The first time I really heard the word “autism” I was sitting in a university level psychology class listening to my professor tell us that autism was just a different way of seeing the world. I’m sure I had heard of it before, but I had never really thought much about it or reserved much mental energy about it.
The second time I really paid any attention to the word was on an entire wing of school building I was working in for what would have been called the “special-ed” kids when I was in elementary school “The Autism Wing”. And I went home that evening and posted a rant on my newsfeed on Facebook. “Not all autistic kids are learning disabled and not all learning disabled kids have autism” and of course got the “yeah, but many kids with autism are severely disabled” response back from someone I respected and just felt like an idiot.
I have had many labels thrown my way over the years, some of them stuck: gifted, odd, quirky, sassy, bitchy, smart, focused, shy, quiet, reserved. Some of them didn’t: ADD, bipolar disorder, just to name a couple specific diagnoses. So many labels that were close but not really fitting. Yeah, I do have depression and anxiety. But they can’t even really call it anything other than “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” which basically just sounds like “yeah, basically you just don’t really operate like normal, yeah?”
The third time I paid attention to the word “autistic” was when I stumbled upon the same screener that many people who suspect they may have autism or Asperger’s have taken. I scored in the range of high amounts of autistic traits and recommendation to see someone for a potential diagnosis. Problem? I’m a girl. Girls aren’t autistic. Everyone knows this! I basically read the entirety of both the DSM IV and V and it’s pretty well known that it’s statistically improbable that girls are autistic.
So, of course I sent that to my friend and had him take the test, he also scored in that range. We talked about how of course we scored high because we are mathy people (him being an engineer and all, me just being a nerd). But my brain still wouldn’t let it rest so I sent it around to a few more people. Funny thing, though, everyone else I knew was in the low autistic traits range.
Fourth time I really paid attention to the word, you can probably guess: same friend sought a diagnosis. This hit me a wee bit too close to home. I actually wasn’t capable of accepting this. He and I are so freaky similar. He can’t be autistic because I can’t be autistic. Because, you know, girls can’t be autistic. Ergo, since we are basically the same person, he can’t be autistic. Can’t argue with that flawless logic, can you?
Guess what? He totally got diagnosed. Still took me years to stop being in denial about myself because, y’know. Girls can’t be autistic.
So here I am. Ready to tell you that girls can, in fact, be autistic.
We look “different” than textbook. We typically hid it a little bit better than our autistic brethren, partially because girls tend to want social connections more than boys. There are starting to be studies done to see how autistic girls perceive the world. This one that I’ve looked at found that autistic girls basically use other parts of the brain to respond to social cues outside of the part of the brain that neurotypical girls would use in order to translate social cues.
So basically, our brains were impaired and sort of “realized” that they were impaired but found a new traffic route to try and improve it, but it’s not quite as good as neurotypical girls. So we found a new way to respond somewhat well to social cues. We aren’t as good at it as most neurotypical girls, but we are better at it and get more reward from it than our autistic brothers do.
And of course, because no entry post on autistic women and girls is ever complete without a mention of masking, let me go ahead and dive right into it. Masking is living every day as if you are participating in a stage play without a script.
Everyone else knows what is going on, but you are sort of flying by the seat of your pants and needing to improv a wee bit. You put on this shell of what resembles a human being and a character that other people mostly respect and you never let anyone get close enough to find the cracks where the real you falls out, because the last time that happened…
As a girl, this was resolved by having a few close friends that I was always around for each task that I was doing. It was almost like I didn’t realize that my art class friends could be my friends in other places. Or that my playground friends could also be friends in class. I mostly had hobbies that I could do entirely by myself (yay books!) We also moved so much that it was never weird to anyone that I never kept friends through different grades.
It turns out that research is finally starting to realize that girls are, indeed, autistic too.