The Beales of Grey Gardens - Autism Awareness
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The Beales of Grey Gardens

Two brothers, Albert and David Maysles, made a documentary film in 1976 about these two remarkable women. The Beales trusted the brothers and because of this the public was able to get to know these unconventional women, how they lived day to day, and why they wouldn’t leave their home. They were non-conformists whose heyday was during the 1920’s – 40’s, a time where there were few options for women. Big Edie had a wonderful voice and wanted a singing career; Little Edie had aspirations to become a dancer.

Their money ran out in the 1960’s and the house began to fall into decline. Big Edie’s husband died in 1958 so there was no more income from him. With no servants or housekeeping skills, the house fell into complete disarray. When the Department of Health first did a raid in 1971, they found raccoons and feral cats living there, 200 bags of cat waste in the basement, no running water or heat, and garbage everywhere. The Beales story made the headlines of major newspapers. Jackie Onassis stepped in and paid to have the house cleaned up. Little Edie sold Grey Gardens in 1979.

This story is fascinating to me because I suspect that both women may have had Asperger Syndrome. Little Edie had an unusual way of talking and dressing. She had alopecia and wore unconventional head scarves made from shirts and sweaters tied in an unusual way. She often accented this look with a brooch of her mother’s from the 1930’s. Her outfits were creative originals – a turtleneck under a bathing suit, pantyhose and something draped over that – maybe a small tablecloth? Little Edie was like a child still full of wonder. Her stories and observations about the world around her are interesting. She wrote poems and kept journals.

Big Edie became infirm and kept to her bed. She never wanted to leave Grey Gardens even though she would have fared better somewhere else. She spent her day lying on a filthy mattress surrounded by cats and bursting into song occasionally. She and Little Edie spent $150 a month on ice-cream.

What impressed me about these women was their originality. They lived by their own codes and terms which were not to societal conventions. When I saw the state of their house and lack of money I thought, “Why didn’t these women get jobs?” But as the documentary film progressed I could see why they couldn’t hold down a job. Neither women seemed to have executive functioning skills yet they had daily routines that allowed them to survive. If they had never come from money, perhaps both women would have been homeless.

Asperger Syndrome in women is under-diagnosed because the diagnostic scales created for assessment are based on male observation. Author Catherine Faherty asked are women with autism doubly challenged by the added assumptions that society places on the female gender such as marriage, having children and keeping a home? One women in Faherty’s female autism group said, “Problems related to the[autism] spectrum are combined with problems of society’s expectations of women. How one looks, what one wears, how one is supposed to relate socially, that a woman is supposed to have a natural empathy towards others, expectations about dating and marriage…” Women are affected by autism in the same ways as are their male counterparts; however, they are doubly challenged by the added assumptions that society places on the female gender.”

When I look at my own daughter who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, I think she may have gone undetected had she not had a severe language delay. She presents so differently from her brother who has the same diagnosis and it’s not just because they are different people, but because there are gender differences.

To find further resources on this subject, the Center on Human Policy, Law and Disabilities Studies at SyracuseUniversity has an excellent reference list on their website. A good general book to start with is Girls Under the Umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorders which covers a wide range of ages and voices from the spectrum.

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  1. Tanya Hanner says:

    dx: folie a deux

  2. Cheryl says:

    Even though they were reclusive, why didn’t anyone check up on them before it got so bad,esp the son’s. Why didn’t they help monthly with the basics & have paid for a housekeeper. It seems like they were surrounded by money people even though they ran out. I’m trying not to judge but this degree of dysfunction could have been caught earlier. They were just fascinating! They were was sad but lovely at the same time. I felt little Edie had the same speaking accent &distant breathy voice as Jackie but a little more dramatic in it’s display.

  3. nancy dolan says:

    I suspect that toxic mold was an underlying factor as the toxin it produces (mycotoxin) has been linked to numerous diseases and disorders including, but not limited to: Dementia, neuro-degenerative disease, Schizophrenia, hair loss, respiratory infections, autism. Interestingly, there is at least one case study in which autism was reversed after addressing toxic mold in the environment/home, and detoxing the body.

  4. Berta Markle says:

    I don’t believe they were autistic. I am the mother of a profoundly autistic 23 year old son. I believe both women were mentally ill, but not autistic.

  5. Lisa says:

    I don’t believe their mental diagnosis would have been on the spectrum… I myself am a hermit and very unconventional .. ppl think it’s odd  but I just don’t prefer  l being around ppl and have many of the same issues these woman have. Yes I have depression and prefer animals over ppl. If I had my choice I would never be around ppl 

  6. Joan Braun says:

    I thought your article was very illuminating/ As I watched the 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers I could not place just what was so off about them/ Beautiful, talented, intelligent, and originally wealthy life fell entirely apart/ Your thought of autism as their lacking of executive function seems quite plausible.

    I did leave a rather mid-sized comment here earlier in the afternoon complimenting the author and commenting on executive function but do not see it here now. Am wondering why? Please feel free to e-mail me as well. I wanted to add that of course people like Temple Grandin, did have strong executive function abilities, and get a PhD and was quite able to apply it to helping others.

    • Joan, all comments are remain unpublished until they are checked as either spam or inappropriate. Some people comment on this site to advertise products or drive traffic to a website. Those are removed. Sometimes there are harmful/hurtful comments left as well and those are deleted. I have put both your posts up about the Beales.

      When you look at someone like Little Edie, it is evident that a number of things went wrong that culminated in her remaining at the house living in very poor conditions. People can be quick to judge and not look at underlying issues such as mental health. Many skills are needed to live successfully in life. We’re all interdependent.

  7. Elle says:

    I believe they were rich, privileged, out of touch and feral.

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