Gender and Personality on the Autism Spectrum

There is ongoing debate about autism, such as how it is defined and what causes it, which in turn leads to how it is and should be diagnosed. Some have speculated that autism in girls and women is underdiagnosed:

However, it’s unclear whether this gender bias is the result of genetics or reflects differences in diagnosis or the way females manifest symptoms of the disorder. Girls with autism tend to actively compensate for their symptoms in ways that boys don’t, which may account for the discrepancy, says Skuse.

As a result, the females enrolled in studies may tend to be severely affected and carry multiple mutations. “There is some suggestion that higher-functioning females are out there in the general population, but they’re not being referred,” he says.

Here is what one could argue. Maybe it is most likely that the bias is not just in diagnosis for there would be a directly related bias in the research itself. After all, it is diagnosis that determines the subjects in the autism studies. So, if diagnosis is biased, there is no reason to assume that the subjects are representative of the full autistic population. Biased input would inevitably lead to biased results and hence biased conclusions. Basically, these studies at present might not be able to tell us anything about possible gender differences.

A reason given for the alleged failure to detect female autism is that “it may be because girls are better at masking the symptoms – better at copying social norms while not necessarily understanding them.” That might be true of many boys and men as well.

I have some Asperger’s-like traits, although I’ve never been diagnosed. Maybe it’s because I learned to fit in. I was socially clueless when younger and social situations stress me out, a set of factors exacerbated by my inner-focused nature. I don’t connect easily with others. But you wouldn’t notice that from casually interacting with me. I know how to pretend to be normal. It’s maybe why therapy has never worked for me, as I’ve developed a habit of effectively hiding my problems. It’s a survival mechanism that I learned young.

What occurs to me is that I’m a Jungian Feeling type. Myers-Briggs testing has found that most Feeling types are female, although about 30% are male. The same pattern in the opposite direction is seen with Thinking types. There is a general pattern that follows along gender lines. Still, that approximate third of the population is a significant number. That might mean that a third of male autistics don’t fit into the male pattern, maybe while a third of female autistics do.

So the seeming gender difference found in autism could be more about personality differences. And those personality differences may or may not be genetic in nature. Much of this could instead be culturally learned behavior. It wouldn’t only be cultural biases in diagnosis of autism for, if that is so, it would also be cultural biases in how autism is expressed. In that case, the question is what might be the relationship between culture, personality, gender, and neurocognitive development. There are obviously many complex factors involved, such as considering how a significant number of people don’t fall into simple gender categories: “It’s far from uncommon for people to carry genetics of both sexes, even multiple DNA.” Since gender isn’t binary, the expressions of autism presumably also wouldn’t be binary.

It would be easy to test my speculation if formulated as a hypothesis. My prediction would be that Thinking type females would be more likely to be diagnosed as autstic. And the opposite prediction would be that Feeling type males would be less likely. That is simply to say that autism would express differently depending on personality traits/functions. Similar research could be done with FFM/Big Five, and maybe such research already has been done. A related issue that would need to be disentangled is whether autism is more common among certain personalities or simply more diagnosed among certain personalities, an issue that could be studied either in relation to or separate from gender.

All of this is particularly complicated for certain Myers-Briggs types. My specific type is INFP. This type is one of the most talented types when it comes to masking behavior, “known as being inscrutable.” As Carl Jung described dominant introverted feeling (what Myers-Briggs divides into two types: INFP and ISFP):

They are mostly silent, inaccessible, hard to understand; often they hide behind a childish or banal mask, and their temperament is inclined to melancholy…Their outward demeanor is harmonious, inconspicuous…with no desire to affect others, to impress, influence or change them in any way. If this is more pronounced, it arouses suspicion of indifference and coldness…Although there is a constant readiness for peaceful and harmonious co-existence, strangers are shown no touch of amiability, no gleam of responsive warmth…It might seem on a superficial view that they have no feelings at all.
(Psych. Types, Para. 640-641)

An INFP aspie would make for a rather confusing specimen. It is the dominant introverted feeling that is so hard to discern. And this introverted feeling is hidden behind the chameleon-like and outward-facing extraverted intuition, what is in the position called the auxiliary function. Extraverted intuition is the ultimate mask to hide behind, as it is highly fluid and adaptable. And as the auxiliary function, extraverted intuition plays the role of mediation with and defense against the outside world.

Maybe a significant number of autistics have hidden introverted feeling. This would fit the autistic pattern of feeling strongly in response to others (high functioning affective empathy) while not easily connecting to others (low functioning cognitive empathy). By its nature, there is no straightforward way for introverted feeling to be expressed in social behavior. Yet an INFP can be talented at learning normal social behavior, as extraverted intuition helps them to be mimics. Or failing that, they could stonewall anyone trying to figure them out. Usually being conflict avoidant, most dominant introverted feeling types will go along to get along, as long as no one treads on their core sense of value.

Here is a more general point:

I think it’s a bit silly to make a distinction between “male” and “female” interests in the first place and realize that it can also be healthy for women to take interest in more traditionally “male” subjects such as science and technology and that doesn’t always mean that they have a disorder. In making a diagnosis they should always be aware of the underlying pattern rather than the actual interest and keep in mind that interests may differ for each individual, so (e.g.) whether a female is obsessively talking about computers or fashion should not matter, because the pattern is the same. Indeed, it probably is more obvious in the first case, especially when society is more geared toward male/female stereotyping [so “masculine” interests for women stand out]. And besides, narrow interests is but 1 clue, it doesn’t count for every individual with an ASD; they may have a range of interests, just as typical people do.

Also, as some typologists argue, the US has been an society dominated by ESTJ types that is becoming dominated by ENTJ types (John Giannini, Compass of the Soul). The commonality then is E_TJ, that is to say dominant extraverted thinking. This typological bias is how American culture defines and enforces the social norms of the male gender. Unsurprisingly, that would also be how autism gets diagnosed, according to extraversion and thinking.

On the other hand, autism that was introverted and/or feeling would express in entirely different ways. In particular, dominant introverted feeling would express as strong affective empathy, rather than the (stereotypically) masculine tendency toward emotional detachment. Also, introversion taken on its own, whether in relation to feeling or thinking, would be more internalized and hence less observable — meaning obsessions that would be unlikely to seen in outward behavior: more subtle and nuanced or else more hidden and masked.

This personality perspective might be immensely more helpful than using a gender lens alone. It’s also a more psychologically complex frame of interpretation, appealing to my personality predilections. Considering that autism and Asperger’s was originally observed and defined by men, one might wonder what kind of personalities they had. Their personalities might have determined which personalities they were drawn to in studying and hence drawn to in using as the standard for their early models of the autism spectrum.