By Christina Matheson [CC-BY-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

When Being a Good Girl is Bad for You

Increasingly, experts are realizing that Asperger’s in girls looks different from Asperger’s in boys. Some thoughts on what that means for girls on the spectrum . . .

I was raised to be a good girl. This meant, above all, being seen and not heard. Don’t bother the adults. Don’t make waves.

And this was mostly fine with me. As a child, I spent hours and hours alone. Some of my happiest memories involve going on long bike rides, exploring in the woods, and playing games in my room, all by myself. I remember quite a few fiercely contested games of Risk and Monopoly that pitted me against myself.

My parents never questioned what I did for hours in my room with the door closed. If I disappeared for the afternoon into the woods behind our house, their only concern was that I be home by five-thirty for dinner.

I don’t know what would have happened if I came home at six. I was a good girl and good girls followed the rules.

But the problem with being the good girl, especially if you’re a young undiagnosed aspie, is that good girls are invisible. Aspie boys tend to act out. They have problems with anger management. They’re defiant and oppositional. They’re not team players. They shrink away from competition and refuse to follow the rules.

Years ago these boys got slapped with labels like “juvenile delinquent” and “behavior problem.” Today, out of every ten children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, eight will be boys and two will be girls.

The big question raised by this disparity is: are boys more likely to be aspies or are they just more likely to get diagnosed because their symptoms tend to fit the classic manifestation of AS? 

Gender Differences in Asperger’s Syndrome

Dr. Hans Asperger, the researcher who originally identified the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, based his definition of the condition on the boys he studied. He found that although they had average or above-average intelligence, the boys had poor nonverbal communication skills, failed to show empathy with their peers, spoke in an overly formal way, were clumsy and were drawn toward all-absorbing interests that dominated their conversations.

Increasingly, experts are realizing that AS in girls looks different from AS in boys. For example, boys are more likely to have a special interest in something mechanical–like trains, engines, or elevators–usually at a level far more intense than is age-appropriate. I read a case study about a teenage boy who was obsessed with cataloging the different types of outhouses found in his region. And recently, on a tour of Washington, DC I sat behind a boy who knew more about the history of U.S. presidents than the tour guide.

This kind of deep, obscure knowledge is an obvious tipoff that a child is a little different.

Asperger Traits in Girls

What does AS look like in girls? As a kid, I collected a lot of things: coins, stamps, baseball cards. I loved to organize my collections and was thrilled when I discovered a new addition at a coin show or in my monthly stamp club delivery. These were somewhat odd hobbies for a seven- or eight-year-old girl but I also played with Barbies, collected dolls, loved to sew my own clothes and voraciously read Nancy Drew mysteries.

Anyone who looked closely enough would have noticed that I spent more time organizing and categorizing my Barbies and their clothing than actually playing with them. That my Nancy Drew mysteries were invariably lined up on my shelf in numerical order. And all of those clothes I spent hours sewing? I rarely wore them. I just liked the process of cutting out the patterns and putting everything together like a big cloth puzzle.

The signs were there, but they were far more subtle than those being given off by the little boy who can identify every WWII fighter plane or wants his dad to drive him all over the state photographing outhouses.

Social expectations may also play a role in the underdiagnosis of girls. It’s socially acceptable (or even desirable) for a girl to be “shy” or quiet. The same passive tendencies in a boy are perceived as a lack of assertiveness, an unacceptable trait for males in our society.

Throughout childhood I heard that term over and over again. She’s just shy. That excused everything. If I didn’t participate in discussions in school, it was because I was shy. If I sat on the sidelines at a birthday party or went off to read in an empty bedroom at a family party, it was because I was shy. If I didn’t want to be in the school play or I didn’t have many friends–all part of my shyness.

It never occurred to anyone to ask why I liked to be alone or had few friends or avoided social situations. I was a good girl. I didn’t make waves. What was the problem?

Aspie boys are more likely to act out, which is a problem. And aspie boys seem to be less adept than aspie girls at learning to mimic social behaviors. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of how girls and boys play.

