Our next series, of thought-provoking short films, comes from filmmakers, trailblazers and creatives exploring what it is to be autistic. The following bodies of work, which will be shared over the coming months, each present their own unique depiction surrounding the neurodiversity of autism, either from a place of experience or a position of seeking to understand.
This series of content coincides with the latest Heady Mix theme, which this season is titled ‘Dazzling Colours of Calm’. The ambition of this latest collection is to celebrate the great breadth of what it can mean to experience the world as an autistic woman or mother of an autistic child. And whilst the subject of neurodiversity cannot be distilled into a certain number of pages, what can be offered is an insight into the different pockets of consciousness that constitute autism. All in the hope that what is presented, gives Heady Mix readers a greater understanding of the diversity of our brains.
It felt fitting, then, to begin this thematic content with Niamh McCann and her TED talk, ‘Copy & Paste – Hidden Asperger’s– Girls with Asperger’s’. In a brilliant 10-minute monologue, Niamh addresses the rigidity of both the diagnosis and the perception of autism and how, just as in her experience, this linear formality fails so many autistic girls.
The inflexible definitions of gender.
Despite becoming a huge talking point in recent years, gender stereotypes are still very much at the centre of how many people form opinions of one another. A girl should be like this, and a boy should be like that. These inflexible definitions of gender have also permeated into definitions of autism, even as far as the medical process for diagnosis.
Because boys are much more likely to exhibit stereotypical physical traits of autism, such as nuances in movement, concentration and speech differences, the male half of the population is much more easily diagnosed. For girls like Niamh, with high-functioning Asperger’s, their condition becomes fused to many of the learned behaviours commonly associated with girls. Those such as; passiveness, quietness, shyness, even indifference, are often stereotypically read as simply being, well, a girl.
The exhausting sphere of influence.
Not only this, but as many young women do, girls with Asperger’s learn to copy what they see and hear around them. The sphere of influence for a girl is exhausting, from peers to celebrity, young girls are almost inherently taught that looking a certain way or being a certain way, is the right way to exist. Unlike their male counterparts who are more often taught about competition, being the very best and standing out because of it.
Over generations, these two distinctive sets of behavioural traits have meant that autistic girls are overlooked. Even the very test established to determine whether a person is autistic or not, has been built on the symptoms usually displayed in boys. The test doesn’t account for the more hidden signs shown in girls, nor does it account for the fact many girls are exposed to influences that enable them to, as Niamh puts it, copy and paste behaviour. Many high-functioning autistic girls learn to mask the very signifiers that set them apart as being different, to colour in the nuances of neurodiversity so that to an outsider, however medically qualified, they look just the same as everyone else.
Indeed, the symptoms of autism in girls are so less likely to be recognised for what they are, that many young women are treated for another condition that may be symptomatic, rather than the root of their cognitive being. A recent study found that 23% of girls diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa were also identified as being autistic – a finding included in the video above.
Expanding the spectrum.
In Niamh’s eloquent yet accessible speech, she champions a vital cause. The autistic spectrum is exactly that, a spectrum. A varied scale and measure of how a person could be indicative of this particular neurodiversity. There is no fixed way to be autistic, no definite signal that sets someone apart as autistic.
Of course, this conversation is also wider than autistic definitions but sparks questions around gender definitions too. If we were to teach more girls about opportunity, outspokenness and options around how to express femininity then perhaps the signifiers of autism would be more easily recognisable. Those girls who were inherently quieter and more reserved would be more visible as requiring more support, rather than seeming to adhere to what society expects of women.
By doing this, maybe then autistic women would feel less compelled to colour in their differences to fit in with what the world, erroneously, believes is normal.
About the filmmaker
TEDx is a grassroots initiative, created in the spirit of the TED organisation’s overall mission to research and discover ‘ideas worth spreading.’ TEDx brings the spirit of TED to local communities around the globe through TEDx events. These events are organised by passionate individuals who seek to uncover new ideas and to share the latest research in their local areas that spark conversations in their communities. TEDx events include live speakers and recorded TED Talks, and are organised independently under a free licence granted by TED. These events are not controlled by TED, but event organisers agree to abide by their format, and are offered guidelines for curation, speaker coaching, event organising and more. They learn from TED and from each other. The TED in TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and more than 3000 events are now held annually.