Women and autism
Edited by Shivani Ekkanath
Following Women’s International Day on March the 8th, the lesser-known World Autism Awareness Day was held on April the 2nd. Hence, I would like to raise awareness about the situation of autistic girls and women. Understanding their daily challenges and their living situation in our society will hopefully lead us to tackle discriminations towards gender as well as disability.
What is Autism and how does it affect both genders?
Autism is labelled as a ‘Pervasive Developmental Disorder’ (PDD), mainly diagnosed through three criteria forming the basis of identification tests: impairments in Social Communication, in Social Interaction and in Social Imagination (hardship to get abstract concepts, repetitive behavioural patterns e.g.) Without entering the debate about the “clinical” vocabulary employed here, we can acknowledge how vague these categories are. Indeed, Autism refers to a Spectrum of disorders containing a variety of symptoms and subtypes (such as Asperger). Therefore, it can be said that there is one type of autism for each autistic person.
I can bet you know some famous autistic females: Greta Thunberg, Temple Grandin, Courtney Love, and many more. However, autism is not equally distributed between both sexes. Its prevalence seems to be increasing (a 2018 study mentions a ratio of 1/68 in the US, for a previous average number of 1/100), but preserves a certain gender gap: there is an estimated ratio of 1 girl for 4 boys diagnosed. However, recent studies show that this ratio drops at 1 girl for 2 boys in adulthood. As autism is an innate and complex condition, this means there is a significant time lag in its identification in women
How to diagnose it in women?
Many autistic women still get a diagnosis, thanks to a combination of circumstances: after becoming mothers of autistic boys as well as after consulting for linked pathologies that are easier to spot. As a matter of fact, autism often goes with a wide range of co-occurring conditions (chronic anxiety, attention disorders, digesting or sleeping disturbances,…) Unfortunately, many women are still wrongly diagnosed today for having psychological issues such as bipolarity or depression, when they are in fact, autistic.
The many difficulties in labelling a girl’s condition results in many struggles for the women and girls concerned as they are unable to understand themselves and are regarded by society as ‘dysfunctional’. For many, being diagnosed with autism has been a relief and a way for them to understand their puzzling behavioural traits and to eventually reach out to a comprehensive community. It has also been a strong basis for them to build self-knowledge, self-confidence and self-care.
Why is female diagnosis so much harder?
There are two main reasons for this: because of the preconception of autism as a ‘masculine condition’ in our collective imagination, and because autism tends to look different on girls.
Firstly, due to historical legacies, there is still an interpretation of autism as the expression of having a “male brain” today. Indeed, many of the traits of autism are imputed to stereotypes of ‘masculinity’. We can talk about their more frank and implication-deprived communication as they find it challenging to adapt themselves to our communication norms, as well as their “thinking in pictures” process (visual thoughts that they then have to translate back into words).
This adds up to their pretended lack of empathy and emotional expression disorders; but how can we wait from them to express their feelings the same way we do and thus instinctively behave according to our codes ?
In this perspective, the entertainment industry often does a poor job in representing autistic people by misinforming us and stereotyping autistic characters. To summarise, autistic people are not all men who are fond of computer sciences, nor are they forcedly shy geniuses who have their own kind of ‘special ability,’ but they are as diverse as everybody else.
Secondly, autistic girls are pressured to adapt to ‘feminine’ and gendered norms by their environment as they are also naturally different from their male counterparts.
It has been recognized in several traits and classifications of “aspergirl” that girls are more prompt in conveying visually or verbally expressed feelings. ‘Intense interests’ they may showcase are often less atypical and changing. Furthermore, their social awkwardness and timidity, acute sensitivity and mood switches are also often characteristic of women according to feminine stereotypes. However, it does not prevent females on the spectrum from being ostracised in different realms of society (school, labour force). They are very more likely to experience harassment or abuse, be it emotional or psychological. Their differences are still often viewed as a deficiency.
To sum things up, today, autism is still very much an additional challenge for women who experience it. From diagnosis to the complexities of everyday life on the spectrum, many improvements can still be made to ease the life of the persons concerned. For each and every one of us, just being aware of the existence of these women, understanding their condition without judgement and granting them acceptance and friendliness would be a step forward.
Autism cannot be cured, but it can certainly be made easier to live with. Making our world more diverse and understanding each other’s challenges is important for us to gain a greater appreciation for one another.