I knew an autistic girl in elementary school. She was non-verbal, meaning she didn’t speak and expressed herself in a way that was unknown to the rest of the class. We were all told to be nice to her, as she was “special”–different from everyone else. But even back then I remember thinking, “Why do I have to be nice to her because she’s special? Why can’t I just be nice to her because she’s human?”
That’s a big problem disabled people face. It’s difficult to find that sweet spot between proper accommodation and straight-up infantilization. And I’ll even admit–I have been the infantilizer in the past. It’s easy to fall down that rabbit hole. Sure, it’s with kind intentions, but I’ve come to learn that one of the top things an autistic person appreciates is being treated just like everyone else.
Now, I can’t allow myself to say that I totally understand autism because there’s still so much that I have yet to learn. But ever since I, too, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD) in June of 2021, I’ve experienced the impacts inappropriate treatment has on neurodivergent individuals.
There’s a very strong set of stereotypes surrounding autistic individuals–many of those are about young, non-verbal boys, and it makes sense. Far more boys are diagnosed than girls (about 4:1). But that doesn’t necessarily mean more boys have it. It simply shows discrepancies within the healthcare industry.
Years ago, when doctors began researching autism, they only studied on young, male patients. At the time, this is who they believed were the sole patients. But over time, more and more women have been diagnosed, yet there has been practically no further research on a more diverse scale.
Women present autism incredibly differently than men. The number one difference is that women are much better at “masking,” or covering natural neurodivergent traits with ones that are perceived to be normal. Because of this, it’s difficult to recognize autism in women, especially early on. And many autistic women may not even recognize it in themselves (that’s why the female diagnosis rate is so low). Even with all of this known, many healthcare professionals are still blind to female autism presence.
In early 2021, I scheduled an appointment with a psychologist who specialized in pediatric autism. I had a deep gut feeling for months prior to the appointment with confidence that I had autism. The appointment itself was just to get that official diagnosis–documentation that could make accommodations within reach. But, when I walked into his office, I was ridiculed until I left crying.
“You’re just not weird enough to be autistic,” he told me.
Yeah, a real licensed medical psychologist said that to me. I was both shocked and angry and didn’t know how else I was supposed to feel. So, I spent the rest of the day crying. I knew there was something wrong with me, but no one seemed to believe it.
Later that same evening, I looked up reviews of that doctor, expecting to see many other people with similar experiences. But to my surprise, almost every review was positive.
“Dr. Name-redacted was very attentive to our concerns with our son.”
“He is a very thorough doctor, and my son likes him.”
“Dr. Name-redacted was extremely nice and caring to our son.”
“He evaluated my son and made very appropriate recommendations and provided timely documentation we needed.”
As I continued to read the list of what felt like endless praise, I realized a similarity between every 5-star review: they were all about the treatment of a son.
I was baffled. He withheld a proper diagnosis from me solely because I didn’t look like the rest of his patients. In his mind, whether or not I had autism was unimportant as I was already “normal” enough to live a fairly normal life. What he failed to see was the constant and exhausting masking I had spent 17 years subconsciously doing.
I was lucky enough to find a second doctor–a woman–who had seen many girls like myself that had previously struggled with the same male doctor. She listened to me, despite my masking, and gave me a deeper understanding of myself and my autism.
Even though I was fortunate enough to find her, she was one in a million. And I can’t help but imagine what would have happened to me if she wasn’t there.
The medical industry is not lacking resources, and they especially shouldn’t be withholding them in psychology. Male-centrism within the industry leads to significant problems and a lack of trust between female patients and their caregivers. Educating medical professionals on feminine autism presence could help millions of undiagnosed women better understand themselves and subsequently, the world around them.