Aysha Kahn and Dawn Dugan, Ph.D.

In Her Shoes: Autistic Women

 

Aysha Khan and Dawn Dugan, Ph.D.

Hunter College NY

 

More men are diagnosed with autism than women but this is not because women do not have autism. Autistic women are often dismissed, misdiagnosed, or diagnosed a lot later than their male counterparts because they often do not exhibit stereotypical autistic behaviors. Research suggests that autistic women are less likely to have externalizing behaviors such as conduct problems and hyperactivity/impulsivity. They also have higher social motivation and a greater capacity for traditional friendships as compared to autistic males. Below are some common themes in autistic women:

 

  • Externalizing Behaviors: Autistic women are less likely to exhibit externalizing behaviors like conduct problems, hyperactivity, or impulsivity compared to autistic men. These behaviors are often associated with autism in men, but women may display internalizing behaviors (e.g. anxiety, depression and somatic symptoms) or be better at masking their challenges.

 

  • Being told “You are not autistic” or “You don’t look autistic!”: Autistic women are often dismissed because they can maintain eye contact and social connections and their passive behaviors are considered socially acceptable for women. They are better at masking and “fitting in” by looking more neurotypical. Autistic women are often labeled as “shy” and “good” and are often considered teachers’ pets.

 

  • Increased Risk for Victimization: While autistic women may be viewed in high regard by their teachers, they are often bullied by their peers. Autistic women are often passive and succumb to pressure in order to avoid all forms of conflict and be accepted by society. They are very trusting and struggle to “read” people’s intentions, which puts them at risk of being easily manipulated and ending up in toxic relationships and unsafe situations.

 

  • Pretending to be “Normal”: Autistic women are adept at masking or mimicking expected social behaviors that they see in other women or in the media. They pretend to be interested in certain topics, shows, or music to fit in, and may even prep for conversations beforehand. They are able to take on different personas depending on the social situation.

 

  • Socially Appropriate Special Interests: Autistic women often adopt special interests that culturally blend in, such as horses, celebrities, or literature. They are able to mask the unusual intensity of these interests in order to camouflage with their neurotypical peers.

 

  • Co-occurring Physical Conditions: Autistic women are more likely to suffer from physical ailments than non-autistic women and autistic men. They are at an increased risk for epilepsy and endocrine and reproductive health issues.

 

While this is not a comprehensive list of  how autism appears in women, it sheds light on the unique characteristics of autism in women. The current diagnostic criteria for autism are based on predominately white cis-male samples, hindering autistic women from receiving the support they need to thrive. Thus, it is imperative that the criteria are revised by taking into account the perspectives and narratives of autistic women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

Bargiela, Sarah, et al. “The Experiences of Late-Diagnosed Women with Autism Spectrum Conditions:

An Investigation of the Female Autism Phenotype.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol. 46, no. 10, 25 July 2016, pp. 3281–3294, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-016-2872-8, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-016-2872-8.

Gould, Judith, and Jacqui Ashton-Smith. “Missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis? Girls and women on the

autism spectrum.” Good Autism Practice (GAP) 12.1 (2011): 34-41.

Kassee, Caroline, et al. “Physical Health of Autistic Girls and Women: A Scoping Review.” Molecular Autism, vol. 11, no. 1, 27 Oct. 2020, https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-020-00380-z.

 

 

 

 

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