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When Nice Girls Get Mad: Thoughts on Women, Autism, and Anger

This post is from Amy Gravino, a member of our Communications Committee here at Autism Speaks. Her blog is part of an ongoing series on our site called "In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum," which highlights the experiences of individuals with autism.

Not too long ago, I found myself caught in an exchange with someone. I say “caught” because in that moment I felt much like a fish—swimming happily at first; then baited, lured away, and ensnared in the trap that was deliberately laid down for me.

Caught.

Having interacted with this person previously, I knew what was in store if it happened again. Yet despite the thicker skin I’ve grown over the years, I still found myself caught off guard by what ended up happening. But there was a marked difference this time in the emotional response that this interaction provoked in me. I did not feel sad or hurt. I did not cry.

I got angry.

It was a new kind of anger: Righteous. Justified. Certain. The sort of anger that I knew I had every right to feel, and that I was sure others would understand as well.

I was wrong.

The moment that I chose to vent my anger, something changed. Suddenly, I was chided for the negative tone in my words. I was told, “Amy, you’re so nice and sweet. Why would you be so mean?

It was as if my brief, hyperbole-filled, frustration-fueled tirade had completely negated the person I was up until then. It seemed that, because I had not been able to hold in my emotions—even for just one moment—I could no longer be categorized as “nice and sweet.”

Girls and women on the autism spectrum are often viewed as being meek. Quiet. Shy. If a male on the spectrum gets angry, it is expected. Understood. Men are given outlets in society for this anger, and are not socially reprimanded for expressing it.

But if a female on the spectrum gets angry, it is unanticipated. Frightening. Meetings are held, concerns are voiced, medications are dispensed. In our society, women are expected to inhabit the role of peacekeeper, trouble-soother, feather un-ruffler. Anger is considered “unladylike.” Anger makes women “ugly,” and we are permitted to be ugly no more than we are to be angry.

Men on the autism spectrum are not often asked why they are angry. Their anger is acknowledged, recognized, and it is allowed to simply be. There is no reason, then, why this should not be possible for women on the spectrum.

The anger of women on the spectrum is no less real than the anger felt by men. As with all emotions, it is natural, it is healthy, and it is human. It is worth noting that the personhood of men on the spectrum is not called into question simply because they show anger, and so the same should then also hold true for women.

It is difficult enough to find our anger unwelcome by society at large, and to face the same double-standards in the autism world makes things that much more challenging. Women on the spectrum must have access to outlets of our own—safe, individualized options that give us the ability to express our anger without fear of judgment or reprisal.

To deny or be denied any part of the emotional experience is nothing less than to deny women on the spectrum of a part of our humanity.

And that’s definitely something to get angry about.