[Editor’s note: This is the third post in a series by Katia and Jeannette Cook about the intersection of egalitarianism and autism. In this post Katia describes her experiences in complementarian churches as an “Aspie,” that is, someone who as Asperger’s syndrome, which is also known high functioning autism or HFA. She details how the gender roles and rules of these churches harmed her both as a woman and as someone with HFA.]
In her book “Aspergirls,” Rudy Simone mentions how gender roles are not liked nor understood by many women with HFA. And for good reason. Society tells women that we must focus on our appearance, but as Aspies usually could care less and prefer to focus on our special interests. Our clothing is often chosen for comfort, not looks. Society tells us that as women, we must be submissive and blend in with society, but as Aspies we march to the beat of our own drum and have no qualms about speaking out in instances of injustice and hypocrisy. Society says that certain professions are for women and others for men, but as Aspies often choose the male-dominated profession. Society tells us that as women, we must behave in certain ways, but as Aspies behave in ways all our own. Society tells us we must have empathy, and show it in certain ways, but we often do not have empathy or experience and show it in a way others cannot recognize. Society tells us that our ultimate calling is to be a wife and mother, but we often prefer to be celibate and childless. Society mandates that in order to survive, a woman must be able to spot liars and scam artists, yet we are often very trusting and suffer as a result.
In the book “Asperger’s and Girls,” contributor Catherine Faherty sums it up: “Women are affected by autism in the same ways as their male counterparts, however they are doubly challenged by the added assumptions that society places on the female gender.” In her book “Thinking in Pictures” Temple Grandin states that when she first began her career designing livestock handling facilities, she often did not know “which was my greatest handicap, having autism or being a woman.”
As I have discovered, things get even more difficult for women with HFA when we are told that in order to follow God, we must follow gender roles imposed by society and religion. For example, in various complementarian churches I have attended, I have been considered a sinner with something between myself and God because I cut my hair and wore slacks instead of dresses. I have been told that I was not “submitting enough” for questioning the pastor and doing what I felt God wanted me to do over what the pastor wanted me to do. I have been told that I am a fool for talking too much, because godly women are supposed to be quiet. My dedication to Christ has been questioned because of putting my alone time over church and other activities the pastor wanted me to do, despite my explanation that I need alone time in order to recover and recharge from social situations. I have been told that I was being rebellious for leaving a church with traditional patriarchal views. I do not want to think about what my experiences would have been had my interests and gifts been seen as more masculine than feminine in those churches.
Oh, and did I mention that many women with HFA, including yours truly, have a desire for the deep and meaningful? Traditional women’s ministries seem frivolous and unnecessary to us. We would like something more meaningful than attending shallow women’s group Bible studies, cooking for church functions, caring for children and being forced to use superficial curricula or programs.
No matter what, I have been considered a freak and oddball. Once I was deliberately excluded from a church group for people in their twenties because I was different. In all the churches I have attended for any length of time there have been people who have truly loved me, and I them. But no matter how hard I tried, I was always the misfit. My singleness and childlessness only makes matters worse. As I discovered, even egalitarian churches often do not know what to do with a single, childless woman. Having HFA only amplifies this effect because many women with HFA look younger than our real age. It is one of the most dehumanizing things on earth to walk into a situation where no one knows what to do with you.
Many times I have heard complementarian and patriarchal leaders say that a woman’s ministry is the home, and that following gender roles is the only way for a woman to minister effectively.
I have been in complementarian and patriarchal churches where I believe the older women truly wanted to minister to me. But their hands were handcuffed by the doctrines of gender roles and being unable to think for themselves because of submitting to male authority as they were taught and believed. Each person with autism needs ministered to in a different way. Being able to think for yourself and outside the box are crucial to effectively minister to someone with autism, male or female. Unfortunately, revealing that one has HFA often does no good where churches are concerned. The instances I mentioned above were in situations where I had revealed my HFA. To most church leadership, HFA is no excuse for what they consider gender inappropriate behavior. Under those circumstances, a Christianity that preaches gender roles and emphasizes marriage and parenthood is a hostile environment for a woman with HFA.
Yet a Christianity that focuses on one’s gifts and callings has the potential to draw women with HFA to Christ. In a situation where the focus is Christ, and not gender, where each member of the body is considered equal and their unique gifts and callings valued, HFA women can shine and grow. In a situation where singleness and childlessness are valued and celebrated, HFA women whose natural inclination is celibacy can feel valued and be free to become the woman God created them to be. It is time for the church to throw off the shackles of gender roles and embrace each individual, male or female, HFA or neurotypical, single or married, for the blessings and gifts they bring to the body of Christ.