, etc. Had it been post midday, I might have attempted to brew a Rooibos but it was still only 11.30am and I’d already been talked at solidly for 90 minutes so only black coffee would do. (I wasn’t really expecting a lecture on serial-higher-education-drop-outs. I could have written a really colourful version if anyone had asked me to.)  The tea drinkers were thwarted equally by both shapes of steel vacuum flask. The tall flasks contained very nice arabica coffee and the squat flasks contained yet more coffee. No hot water was available which had not previously been filtered brown through ground beans. I watched person after person pour flask after flask over bag after bag and not one of them managed a satisfactory or conventional cup of tea, though some reluctantly settled for a weird tea-coffee combo after the fifth or sixth attempt. Seriously, who funds this sort of experiment?

The vegan, gluten-free lunch was very nice, with the notable exception of the halved, hard boiled eggs for the vegetarians. Yolks piped into swirls through an icing bag? Clearly no one had told Chef that most autistics really don’t like people messing with their food. One woman eating at our table claimed to be NT. I almost believed her until she told me her EQ (Empathy Quotient) score substantiated her belief that she was clairempathic. No, I didn’t know what it meant either. I do now. Clairempathy is like emotional clairvoyancy, apparently, but with the living, not the dead. Right. My own EQ score lies just outside the (entirely arbitrary) so-called autistic range but would shift to within the (adolescent male) spectrum range had I ever deliberately cut up a live worm as a child. The EQ questionnaire is quite specific like that. And the results say a great deal more about the woeful inadequacies of the test than they do about the individual taking it. In short, it’s absolute bollocks.

I counted twenty-seven of myself in the wall to wall mirrors in the toilets. I stopped drinking coffee after that.

“I was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and have autism and gender dysphoria,” began the Australian psychologist, fresh from her Radio 4 interview that morning. I honestly didn’t know which pronoun to use in that sentence. I’d already decided that the alternative one was the correct one to use because it describes the gender with which this incredibly interesting and thought provoking individual self-identifies. I checked her bio in the conference programme and amended what I’d originally typed.

Women & Autism Conference E-Flyer Logo (Copyright: Spectrum First)Image: © Spectrum First (Women & Autism Conference E-Flyer Logo)

“I’m neither autistic nor a woman,” added the English clinical psychologist who then broke the mic and crashed the computer, “So I don’t really know what I’m doing here!” Alright.

They each approached the question of why there exists a male gender bias, with respect to the recognition and diagnosis of ASCs (autistic spectrum conditions) generally and HFA (high functioning autism)/Asperger’s Syndrome specifically, from (on the face of it at least) conflicting viewpoints: on the one hand,  that females present so differently to males that they should be assessed by their own gender-specific diagnostic criteria; on the other hand, that males and females not only can, but should, be assessed on equal terms. It is in the ironing out of the details of those equal terms where the different approaches converge to a meeting of the minds. And they don’t meet centre-stage in a diagnostic assessment the traditional triad of impairments.

The emphasis is directionally shifted to the identification of a ‘developmental process’ which looks for individual patterns in social abilities in response to sensory stress and emotional dysregulation. What that really means is that an individual’s social understanding, imagination, communication and therefore competences are judged with reference to that individual’s own base-line responses in a low sensory-stress environment rather than against any arbitrary description of societal norms. In practice, this would mean that clinicians would focus first of all on sensory processing differences and Executive Functioning with respect to sensory behaviour, emotional control, hyper-focus, task-switching and anxiety management strategies. The exact nature of each individual’s social incompetences, which follow from the underlying differences in sensory processing and Executive Function, will vary widely and are open to serious misinterpretation and misdiagnosis when analysed outside of this context.

Professor Baron-Cohen’s ‘Extreme Male Brain’ hypothesis came under fire, but only briefly as he wasn’t there to defend it. An argument A scientific debate’s no fun without someone to argue explore and evaluate the evidence with. Prof Baron-Cohen will be asking (and presumably offering an answer to) the question: ‘Why is Autism More Common in Males?’ at the Autism Show in Manchester next month. How long into his lecture will he get before an asperwoman raises her hand and queries: “Are you sure you’re even asking the right question there, Simon?” (I’ll bet he gets as far as the stage.) And woe betide him if ‘militant asperfeminism’ is her current special interest.

I’m taking popcorn.