In recent years, there is a growing discussion around not just mental health, but the wide range of possibilities of how a human brain can operate. One topic that comes up in these discussions is autism.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
According to the American Psychiatric Association, Autism Spectrum Disorder “is a complex developmental condition that involves persistent challenges in social interaction, speech, and nonverbal communication and restricted/repetitive behaviours. The effects of ASD and the severity of symptoms are different in each person.”
ASD is typically diagnosed in young children and is typically thought to be more common in males than females. While that may be true, there is also a growing amount of cis-women and AFAB (assigned female at birth) who are being diagnosed as adults.
Autism is often pathologized, or thought of as a disease, or something negative. This is not the case for many people on the autism spectrum. Instead, they think of it as something positive or neutral. It simply means that their brain works differently than what most people consider “normal”. This is where the term “neuro-diverse” comes into play.
You may be familiar with the term Asperger’s as a form of “high functioning autism.” This term, however, is no longer used. Now, this set of neuro-diverse traits is simply referred to as ASD.
Many cases of ASD in females are overlooked because the signs may be less obvious than they are with males. It’s fairly common knowledge that many scientific studies in general focus only on males, which limits the information we have around female health. This extends to psychiatric and neurologic studies.
Autism Differences in Women
Because autism in women is so misunderstood, they often go years without being diagnosed or receive misdiagnoses like Bipolar Disorder.
This misdiagnosis means many women end up taking medication that does not help them, leaving them feeling frustrated and helpless.
Many of these women have always felt different, felt like they’ve had to try extra hard in social situations, or avoided them altogether. They may be used to concealing their traits, and don’t match the general stereotype of what people believe autism looks like.
Because of the societal expectations for girls and women, female teens with autism may have worked extra hard to adapt and be seen as normal, making diagnosis even more complicated. Growing up, they may have opted for solitude and focused on their hobbies, prioritized comfort over fashion, fantasizing or escaping from reality, were mute in certain situations, and had a special interest or aptitude for specific subjects.
Autism: What Signs to Look For
If you think you might be autistic or love someone who is, here are some signs to look for:
- Difficulty making or maintaining friendships or romantic relationships
- Intense focus
- Excelling in certain areas or subjects, like music
- Comorbidity of depression, anxiety, and PTSD
- Social anxiety, difficulty connecting, feeling alone
- Mood swings and irritability
- Acting submissive in social situations
- Low mood and sadness
- Fatigue or feeling drained easily
- Distress or anxiety over a change in routine
- Sensitivity to clothes, food, textures, noise, etc.
- Difficulty reading social cues
- “Camouflaging strategies” aka mirroring or mimicking social behaviors to fit in
- Difficulty adhering to social etiquette and expectations
- Being bullied in school
- Avoiding or getting exhausted by social situations
- Difficulty picking up non-verbal cues
- Jumpy or unsure of physical intimacy, although the desire may be there
- Taking language very literally (i.e. not picking up on sarcasm, nuanced language)
- Flat or expressionless face and voice, or deliberately smiling, changing the tone of voice, and other non-verbal forms of communication
Discussing autism helps people to understand just how varied the autism spectrum can be, and that you probably know more people who fall on it than you realize.
Autism awareness helps to break the stigma of neuro-diversity so that we can live in a more aware and understanding world.
Many people who were bullied or had certain issues growing up, then later received an autism diagnosis as an adult. Imagine how different their lives would have been if they not only were diagnosed earlier but grew up in a world where people understood autism spectrum disorders.
It’s not just a matter of normalizing these conversations but creating opportunities for autistic people. Awareness and diagnosis give autistic people the ability to access tools and resources that they need to not just navigate through the world but thrive.
These tools may include daily task reminders and organization systems, clear routines, asking for help, peer support groups, self-care and relaxation strategies, social skills-building activities, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Despite the negative connotations and stigma, Autism can be a beautiful gift and gives people a unique lens through which to see the world. Humans are all different, we all have our quirks, and we all need support sometimes figuring out how to navigate through the world, and what tools are most helpful for us as individuals.
Natasha (she/they) is a full spectrum doula, reproductive health content creator, and sexual wellness consultant. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more pleasure, softness, and sensuality. You can connect with Natasha on IG @spectrumoflovedoula.