I’m Right Here: Rudy Simone on Life as an “Aspergirl”

Rudy Simone in San Francisco

Rudy Simone in San Francisco

Rudy Simone is a writer, jazz singer, and stand-up comedian in San Francisco. She’s also a proud member of an often-misunderstood minority-within-a-minority: a woman on the autism spectrum — or as she prefers to call herself, an “Aspergirl.”

Unlike autistic author and animal-behavior expert Temple Grandin — whose life was the subject of an acclaimed HBO biopic starring Clare Danes — Simone wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her 40s. Diagnosis in mid-life is common for women with Asperger Syndrome. Often highly intelligent and articulate, they’re able to mask their social deficits while leveraging their ability to focus intensely into achievements in school and the workplace.

Simone had a relatively happy — if eccentric — childhood, but when she hit adolescence, the social tide seemed to turn against her, washing away most of her friends. Suddenly, her trusting exuberance and hyper-focus made her weird in the eyes of her peers, and a convenient target for bullying and abuse. One day, Simone’s chief tormentor at school brutally beat her in front of a cheering crowd of older kids. Humiliated, the 12-year-old Simone stopped singing and laughing in public.

These problems intensified as Simone got older. She abruptly walked out on jobs, apartments, friendships, and relationships when things didn’t work as planned. Sometimes the people that Simone left behind when she burned a bridge would tell her there was something “wrong” with her, but she could never put her finger on it. She didn’t feel wrong. Instead, she felt like the world was wrong — a place designed to make other people comfortable, but not her. (Spectrumites sometimes call this feeling “Wrong Planet syndrome.”)

“We don’t know what our burden is until we’re diagnosed,” Simone writes in a moving and provocative new book, Aspergirls: Empowering Females with Asperger Syndrome, “but we can tell other people don’t seem to be carrying it.”

Aspergirls cover

"Aspergirls" by Rudy Simone

Aspergirls is partly a personal memoir and partly a book of advice and support for women on the spectrum and their parents and friends. Simone has asked a chorus of Aspie women to speak through its pages, and this personal testimony is deeply moving. Instead of the bulleted lists of traits and diagnostic criteria that fill many books on the subject, Aspergirls offers snapshots of autistic lives from the inside.

I am eccentric and well loved, I have a good sense of humor and am a good mimic. But I cannot feel connection with others that lasts over space and time. Many mistake my one-on-one “intensity” for some kind of special friendship “intimacy.” I operate at a depth most people do not. — Camilla

I nearly failed my nursing placement as people thought I was arrogant, argumentative, and egotistical. I was devastated to find I had offended them. — Kylli

I do remember the moment I realized I was no longer attractive. It gave me some relief, actually. — Widders

The taxi driver pulled into my street and asked “Where are you?” I answered from the back seat, “I’m right here.” — Hope

One of the reasons many women on the spectrum have to survive on the wrong planet for decades before getting a diagnosis is because all women are taught to minimize their eccentricities by mimicking and echoing their peers. (For similar reasons, many lesbians only realize that they’re gay in middle age.) Aspie guys can also be more confrontational than Aspergirls, and quicker to erupt in rage when their senses get overloaded, which brings their condition to the attention of parents and teachers. This may have as much to do with traditional gender roles as it does with the distinctive traits of men and women with autism.

Even after diagnosis, life as an Aspergirl can be particularly tough. Frequently stereotyped as “high-functioning,” Aspie women have to endure people telling them that their autism isn’t “that bad” — while inwardly, they’re melting down in the face of hyper-stimulation and social cues they find difficult to parse. In general, women are taught to suffer their tribulations in silence; the extra effort of maintaining a high-functioning facade is exhausting for Aspergirls and can get worse as they grow older, says Simone.

Another problem Aspergirls face as they age is that nearly all of the support services available for autistic people are targeted to children and their families. While millions of dollars are raised every year for research into the causes of autism and therapeutic interventions for kids, very little money is available for employment counseling and other services for autistic adults.