Aspies at Play

As young girls, my friends and I often played ‘school’ or ‘house’. These were cooperative role-playing games in which we acted out scenarios like math class or making dinner. As long as I got to be the teacher or the mother, I loved these games. They played into my need for control and my love of organizing.

If I didn’t get to be the teacher or the mother, the game usually ended in a nasty fight between me and the girl who got that role because I couldn’t stand following directions. Other kids’ rules made no sense to me. They felt all wrong. I had to be in charge or I wasn’t playing. Dr. Tony Attwood describes this as “god mode”–the way that aspie kids need to control every aspect of a social situation to make it safe for them to interact.

For whatever reason, my friends tolerated my god mode and hung around, though not all the time. I remember more than a few shouting matches that left me without anyone to play with for the rest of the day.

Unlike boys’ games where there tend to be winners and losers, girls’ games are often based on how well a girl cooperates with the group to create an enjoyable role-playing scenario. Boys’ games are often competitive–from sports to video games–and the incentive to play lies in the possibility of winning. A boy can fit in by being good at a skill. If he can get to level ten on a popular video game or has a good jump shot, he’ll find other kids to pursue his interests with.  For a boy, a specialized skill that’s valued by peers may allow him to get by without learning the nuances of building and maintaining friendships.

This may also be why older aspie boys tend to excel at a practical skill, like building computers, writing software code or solving complex math problems. Even in the absence of excellent social skills, this kind of practical knowledge will give them a foot in the door with a peer group.

From their earliest social interactions, aspie girls have more innate incentives to learn social skills–or at least learn to fake them. This may be another reason why it’s easier for aspie girls to stay under the radar as they make their way through the school system and into adolescence. Their social survival depends on it. Perhaps it’s the girls who fail to adapt who are most easily diagnosed. Their lack of social skills often results in the sort of isolation, bullying and depression that set off alarm bells in parents and teachers.

Aspie kids are incredibly adaptable. We learn early on that we’re different–whether some specialist tells us that we are or not. We’re far more sensitive to the world around us–particularly the social world–than we let on. It may not look like it to others, but most aspie kids are trying really, really hard to fit in.

And maybe that was the problem for some of us. We became too good at being good girls, so good that we became invisible. We slide under the radar right into adolescence or early adulthood, maybe even into middle age, before we realize that being a good girl has its limitations. Or perhaps we go to the opposite extreme–from good girl to bad girl in the blink of eye–and the people around us chalk it up to the trials of adolescence or a mid-life crisis.

It’s been tough, realizing that being a good girl isn’t the cure-all that I was raised to think it was. Sometimes, I’ve learned, being a good girl is bad for you.

—–

Related articles:

Not just a boy thing: how doctors are letting down girls with autism

Blasting Stereotypes in Autistic Females

The Autism Project: Mothers with ASD ask why scientists are missing girls

36 thoughts on “When Being a Good Girl is Bad for You”

  1. This is really interesting and I appreciate your in depth look at the differences. I have spoken with a number of Autistic women who question the higher incidences of Autistic boys over Autistic girls.
    Interestingly (to me, anyway) I hadn’t heard anyone talk about bossiness, as my mother often accused me of, as an Autistic trait, but of course it makes sense. A need to control = bossy. My mother use to say to me, “How do expect to ever have any friends, when you’re so bossy?” To which I had no answer!

    1. I think control is a big part of it because control equals safety when it comes to dealing with the unpredictable nature of people. Another element was probably that I always thought my way of doing things was the only right way and other kids needed to be informed of what they were doing wrong.

      Both of these issues are still a problem at times . . .

  2. “I don’t know what would have happened if I came home at six. I was a good girl and good girls followed the rules.”

    You just summarized my childhood interactions with my mother. I didn’t know what would happen if I broke the rules, because, well, I didn’t break the rules. There were so many rules and if I didn’t follow them, I was scared that there would be even more. Yes, being a “good girl” was something that definitely made me more invisible as well. I definitely relate to that.

