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Outer Frames: Women, Autism and Sensitivity

Women and sensitivity
Outer Frames, the second section in Divergent Mind, explores the hidden inner world of women with sensory differences

This is the second in a three-part discussion of Jenara Nerenberg’s newly published book, Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed For You. The thesis of the book is that prevailing views of what is normal obscure, and sometimes pathologize, the way women communicate, interact and create change in the world. It is an astute look into what it means to be a woman who experiences the world differently. Nerenberg’s insights lend support and encouragement to those who experience both the nuances and complexities of a “divergent” mind.

Autism and Being Different

Outer Frames, the second section of Divergent Mind, addresses the question: What does being different mean? Nerenberg’s answer is simple—people are different when “measured against an established (and some may say arbitrary) barometer.” That is, being different can only make sense to us if we have a “normal” to compare it to.

In the case of autism, now referred to by its diagnostic nomenclature, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the criteria for this condition refer to “poor verbal and nonverbal communication, difficulty developing, maintaining and understanding relationships, insistent and inflexible adherences to routines, highly fixated interests,” and other criteria, all of which only make sense of we have an idea of what’s normal against which to compare these descriptions.

Where does the idea of normal come from and who determines it? Nerenberg is clear—she argues that “autism is thus a living, group of attributes that…is broad, overlaps with many other traits, and is steeped in media-driven stereotypes.” Furthermore, the attributes of autism derive in large part from research with male subjects. Women have left out of the picture on autism. As a result, “oftentimes what women see as normal in the range of emotional experiences has been pathologized” (p. 41).  The reality of women who are classified as having autism, or similar conditions, has really not been properly understood.

Women and Being Different

Much of this section of her book is taken up with Nerenberg’s discussion of what differences in women look like, in particular the idea of sensitivity, by which she means a heightened reaction to, and a unique way of processing, external stimuli. She believes that women tend to process what they experience around them differently, sometimes in a more heightened way than men.

Take synesthesia, the condition in which sensations of one form, for example vision, is experienced in a heightened way in another sensory medium, such as emotions. Nerenberg gives the example of a one woman’s experience which shopping in a grocery story, of falling helplessly to ground upon seeing a young boy fall nearby.

Because of the way women are socialized to fit in and conform to the ideals of a feminine attitude, they often mimic and mirror the behavior of others around them. At some point, the amount of energy required to act according to those ideals becomes too much and emotional fallout, such as depression, anxiety, fatigue ensue.

Nerenberg argues for a connection between sensitivity and neurological conditions such as autism and ADHD, pointing to research linking the genes involved in synesthesia to those that are possibly involved in ASD. She makes the case that the diagnostic criteria for mental conditions must take into account the context in which behavior occurs, so that people in general, and women in particular, are not seen solely as inhabitants of a diagnostic condition but unique individuals who can only be fully understood in relation to the lives they are living and the society in which they exist.


Please consider posting your thoughts, reactions, additions, criticisms, etc. to this blog when it is published. I welcome all comments. And I encourage you to follow this series in two weeks when I take a look at Part III of Divergent Mind. I look forward then to a lively discussion about the topic of Something New.


Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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