The catchy title of Aspergirls seems to refer only to young women, but the book also addresses love, marriage, and childbearing for mature people on the spectrum. Aspies are frequently portrayed in the media as loners who are incapable of real intimacy, but many of the women in Simone’s book (as well as Simone herself) have been able to forge satisfying relationships, sometimes with partners who are also autistic.

Simone makes the observation that Aspie women tend to be less strictly defined and limited by gender than either their autistic male counterparts or their non-autistic (“neurotypical”) peers. In many autistic women, “anima and animus seem to be of equal influence and power,” she writes. This may even be helpful to Aspie women working in the sciences, where the distinctive strengths of many autistic minds — precision, intense focus, a propensity for visual thinking, and database-like recall — can contribute to success, as they did in Grandin’s case.

Though most of the Aspergirls who speak out in the book consider themselves primarily heterosexual, a surprising number told Simone that their partner’s gender doesn’t matter. “As usual,” she says, “We march to a different drummer.”

Grandin backstage

Temple Grandin at the Emmy Awards

In Simone’s life in San Francisco, marching to her own drummer includes undertaking tasks that some experts would assume that an autistic person could barely perform at all — like doing hip stand-up routines that depend on subtle shadings of irony.

Psychologist Tony Attwood describes people with Asperger Syndrome as being less aware of “hidden, implied, or multiple meanings” in speech, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to bullying and pranks. (The anecdote in the book about Hope telling the cab driver “I’m right here,” when he had really asked her about the location of her house, is an example of the autistic tendency toward literal interpretations of speech.) Simone, however, is able to exaggerate some of her Aspie traits — including a seemingly guileless monotone delivery — as part of her wry comic persona.

Starting today, and for the next two weeks, I’ll be hosting a group interview with Simone on the Well, one of the longest-lasting online communities. Most of the Well’s discussions are only open to paying members, but as part of a series of author interviews called Inkwell, my conversation with Simone about Aspergirls is readable by anyone on the Web. Interested readers can send their own questions for Simone to inkwell@well.com. When I get your questions, I’ll post them into the topic so Simone can respond. Indicate clearly if you want to remain anonymous.

Please join us on the Well.

More information about women on the autism spectrum and related subjects:

1. The Autism Women’s Network.

2. The Geek Syndrome, my 2001 article for Wired magazine on autism in Silicon Valley. Not about Aspie women in particular, and a bit dated by now, but helpful as a general introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorders.

3. An Aspie in the City by Carlin Flora.

4. The Good and the Bad, a response to An Aspie in the City, by Lynne Soraya, who writes a superb column called “Asperger’s Diary” in Psychology Today.

5. Communication and Emotional Expression (Part 1): The Female Factor by Lynne Soraya.

6. At the Wedding: How the “ungirliest” girl discovered she was girly after all by Lynne Soraya.

7. Asperger’s Syndrome in Women: A Different Set of Challenges? by Catherine Faherty.

8. Help4Aspergers.com, Simone’s autism website.

9.  Interview with Simone on the Autism Women’s Network. (Note: Audio starts automatically.)

10. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.

11. Am I More Than My Autism? by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg.

12. Reflections on Mature Autism, by Rory Patton.

13. Facebook group for Women from Another Planet, the first book about women on the spectrum.

14. Who Gets to Call Themselves Autistic?

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29 Responses to I’m Right Here: Rudy Simone on Life as an “Aspergirl”

  1. Sarah a says:

    I haven’t read this book, though i think it is truly amazing how girls with Aspergers can overcome on so many levels. I myself am diagnosed with Aspergers and female. I’m now 22, but was diagnosed at the age of thirteen.

  2. ictus75 says:

    While I’m a male, much of what Rudy Simone says rings true with me also. I think many of us adult Aspies who aren’t diagnosed until being older adults go through the same sort of, “Well, you’re just nerdy/eccentric,” or, that our autism isn’t “that bad.” And all of us Aspies feel like we’re on the wrong planet.