    1. I’m sure our parents were doing their best to teach us manners, keep us safe, etc. but yes, rules and fear of consequences seem to only encourage the tendency to clam up and disappear into the background.

  3. Oh also, when I was a kid, I used to make up all these incredibly complex “make-believe” games, in which I would make up massive sets of rules, that were written down. Once I made up this game about living on a farm and having to be self-sufficient. Each task I did in real life translated to the farm. I loved to knit, so every time I finished a part of my knitting project, that was another blanket or sweater or something to sell. I would plant and harvest crops to eat and sell based on doing certain chores. I had massive piles of graph paper with maps of the farm (more like a ginormous ranch), house, barn, etc. I could earn new land and new animals, etc. by completing things and earning enough “money” for them. Extremely imaginative, yes. But extremely regimented, rules oriented, and I was most certainly in “god-mode”… and who says aspie girls have no imagination? 🙂

    1. Whoa, it’s like you’s invented an analog version of Farmville! 🙂

      I was surprised to learn that aspie kids are thought to lack imaginative play skills because I had the same kinds of complex made-up games that you describe here and I spent hours playing them out. I also had imaginary friends that I talked to in my head but of course no one knew about. Maybe the aspie kid imagination isn’t lacking, just different?

      1. i agree with you on that thought 🙂 i’m a aspie and when i was a kid english and art were my favourite subjects. I have a very vivid imagination the only imagination i lack or struggle with is social imagination. I avoid writing out conversations in my stories and i always worry about what i’m going to say to people. Once i have an opening line i’m usally fine but the worrying process up until that point can be exhausting sometimes. There defo needs to be more focus on what people on the spectrum are capable of rather than pointing out the differences which they are probs very well aware of already.

  4. Great article. Thanks for a new way to think about life. I was a good girl, too. And, I suspect, so was my mother. No chance for a social role model there!

    I was in my 40s before I found a way, in my particular work situation, to use my ‘bossiness’ to be socially acceptable at work. At least during worktime. I didn’t dare go out to lunch with co-workers because I would soon run out of acceptable ways to act/talk and would turn into the real me. Which never was successful. Not in kindergarten, high school, or everyday adult social situations. I had some friends, yes, and with time, I learned how to use my intelligence and abilities to provide a service that inclined people to put up with me, but I only ever found a safe social place in fandom.

    1. It’s good to hear that you found acceptance in fandom (seems like generally a very accepting space) and that you found a way to put your bossiness to good use in your job. I’ve only ever had jobs where I’ve been in charge so I guess I’m in the same boat. It’s hard to reconcile the need for control with the tenets of being a good girl at times. I’m slowly growing out of the latter, thankfully.

  5. interesting, but why assume all girls manifest this way? My almost 11 yr old GIRL is far more “boy-like” than girl-ish, according to this description, in terms of quietly blending. Then again, perhaps this is why she is one of the ones who GOT a diagnosis fairly early.

    1. The background I included on how girls manifest is largely taken from the literature, but I did find that it fit me as well. You make a great point that your daughter may in fact be one of those diagnosed because she a more traditional presentation. I’m glad you added your comment because I think it’s important to recognize that not all girls or all boys will present in just one way. Thank you for making that clear, since I don’t think I did in my post. 🙂

  6. … I think this is why I was identified by my school as needing evaluation for something but not by my parents: By the time I hit second grade, I couldn’t follow all the social rules. I followed my sister’s lead a lot in the family, but at school, I had nobody’s lead to follow and so I broke rules I didn’t know existed (like the rule of don’t correct the teacher, or the rule of at least look like you’re paying attention in class, or what have you). I was more obviously different at school than at home as a result.

    1. Recently when I was watching some old home movies I noticed that by the time my sister was about 4 I was taking cues from her in social situations and I’m 4 years older. That was a shocker.

      I bet it’s not uncommon for kids to demonstrate different levels of social competence in different situations like you describe. I tended to find girls I could hide behind, instantly becoming “part of” (though not really) their social circles by virtue of being their friend. But if that girl was out of school or didn’t go to an event, I was completely lost.

