What Do We Know About Neurodivergent Girls? 

by Teresa Currivan LMFT

Can we ever understand the female brain? I would venture to guess that, to date, no one would dare say they fully understand it. And if they do, I challenge them. Since neurodiverse brains are just beginning to be understood, female neurodiverse brains are even less so. I am only about the touch the tip of the iceberg here, but I hope to open up some possibilities to explore the topic further.

I have a private practice where parents of neurodiverse children seek help in understanding their children. I also work in schools. Of all of the children I help, either in schools or through parents in my private practice, 80 to 90 percent are boys. This is a conservative number. It’s really above 90 percent on any given day. This is no one’s fault. Boys get into trouble when things don’t work out. Many boys will simply not tolerate or are unable to conceptualize things that do not make practical sense. The idea of memorizing something just to make everyone happy is insane to them nor can many of them makes themselves do it. They act out. This brings attention to them, and then we see what’s happening. We are learning about neurodiversity from them. Girls tend to internalize struggles and find out creative ways to fit in. It’s not even socialization, per se – but most likely survival techniques that have evolved since caveman times. Who is suffering more when we don’t understand neurodiversity? I don’t know. But I can say “thank you” to the boys for acting out and letting us know that something isn’t working. 

So how can we understand neurodivergent girls better? 

There is a large population of non-gender-identified neurodivergent students who also struggle. I hope that when I attempt to define non-typical ways of thinking, we can think of male and female traits and that this can help us with non-gender conforming individuals, as well as to understand boys who have some feminine traits and girls who have masculine. In fact, I believe that girls who have masculine traits may actually hide them, perhaps, especially in the classroom. Again, no one’s fault. Apply information as needed to all genders as it suits. 

I would like to also propose that our classrooms since they were originally developed by male, European mindsets, are male in the way they are designed (and therefore expect us to think). So that girls, from the very first day of school, are adapting to a male way of thinking. Hear me out. I think that, even if you are a female teacher, you might agree with me, at least somewhat, by the time you reach the end of this. But who knows. I think many women who I talk with about neurodiversity and even just the way, as women, we think and therefore learn, get a little lost as we try to figure it out.  How can we know our own minds without having an outside perspective? And without understanding the water in which we swim? Many of the women I work with (including myself) have come to the field of neurodiversity because they are a parent of a boy who struggled in school. When it comes time to talk about our own ways of thinking and learning, and what part our genes have played in our sons’ odd strengths and challenges, we get a little lost. 

Marilyn vos Savant, a profoundly gifted woman with an IQ of 220 is a neurodiverse woman. Because giftedness is a neurodivergent trait, and it is measured in numbers here, it is established that she is neurodivergent. She has had her IQ retested a few times. I will use Ms. vos Savant as an example of what I am trying to begin to illustrate about neurodivergent women and how they navigate the world. 

When solving the “Monty Hall Problem,” a probability puzzle, vos Savant had an unusual solution that caused quite a stir. It had been previously solved by mathematicians worldwide, and her answer was different. She held strong and said that she was correct. Some seasoned academics even wrote some pretty condescending things. This pushed her to write in her column in Parade Magazine, “Ask Marilyn,” various different ways of explaining and proving her answer. It was later agreed that she had proven it, and apologies were sent to her. While most letters were written to her by male, seasoned mathematicians with PhDs, and said things like, “Shame on you….” and “…we have enough math illiteracy, we don’t need someone with a high IQ propagating it…,” one criticism read, “Maybe women look at math problems differently than men.” Although this may have been written as an insult, I don’t see that as a criticism. And I would say that many neurodivergent people look at math problems differently than the typical way. (The reason many younger neurodivergent students have a hard time with math, even though they might understand the concepts.) 

Vos Savant’s appearance on the David Letterman Show in 1986 is also noteworthy. It was, to me, uncomfortable to watch. You can watch it on Youtube and see what you think for yourself. My guess is that David Letterman is a very intelligent man, joking that he is not, leaving only room for a certain kind of intelligence on his show. I think the unspoken assumption for any guest who appears on his show was that he is not going to take care of you. Kind of the opposite to a Terry Gross (of Fresh Air on NPR,) interview, or even a Jimmy Fallon interview. With Letterman, you are there to prove your intelligence in a very male way. It’s wit vs. wit and whoever is fastest and outwits the other, wins, no matter who the guest is. This is usually done through humor. This can be entertaining, but not really an interview, in my opinion. (Letterman has mellowed a bit in his new show, but it’s still there, he’s the epitome of high male intelligence with no understanding of anything outside of the intelligent male box.) But when a female who claims to have a high IQ comes on his show, it gets interesting. A telling part in this interview was, when vos Savant said that she worked in finance and saved her money so that she could do what she loves – write, he responds by saying, “But are you smart?” Um, one of the biggest challenges of being neurodivergent, no, being human, is to figure out how to finance doing what you love. She just solved it. Did he even hear her? He goes on to constantly question her intelligence, and although she is an unapologetic quirky person, (at least it appears so on the show,) I believe she eventually dumbs down her performance with Letterman, possibly out of empathy for his discomfort with her. At one point, when she is talking, Paul Shaffer, Letterman’s musician and sidekick, makes some kind of odd, loud sound, interrupting her. Shaffer makes a joke about it, perhaps planned, and I don’t think we ever hear the rest of what she was saying. David Letterman ends the show by opining that she is not that intelligent, after all. Joking, of course. 

I believe this dynamic happens a lot for women, perhaps without either person knowing it is happening. 

The point of my writing here is not to demean men. A culture out of balance will impact all genders. Honestly, when I thought of what I wanted to write, this was not the tone I had in mind at all. But it is difficult to talk about women’s way of thinking and therefore learning, without talking about the male dominant culture that we live, learn, and earn money in. This is also perhaps the reason there isn’t a lot of information about neurodivergent women. It gets a little uncomfortable, and even bringing up the topic involves defining our culture at large. Just as we have to understand typical expectations of our culture in order to understand neurodiversity, we have to understand the male culture that women are navigating in order to understand women. If we can’t agree to that, we will never begin the conversation. I hope that my musings can be a jumping-off point that lead to more discussions and discoveries about neurodiverse women and girls. 

As the world’s problems become more and more urgent, I know that neurodivergent people are going to lead the way to solutions, and perhaps women’s ideas and contributions have been the biggest missing link so far. 

©Teresa Currivan 2022