    And if you go out of your house into the real world, you learn to mimic/mirror NT behaviour in order to survive. Being an Aspie in an NT world can be exhausting for all of us.

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  16. lurker says:

    ” able to mask their social deficits” Lie. Impairments can’t be masked, unless they’re not real. Or unless what is referred to as “social deficits” has nothing to do with actual impairment.

    • Steve Silberman says:

      “Lie” is a binary word being applied to a non-binary situation. Many people with Asperger Syndrome have told me about the compensatory mechanisms they learned to use to function in a world built by and for neurotypical people. (It takes a lot out of them, too.)

    • anon says:

      That’s not true. I have Aspergers and an example of this is, sometimes people speak to me and though I hear there words I cannot comprehend or understand what they are saying at all to me. Because I notice vocal inflections, I will say stuff like “oh, mhmmm, yeah” but do not understand what they are saying to me. Only certain words will stick out. Or I’ll hear and understand each word when it comes out but not be able to understand them together along with the other words said. This is an example of masking a social deficit.

    • Austin says:

      Lurker, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Aspies often mask their impairments. Some everyday examples:

      – Forcing a smile when meeting someone new.
      – Shaking hands (when I don’t like being touched by people I don’t know).
      – Forcing “small talk” with a coworker (despite not understanding the point, or wanting to talk to this person).
      – Forcing eye contact (despite being uncomfortable with it).
      – Making myself go to a family function, such as a wedding, birthday party, family reunion… (despite not wanting to go, not wanting to be in a crowd, etc.)

      Humans are social creatures, but people with Asperger’s lack many of the “tools” used to connect with other people. These are but a few examples of ways to pretend to be normal (for the benefit of others, mostly), but they don’t change the way the person feels on the inside.

    • ictus75 says:

      @ lurker: ” able to mask their social deficits” is a survival skill that many of us learn early in order to fit in and not be bullied. Later on we do it in order to have/keep a job. And it can take a lot out you, pretending to be something other than yourself. I’m often exhausted mentally from having to deal with social functions & work. Apparently we Aspies do such a good job even you can’t tell…

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  19. My ex-wife, a diagnosed aspie, wanted to call her memoir in progress “high functioning my ass-pergers” — owing to her irreverent humor and the difficulty she found in being continually told she was high functioning.

  20. Sola Shelly says:

    A former anthology by and on women on the spectrum is “Women From Another Planet?: Our Lives in the Universe of Autism”.

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  22. Richmonde says:

    All women are taught to minimize their eccentricities by mimicking and echoing their peers… They ARE?

  23. Jason D. says:

    Oops, comment system ate some of that because of the pointy quotes. Let’s try again:

    Interesting. Just that brief description and some of the quotes sound more like my experience than the way a lot of male ASD people describe their experience. Well I’ve always been kind of girly, which I’m fine with.

    e.g. [[Many mistake my one-on-one “intensity” for some kind of special friendship “intimacy.”]]

    I’ve come to regard my own willingness to ask exceptionally awkward or embarrassing questions as a gift, very useful in rapidly getting to the heart of what someone cares about or has a problem with. I have trouble reading emotions so I’ll explicitly ask people what they’re feeling in a way that other people rarely do. (Maybe I should have been a therapist.)

    Anyway, a hazard of that is that it comes across as a very intense interest in the person I’m talking to. Which it is. But because most people don’t express that kind of intensity and interest in conversation unless they’re (for instance) romantically interested, or trying to make a new best friend, this has been the source of a certain amount of trouble for me.

    And this too:

    [[the … effort of maintaining a high-functioning facade is exhausting]]

    Even when you learn to fake it, it’s a lot of work to do it. Interpreting facial expressions and voice tone correctly requires very close attention. Resisting the urge to get up at work and bounce around, figuring out how to make conversation that doesn’t consist of me dissecting someone’s life and psyche on a slab, dealing with loud noises and other exaggerated sensory stimuli, and so on… I know that all of that can be wearing on everyone, but I do feel like it’s substantially more work for me.

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