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Autism is often stereotyped as a “male” disorder, but autism in women is more common than you may think. An estimated 1 in every 189 women has autism. However, women are often diagnosed later in life or completely missed, leading to lack of support.
Autism presents differently in women than men. Recognizing the signs, getting proper support, and finding ways to thrive are key for women on the spectrum. In this blog post, we’ll dive into the unique aspects of autism in females and provide tips for living well.
Signs and Symptoms of Autism in Women and Girls
Many people assume autism mainly affects boys and men. But autistic girls and women have simply been overlooked and underdiagnosed.
Autistic females exhibit the same core symptoms as males, but may demonstrate them in subtler ways that mask the disorder. Here are some common signs of autism in women and girls:
Social challenges – Women on the spectrum often struggle with the nuances of social interaction. They may have difficulty making small talk, empathizing, navigating complex social rules, and reading facial expressions or body language.
Restricted interests – Autistic women commonly have intense, obsessive interests. They may collect vast amounts of information on topics like animals, TV shows, or music.
Repetitive behaviors – Hand flapping, rocking, pacing, or spinning are less common in autistic women. But they may have subtler repetitive behaviors like skin picking, hair twirling, or ordering items alphabetically.
Sensory issues – Sensitivity to lights, sounds, textures, or tastes are very common. Some women may seek sensory input with chewing or mouthing behaviors.
Communication challenges – Autistic women often have advanced language abilities. But they struggle with back-and-forth conversation, especially with small talk or chitchat.
Executive function issues – Problems with planning, organization, focus, emotional control, and working memory are typical. This can lead to lateness, messiness, anxiety, and forgetfulness.
Poor coordination – Clumsiness, awkward gait, bad handwriting, or difficulty playing sports may indicate autism.
Meltdowns – Emotional outbursts or shutdowns may happen when overwhelmed. Autistic women may internalize their frustrations.
Depression and anxiety – These often co-occur with autism due to social difficulties and sensory overload.
Masking behaviors – Many autistic women unconsciously learn to “mask” their autism from a young age. They mimic socially acceptable behaviors like eye contact or demonstrative gestures.
If you’re an autistic woman noticing some of these traits in yourself, it’s worth investigating further. Getting an accurate diagnosis is key.
Why Autism Goes Unrecognized in Women and Girls
There are many reasons why autism in females goes unnoticed:
Social conditioning – Girls are taught from a young age to socialize politely and mask any “odd” behaviors. Many instinctively learn camouflaging techniques.
Less extreme symptoms – Stereotypically autistic traits like lack of eye contact or speech delays are less pronounced in women. Their symptoms seem less “severe.”
Cognitive compensation – Verbal and social skills often develop earlier in girls. This covers up social-communication challenges.
Diagnostic biases – Screening tools and criteria are based on how autism presents in males. This leads to under-recognition in females.
Attribution to other conditions – Doctors are more likely to misdiagnose women with anxiety, depression, OCD, or other disorders. Their autism goes unseen.
Bias of parents/teachers – Caregivers notice autism less in girls, who tend to be quieter and less disruptive than boys.
In summary, autism in women is often camouflaged due to societal expectations, subtler symptoms, and misunderstandings around how it manifests in girls. But accurate diagnosis is critical, so don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself or your daughter.
Getting Diagnosed as an Autistic Woman
Getting properly diagnosed with autism can improve quality of life through access to support services and understanding yourself better. Here are tips for women seeking a diagnosis:
Find a knowledgeable clinician – Look for psychologists, psychiatrists or neuropsychologists with expertise in assessing autism in females. Beware of doctors with limited experience.
Highlight social and communication challenges – Emphasize any difficulties you have with friendships, back-and-forth conversation, public speaking, etc. Use examples.
Track repetitive behaviors – Note any rocking, pacing, skin-picking, ordering routines, special interests or sensitivities that impact your life.
Get input from others – Ask loved ones to describe your social skills and any behaviors you may not notice yourself. Their observations can aid diagnosis.
Be your own advocate – If a doctor dismisses your concerns, seek a second opinion. You know yourself best. Don’t give up.
Consider women-specific evaluations – Use screening tools designed specifically for autistic girls and women if possible.
Getting adequately evaluated can be a long process, especially for women. But proper diagnosis will provide access to supportive services and resources to help you thrive.
Treatment, Therapy and Support for Autistic Women
Once diagnosed, autistic women have many options to improve wellbeing, build skills and find community. Some recommendations:
Counseling – Work with a therapist experienced in autism to improve self-esteem, social skills, anxiety management and more.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – CBT helps challenge distressing thought patterns. It teaches healthy coping strategies.
Speech therapy – A speech therapist can work on conversation skills like initiating, reciprocity and nonverbal communication.
Social skills classes – Group classes allow autistic women to practice nuanced social and communication abilities together.
Occupational therapy – OT helps build real-world adaptive skills related to jobs, organization, transitions, stress and sensory issues.
Vocational counseling – Guidance is available on choosing autism-friendly college majors, finding employment and requesting job accommodations.
Support groups – Connecting with other autistic women provides community, advice and acceptance. Many groups meet online.
Mentorship programs – Organizations like the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network offer one-on-one peer mentoring.
Assistive technology – Apps, calendars, digital organizers and more can aid with planning, focus, communication and sensory issues.
Medication – Doctors may prescribe certain selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), stimulants or other drugs to improve co-occurring anxiety, depression or attentional issues in women with autism.
Though each autistic woman has unique needs, with the right support nearly all can discover their strengths and live independent, fulfilling lives.
Tips for Thriving as an Autistic Woman
Here are some key strategies autistic women and girls can use to better understand themselves, embrace their gifts and flourish:
Learn about autism in women – Understanding how your neurotype shapes your thinking provides valuable insight. Reading blogs by autistic women or joining groups helps.
Unmask yourself – Shedding constant pretense is freeing. Explore who you are without camouflaging behaviors.
Find supportive communities – Connecting with those who share your experiences combats isolation. Follow autistic advocates on social media, or join groups.
Discover your strengths – Most women on the spectrum have enhanced empathy, honesty, creativity, focus, pattern recognition and other unique abilities.
Advocate for your needs – Ask for accommodations at school or work, like noise-cancelling headphones, flexible schedules, written instructions or working from home.
Practice self-care – Make time to recharge with calming activities. Stimming, movement breaks and nature walks relieve stress.
Set healthy boundaries – Limit interactions that drain you. Say no to things that trigger sensory overload.
Try counseling – A therapist can help with self-esteem, handling social stress and finding coping mechanisms.
Embrace your neurodiversity – Instead of viewing autism as a disadvantage, recognize it as an integral part of your identity. Be proud of who you are.
Autistic women have so much to offer, if given the support and freedom to be their true selves. The future is bright for neurodiverse women embracing their natural abilities.
Autism remains widely misunderstood, especially when it comes to women. But awareness is growing, leading to less mistreatment and more opportunities. By better recognizing the signs of autism, women can get the support they need to feel empowered in their own minds and bodies.
From getting diagnosed to finding community and playing to their strengths, autistic women have more paths to happiness and achievement than ever before. While challenges certainly exist, the future looks bright for women embracing their neurodiversity. With the right understanding and support, their potential is limitless.