Autism Awareness Week: Debunking Stereotypes and Appearing ‘Normal’

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As an autistic woman, I have often noticed some misconceptions about the condition. Maybe it’s the stereotype that we are all ‘savants’ and have a phenomenal ability in a certain subject, or that we are all fascinated by train timetables for instance. There is even the misconception that women can’t be autistic as we are too empathetic to receive a diagnosis.

While these stereotypes may be true for some, they are certainly not the norm. Academics often say that for every 4 autistic men, there is 1 female. Increasing evidence estimates the true figure to be 3:1 or even 2:1 as, thanks to the coping skills of women, we can evade diagnosis and appear ‘normal.’ Not only that, even if we are fortunate enough to receive a diagnosis in our lifetime, this may only come many years later compared to our male counterparts. Despite these challenges with obtaining a diagnosis (which is crucial for support and understanding), I was one of the more fortunate ones, even though I only received my diagnosis a year ago. Like many women with autism, I can pass for being ‘neurotypical’, having learnt how to mask my autistic traits over time.

One of these traits is having strict routines while simultaneously, being resistant to change. For most of the population, when something doesn’t go to plan, it might leave you feeling a little stressed for a while, but in general, you will be able to continue with the rest of your day with ease. For those of us with Asperger’s, our tendency to have routines is simply to reduce our sky-high levels of anxiety. Asperger’s simply means that social situations don’t come automatically to us; it’s like a second voice that exists in my brain that tells me what to do socially based on prior experiences. Routines give us a sense of normality, so we can at least predict some things in life. Autistic women grow up attempting to ‘fit in’ as we form friendships and relationships, so we can appear socially capable, but underneath we know there is something acutely different about how we function.

The downside to seeming ‘normal’ however, is that like every other ‘high-functioning’ autistic, I am expected to keep up with the appearances I have set for myself. It’s a double-edged sword; everyone I’ve disclosed my autism with has always been shocked to find out my social skills are all a very good act. Their response is normally one of “you don’t appear to be autistic” or “there’s nothing wrong with that.” While it is confirmation that I am doing the right things socially, it has always left me feeling inadequate. My social awkwardness almost seems quirky and desirable rather than being something that makes me ostracised as it would if I appeared to be like the stereotype.

One of the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome is having a “special interest”, a term that confirms for me that society tends to infantilise autistics. For males, these do tend to be the typical ones you might expect such as trains or being a computer whizz. As an autistic girl, my interests tended to be more like others as a young child. What sets us apart from neurotypical children though, is the intensity with which we pursue our passions. It wasn’t my intense obsession with penguins that would have stood me out as an autistic child, but rather my knowledge of each species’ scientific name when I was younger. Nowadays, my interests are even more mainstream: animal rights, environmental activism, and travelling. Our ability to appear ‘normal’ is something that is second nature to me; I’ve successfully held down customer service jobs, I actively volunteer and even spent several months last year in Europe and Australia travelling by myself.

Keeping up with appearances may seem like a breeze to someone who is socially adept, but for those of us on the spectrum, it is can lead us to search for years to find out why we have such a different perspective on the world. Autistic women have shockingly high rates of mental illness in adolescence; our tendency to hyper-focus and see only the small details in situations rather than the bigger picture means our neurobiology is the perfect stomping ground for eating disorders, depression and anxiety. Tony Attwood, an expert in autism, suggests that 25% of females with anorexia could also have undiagnosed autism. Could a potential missed autism diagnosis account for some of the higher rates of mental illness in females? Considering a Clinical Psychologist in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) told me at 14 that I couldn’t possibly be autistic since I made too much eye contact, it seems like we are definitely missing out on gaining recognition earlier.

Despite some of the unrelenting stereotypes that those of us on the spectrum face, most autistic people (including myself) would not choose to change ourselves. We know we are different but in no way are we defective.

Autism Awareness Week should really be Autism Acceptance Week.

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