      1. … I was thinking back on it a bit later on in the day yesterday, and I remembered that I used to get annoyed that my parents would force me to attend everything with my sister. If I wanted to go to camp, I had to wait until she was old enough, too. If I wanted to do a club, she had to join, too. I was angry with them because this had the effect of favoring activities she wanted to do over stuff I did (our interests were and remain extremely different – I wanted to do science camp and rock climbing, she wanted vet camp and basketball). They said it was because they didn’t want us to get lonely.

        Now I wonder if they’d noticed how much I followed my sister’s lead and how badly I was bullied when I didn’t have her lead to follow and were trying to protect me. I’d ask them, but they lie to me about anything at all related to the possibility I might have a developmental disorder (they deny that I was bullied at all in school, for example, or that I had special interests, or that I was a loner, etc, but all of this stuff is stuff I know from my memories, from my sister’s memories, from family videos and pictures, and from the reports of my sister’s childhood friends – I didn’t have any childhood friends, but my parents farcically would tell you I was popular. Ha!), and I know I can’t phrase it in a way that will mislead them about what I’m getting at so I can’t trust their answer. I might ask my sister to put it to them and tell me what they say – they’ll be honest with her over it.

        I don’t know why they won’t be honest with me. I’ve entertained the notion that I might have actually received a diagnosis as a kid that they don’t want me to find out about, but I think it’s more likely that they had the flag raised enough by enough different people that they think it’s the case but have internalized prejudice that’s making them play deny, deny, deny, gaslight, gaslight, gaslight in hopes I’ll lose interest. It worked for a bit when I was a teenager and first learned about the ASDs, but I don’t think it’ll work thins time because adult autism has be come something of a special interest of mine.

        1. I suspect that what’s going on with your mom is the similar to how my mom reacted to a diagnosis.

          When I was a young in Ohio, when a child was diagnosed with asthma, standard procedure was to require that the parents attend psychiatric sessions. Because, of course, asthma was psychosomatic, totally the result of bad parenting. My mother could never admit that I had asthma, not even when she had to race to an emergency call because I was turning blue for being unable to breathe. I remember the event vividly, and the “asthma suppository that the nurse gave me. “But I don’t have asthma,” I told her and she just stared at me in disgusted amazement..

          My problems were because I had had “bronchitis” when a baby. That my mother could live with; even my GP uncle went along with it because, of course, no one wanted to send my parents to a shrink. “She’ll get over it, adapt,” was the attitude. Which I did, learning not to pay attention to the fact that I was always put with the little kids in swim class because, for some reason I hand “bad lungs” and could breath well enough to learn the swimming crawl. I came up with for reasons to avoid sports that required anything more than a short burst of running. It wasn’t till I was out in the adult work, working hard, that I received a correct diagnosis of asthma from a doctor who was nearly as astonished as the nurse had been that I had no idea…. But, mom was gone by then and I didn’t have to argue about it all with her.

          Try to forgive her; she had probably been raised with horrible “truths” about “crazy people,” and so can emotionally handle your truth.

          1. Fun fact: I have asthma, too. Thankfully, my dad is a doctor so I wasn’t saddled with too much stigma on that front, but yeah, what you say makes a lot of sense. But it’s both my parents that deny what I think is plainly obvious to anyone with eyes to see it. I’m not really angry with them over it, more puzzled: I don’t get why they would deny something that’s true. I can’t fathom denialism and I can’t fathom faith, so I’m left confused by it.

            Because I don’t get why you’d lie to yourself about reality. It’s real. It’s there. Anyone can see it. Why pretend it’s not there? It’s like standing in a room and pretending you’re outside. You can, but why would you want to? I don’t get it. To me, it seems pointless. I’m sure it’s not pointless to others because if it was, people wouldn’t do it, but that psychological defense mechanism is just utterly alien to my thought process.

