The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
For most people, the word “autism” brings a specific stereotype to mind: a young boy, often labelled a genius, with relatively no social skills. You might also associate him with behaviours such as hand-flapping and repeating certain words over and over again.
While this description of autism may be a reality for some, it also overlooks other neurodivergent people who feel they might identify with the term but go undiagnosed because of standards based on the male experience. Some go years without realizing that they may be autistic, and usually, these people are young women.
I’ve been doing a lot of personal research on autistic behaviours in women as I’ve become more aware of parts of myself that seem to align with these less-studied symptoms, ones that aren’t necessarily discussed in the mainstream.
Autism was first conceptualized in 1911 by a German psychiatrist but only began to be reputably researched in the 1960s. It’s currently referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which involves the entire autistic spectrum, including Asperger’s as well, which was previously considered a related, but a separate, milder condition.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that men have historically been diagnosed with autism much more frequently than women, at a 4:1 ratio. But this isn’t an accurate reflection of the actual number of women with autism compared to men; one of the main reasons that the statistics on the topic are so skewed is because of a little tactic called ‘masking’.
Masking is a common form of coping in social situations for many individuals with ASD, used to fit in with groups and to hide tendencies that would likely be perceived as “weird” by others. This social camouflage may include a dedicated, conscious effort to smile, make eye contact, and learn how to pick up social cues in conversations. While non-autistic people may struggle with these things as well, individuals with autism differ as they don’t have any natural understanding of how or why people use cues in the first place.
According to recent research, masking is especially prevalent in women, a main reason why many do not get properly diagnosed: their autistic behaviours are simply not as visible and thus not considered as “severe” as those of men.
When people with high-functioning autism mask and internalize their symptoms, they often don’t receive the external support that they need. Their unique circumstances are simply attributed instead to mental health issues or to other personal situations, which might be the consequences of masking in the first place.
And although women with the strongest autistic traits might meet the clinical criteria for a diagnosis, the high-functioning people who don’t strictly meet these standardized measures are then especially overlooked.
As I’ve investigated my own potential self-diagnosis, I’ve struggled with the question, of whether my own symptoms could be considered severe enough or have enough impact on my life to be given credibility.
Aside from the fact that I had to force myself to learn social norms as a kid, adapting to what was considered “cool” and “normal”, I’ve also recently become aware of other characteristics that always made me wonder why I wasn’t like other people my age.
If you’ve ever been told that you’re quiet, naïve or oblivious, have specific and even obsessive interests, act anxious in social settings, are overly sensitive or not sensitive at all…these may be signs that you have ASD. Of course, I am not a medical professional and these traits are not always directly related to autism, so take that list with a grain of salt.
But if this article has struck a chord with you or someone you know, I encourage you to do your own research about the topic. Although I haven’t come to any solid conclusions about my own self-diagnosis, it’s validating to read that there isn’t something “wrong” with me when it comes to my complete lack of social skills in certain situations and that there may be genuine reasons for my struggle.
So, if you’re interested in learning more, I’ve put together a list of resources that have helped me in my own journey of self-discovery (plus the sources I’ve already linked above). I hope they give you some reassurance if you need it and are a reminder that you are not alone.