By Claire Sayers, Intern at the Global Autism Project
Autism. Let me guess. When I said that word, you thought of a male with the condition. You’d be forgiven for it. In the media, autism is usually portrayed as being something affecting boys and men.
But what about autistic girls and women? There are thousands of them in the United States and around the world, myself included. And it’s sad to say that we don’t always get the recognition that we need. Many of us aren’t recognized as such until we have children ourselves. I was lucky to have received a diagnosis at age five.
And believe me—autism is not the same in us females. Current estimates are that, for every female diagnosed with autism, there are four males with the condition. However, it is suspected that, because we go under the radar so much, there are in actuality only two autistic males for every one autistic female.
So what does autism look like in females? Keep in mind that I am not an expert nor do I claim or pretend to be. However, being an autistic woman myself, I have done research and reading. And personal experience also indicates that autism is not the same for us autistic women.
So, let’s go through what some of those differences are.
You’ve probably heard of autistic males having strange interests such as stop signs or trains. They’re the kinds of interests that, upon hearing them, will leave you thinking, “Come again?” In other words, autistic males tend to have interests that are in and of themselves unusual.
In contrast, an autistic female’s special interests aren’t usually in and of themselves unusual. You can expect autistic females to be interested in much more general topics such as dolls, animals, books, Star Trek, etc. Even the general topics of forensic science or martial arts might not be off the table.
What is unusual is the extent to which an autistic female likes that topic. It’s an all-consuming interest, and it’s not remotely unheard of for autistic females to be interested in something to the exclusion of everything else. Compared to her male counterparts, this is more practical and does provide for more opportunity as she gets older and enters the workforce.
The idea that autistic people in general lack imagination is already becoming more and more exposed as a myth. That’s becoming more and more the case for autistic people of all races and all genders, actually. However, for autistic females, that’s even more so. It’s hardly unusual for autistic females to use imagination to escape reality, resulting in highly developed fictional worlds and complex imaginative play.
Similarly, they may act out scripts from such things as literature, movies, or television shows. This then gives the appearance of imaginative play to those unfamiliar with the source material. If an autistic female is a Trekkie or a superfan of such franchises as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, chances are she might find it easier to strike up genuine and more meaningful friendships.
Like their male counterparts, autistic females tend to shut down in social situations after they’ve had way too much of it. In fact, the term “social hangover” is a thing for several autistic females that, much like a hangover from alcohol, can take a while to recover from fully. However, autistic females also tend to be much better at socializing in small doses. They may even give the appearance of being socially skilled, even if it’s more a performance than it is genuine thanks to stronger imitation skills.
Speaking of imitation skills, perhaps it isn’t surprising that autistic females would also have stronger imitation skills than their male counterparts. Even among people without autism, females are stereotyped as being more sociable, resulting in quite a few classic stand-up comedy routines.
However, for autistic females, it also means they’re not recognized as autistic because they don’t stand out from the crowd at first glance. That’s because autistic females are often the masters of developing scripts for what is socially acceptable. Autistic females tend to be more socially observant than their male counterparts, making it easier to mask their own deficits.
Similarly, autistic females are also more passive than their male counterparts. It isn’t unusual for autistic females to know, at least subconsciously, that there is something different about them. This leads them to adopting a quiet demeanor and playing the role of the good girl who’s shy for her age. As you can probably imagine, this may put her in a difficult position as she goes to college, enters the work force, etc.
Either way, autistic females tend to find it much easier to blend in with society. They tend to be better than their male counterparts at developing socially appropriate coping skills. Her social deficits might even only appear under certain circumstances or in certain situations. She might find it easier to connect with females older than her, but difficult to connect with females her own age. Alternatively, she might find it easier to connect with males than females.
The obvious drawback is that autistic females tend to receive an accurate diagnosis later in life, often resulting in difficulties with anxiety and depression. Her ability to mask her difficulties isn’t just attributable to lack of recognition. Many autistic females seek out friends who are more socially adept than they are and willing to initiate social interaction. This provides several benefits for an autistic female as it gives her mentorship in more complex social skills and also gives her an entrée into wider social circles.
And there you have it—a few traits about autistic females that you probably didn’t know about before. This is not a comprehensive description of what autism looks like in females. There are several other differences that autistic females have from their male counterparts. However, hopefully, you’ve come away with a stronger understanding of autistic females.
If you suspect that you or your female loved one is autistic, please do your research and also seek out a psychiatrist or other professional who has the ability to give you or her an accurate diagnosis.