            1. I hear that! One of the most difficult things for me to wrap my head around deception. People learn to lie very early as part of socialization. A large part of my social deficit is not being able to lie, or simply doing it poorly. Of course I lied/lie sometimes. I’m human. I guess I feel there should be a “good” rational for it. I learned to lie (badly) to keep myself out of trouble. I never could understand lying to ingratiate yourself, ass-kissing and such, or just to make yourself sound good. I think some on the spectrum take the opposite extreme, and lie pathologically because of enhanced imagination, and society teaching people to lie with actions, while touting honesty with words. Thoughts?

              1. Not sure. I know only one person who is a pathological liar and a sociopath who might or might not be on the spectrum. I don’t have any evidence of him being good at lying, because I don’t know if it worked with anyone but me. Probably not because he had only one friend, and this friend told me not to trust a word he said. But the lying was very much a reaction to intense emotional trauma and PTSD and I don’t think it was connected with the possibility of being on the spectrum. Autistic people can have other disorders that have nothing to do with autism.

              2. Forgot to say that most people on the spectrum seem to have that literal thinking / black-and-white streak that makes lying very complicated. They also don’t seem to be very manipulative but I’m not sure if that is a result of the mind states of non-autistic people being so hard to untangle, or the black-and-white thinking again (easier to just ask than to manipulate someone). Last of all, when you don’t have a lot of fine motor control, including facial muscles, it’s really hard to make your face and body reflect the lie instead of your actual thoughts.

              3. I think lying is a social activity and because people on the spectrum struggle with social communication, it makes sense that they’d have difficulty lying or seeing the point in lying. I have a similar relationship to lying as I do to “small talk” (which is, when you think about it, often a mild form of socially accepted lying) – I’m not very good at it and it often seems like too much work for the anticipated outcome.

                I’m not sure about people on the spectrum being pathological liars. Certainly they can be. There’s also the possibility that someone who comes across as a pathological liar truly believes, perhaps very stubbornly, what is in fact a lie. This could be a defense mechanism or a coping strategy or poor self-awareness or just a maladapative way of thinking.

    2. 1000x yes! By second grade I was participating in regular over-lunch sessions with other special kids and the school psychologist, but my parents thought I was just a perfect kid at the time. I caused no waves, read quietly generally, pulled straight-a’s and didn’t require much in the way of rides to friends’ houses.

      I was diadnosed in my early 30’s, few years back.

  7. Wow – you described me as a child perfectly. This whole Asperger’s thing comes as quite a shock and as a relief for those who are just starting to figure these things out as adults.

  8. I read this article for my annotated bibliography on why clinicians fail to recognize girls on the autism spectrum: Gender differences in emotionality and sociability in children with autism spectrum disorders (http://www.molecularautism.com/content/5/1/19).

    I thought it was interesting that although the autistic girls had similar social skills to their typically developing boy peers, they struggled to keep up socially (at least using conventional social behaviors) with their typically developing girl peers. It seemed like a pragmatic language barrier to me.

    1. I’ve bookmarked it to read when my brain is working better. 🙂 One thing I noticed in the abstract is that they used the FQ and the scores that kids got track very closely with the FQ scores from SBC’s paper on it. Which makes me wonder if the FQ has reliability issues or some sort of built in scoring bias or if that neat hierarchy of social skills really does exist across populations.

      1. You know, I hadn’t even thought about that. How well the findings map onto Baron-Cohen’s theory. I’m now wondering about the psychometric properties of the FQ. Good point.

        1. It’s frustrating that there isn’t some other independent confirming factor for the results. The FQ has some built-in gender bias and also some bias toward verbal communication – lots of questions about chatting, talking, talking about things, etc.

  9. Now I wonder if half the reason my sister and I didn’t get along was from me being a controlling Aspie… Not always, but I certainly had my moments. Games were so much easier and in time I got to where playing the game was more important than winning or losing.

    When I was a kid, every summer I would collect a big bag of cicada exoskeletons because they were cool. Mom just chalked it up to me being a bug person, and she agreed they were cool, although I think half her fascination was how many cicadas we had around the house as evidenced by the shells.

