Gender & Identity, Life

I’m a woman on the autism spectrum. Here are 5 things I want you to know.

Yes, women on the autism spectrum do exist.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when I was five years old.

I started speaking at a young age. Yet one day, I stopped. I shut down. I didn’t want to socialize with other children. This worried my parents, and I spent time in speech therapy sessions and assessment sessions where I got tested for various diagnoses. After many years of therapy, I became more “acclimated” in society. Even now, whenever I tell people that I’m on the Autism Spectrum, they’re surprised.

I’m happy to say that now is a good time for me to be on the autism spectrum. In the UK especially, there are many initiatives trying to increase employability for autistic people. However, it can get problematic. Many still perceive autistic people as young white boys who are obsessed with train schedules and don’t like being touched. Certain autistic communities are not as inclusive as they could be, especially when it comes to women.

And so, without further ado, let’s get into the list of important things I want you to know about me (as well as other ladies on the autism spectrum)!

1. Every autistic person is a unique individual with their own individual talents and interests

Repeat after me: Dustin Hoffman’s character from “Rain Man,” Raymond Babbit, is not a poster child for autism! Yes, Rain Man‘s release has raised awareness about autism when it was released in 1988. However, basing one’s perceptions about ASD on Ray Babbit is problematic. It contributes to a stereotype of how autistic people speak and behave. It dismisses the truth that not all autistic people have the same interests. In fact, like anyone else, autistic people can be artists, scientists, writers, and in many other professions! And yes, there are autistic people who do not pursue or have not pursued STEM careers.

2. Autism manifests in every person in different ways

This goes back to my first point: autism does not look the same in every individual on the spectrum. Unofficially, we often use the terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” when talking about ASD. High-functioning autism is when an autistic person has been able to learn, emulate, and navigate social behavior more effectively and conspicuously than someone who is low-functioning.  People use the term “low-functioning” to refer to autistic individuals who do not communicate verbally. However, “high-functioning” and “low-functioning”  are problematic terms, because neither term truly describes someone’s intellectual ability.

3. Women on the spectrum are more inconspicuous, so autistic traits are harder to spot

Many times, the media depicts women as flirtatious social butterflies who like to wear makeup and “plan weekly margarita nights with girlfriends” (as aptly put by Rudy Simone in “Aspergirls”). As a result, we are socialized to conceal typical traits found in autism. Many researchers also state that we are better imitators of social behaviors than boys.  One truly challenging thing I had to face as a teenager was my parents’ constant questioning about why I didn’t want to have a friend over that often or socialize with friends on the weekends. Perhaps this was because, especially as a teenager, I grew more disinterested in socializing (though, thankfully, as tempting as this proposition would be, I never reached the point of needing to retreat to Nepal and live as a goat).

4. Many women don’t get an ASD diagnosis until later in life

As previously mentioned, ASD is often portrayed as a primarily “male” issue to have. The reason is this: when Hans Asperger started studying the presence of ASD in children, his main subjects were young boys. This preconceived notion often delays women in getting the diagnosis and the help they need to live their best lives. In fact, women are often misdiagnosed with other illnesses before they receive their ASD diagnoses. While ASD statistically affects more boys, it is also important to remember that it can also affect women (sometimes more severely).

5. Please stop telling me “Wow, you’re on the autism spectrum? I wouldn’t have guessed!”

I get it, you mean it as a compliment. However, it is actually an insult. Why? Because it perpetuates the negative stereotype that neurotypical behavior is the only “correct” behavior. The normalization of neurotypical behavior also strengthens the divide between non-neurotypicals and neurotypicals, which does not help anyone. It also perpetuates the notion that autistic people have to look a certain way in order to have their struggles and gifts be visible.

There are so many other things that I wish to share in this article. In fact, I think that this is only the beginning as far as giving ASD a non-male voice. In fact, I was overjoyed when Sesame Street introduced Julia, a young female character on the autism spectrum. Yet we still have a long way to go. Being able to listen to everyone on the autism spectrum and their diverse concerns should definitely help create a new wave of representation for autistic women!