    Goosebumps was my drug of choice. And in order by the little numbers on the spine. Drawing was my performing obsession of choice, and animal facts my non-performing obsession of choice. I spent so many hours studying and drawing.

    People didn’t call me shy so much as arrogant and snobbish (and still do). I preferred being alone and didn’t like playing with other kids because they were either mean or bratty and usually dull. It was hard finding an interesting or at least nice playmate. I was very protective over the nice ones no matter how interesting they were.

  10. I got the arrogant and snobby labels, too. I only liked playing with others when I was in control, which was, only with my sisters, which I fortunately or unfortunately, had a lot of. Outside of them, I found it a huge difficulty to make friends, and almost ALL of my close friends are either also on the spectrum, or have traits themselves. (One guy is ADHD with some AT traits, but not specifically ASD himself.) I guess we work because we get each other.

  11. As I was reading this, I realized that I did the “god-mode” thing in my childhood so extensively, that others thought I was a selfish jerk.
    A further realization came to me as I began to type this comment:
    I still do this.
    I lost a job over it, and it only occurs to me now that this was the reason why.
    I don’t “think I am better” than others, so it is not from a place of ego- in fact I have pretty low self-esteem; my “god-mode” behavior comes from a deep seated need to control my environment. I have sensory processing disorder on top of OCD anxiety and depression, sprinkle a ton of social pressure, daily living difficulties, and so much change going on that it makes my head spin on top of all that and it’s no wonder I come across as a controlling jackass.

  12. Beautiful read 🙂 i loved it and it really gets straight to the point. I can relate to almost all of it and its perfect to send to people who have little knowledge about the Autism spectrum. My friends have recently begun to ask a lot of questions about my syndrome and are interested in why girls are not diagnosed often compared to boys.

    I really dislike the word shy. I was diagnosed when i was 17 and knew from a very young age that i was different. My mum is a learning support teacher and she always thought my social difficulties were a result of lack of self-esteem due to my Dyslexia. The word shy still crops up when people talk about me today and when i correct them it leads to a whole bunch of questions. People seem surprised when i tell them i’m on the spectrum which at first used to make me happy but not so much now. Most people have heard of Autism which is great but they have very sterotypic images.

  13. Last year I reached a similar conclusion, after watching my 14 y/o NT brother embodying the teenager cliché (rebellious, dismissing, etc). Now that I’m 23, I lamented not breaking rules at his age – my identity feels nonexistent. It seems it wasn’t just “drama-seeking” behaviour (as I initially wrote it off), but one to test boundaries so to build character for adulthood; but at that moment it never occured to me to even break a rule. I didn’t see the point of it all. Anyway, no wonder why I was labeled with unflattering terms such as “teacher’s pet”…

    Sometimes I get an illusory feeling that if I rebelled on purpose, I’d mature earlier; and sometimes I recall having the sensation of “already having lived it all, so why should I bother?”. But again, both things are illusions.

    (By the way, the god-mode thing is true for child me, as well. To add to my confusion, an adult told me that “I didn’t know how to play”. Of course it was followed by a naive recitation of the rules…)

  14. I learned to channel my “bossiness” into my sadism. Worked out rather nicely, because now I only do it with those who ask for it. It was very interesting when I was in ROTC; I’m so anti-authority.

  15. How I used to play as a girl! Wow. This was spot on! Also this reminded me of one time when I was trying desperately to rollerblade and was terrible at it and slow. I was trying to get back home before a certain time (dusk) and desperately didn’t want to be in trouble (be a good girl) but I was too slow and for whatever reason, it never occured to me to take off my skates and walk home. I wasn’t that far anyway, I could have. But instead I was frantically trying to skate as quickly as my legs could take me back to the house. A 9 or 10 year old should have been able to make the connection between slow skating and faster walking to get home but I just couldn’t.

    1. i love moments like that ^_^ i was diagnosed when i was 17 and almost five years on i still have epiphany moments like this and things suddenly make sense.

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