Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Autism, females, and how it's often different

Autism in Females

Autism in females often looks nothing like autism in males. This is a generalisation. There will always be exceptions.

Think of a stereotype of autism; the geeky anorak bloke with really awkward body language, a tendency to rock, flap or make a strange noise from time to time. totally abrupt manners, a fascination with train timetables, no eye contact, a loner with hardly any friends who hates physical contact. This is indeed a stereotype. Most of the men I know are nothing like that either.

But it's exactly what many people look for in a female to work out if she is autistic.
They'll never spot us that way. 

Autistic females are often the most amazing 'actors', at massive personal cost to us. Because of fear of exclusion and bullying. Because of a desperation to fit in, at all costs.  Not everyone.  Some cannot disguise, or do not choose to.

 We can often handle 'being normal in appearance and manner' because we made people our specialist subject. We studied and studied, learned and learned, practised and practised...for days, weeks, months, years....including practising how to do eye contact, hugs with friends, etc. Even if it hurts us sometimes/always.

 And we got so good at mimicking 'normal women' (whatever those are....but you know what I mean...) that we can pass for 'normal'. Even in front of friends. Even in front of friends who have known us for years. Yes, even in front of friends who have known us for years and spend weeks with us. How?

We hope no-one notices our need for detail. We maybe hope no-one notices our need to have a drink, perhaps, to steady our sensory system in public social events.
We hope no-one notices us leaving regularly to recover, saying it's to 'go for a walk' or 'go to the toilet' or whatever else.
We hope no-one notices us arriving late and leaving early at social events.
We hope no-one notices us using technology as a coping strategy.
 We hope we don't stim (rocking, flapping hands, etc) or say something stupid, so we learn stock phrases that will get us out of trouble a lot of the time, and learn to keep our hands still. Even if that means we cannot locate our body in 3-D space as a result.
We practise not talking about our favourite subjects for hours.
We have intense interests that seem really 'normal', e.g. celebrities, ponies etc - and hope no-one notices that we are utterly obsessed with rules, data, lining the stuff up, collecting one of each colour...
But the strain on us from covering up 100% of our autism is so intense that it leaks out in other ways.
We may end up with extreme anxiety or depression from the strain.
We may end up with high blood pressure and other health-related issues.
We may end up with anorexia or eating disorders.
We may end up self-harming as a desperate way of coping.
We may end up utterly alone, unable to make a single really good friendship - or only have one proper friend in the world. And if we do have that one proper friend, we study their every social skill, so we can adapt ours to be even better.  We are 'sitting targets' for predators and controllers, who realise that we are desperate for a friend.
But it's all an act. A desperate one. An act we often have to keep going at all costs, or lose even that one friend.
We can't see body language, or eye contact, or face expression.
We can't cope with the social 'overload' in crowds.
We can't handle the sensory overload in busy, noisy places under intense lighting.
Our brains are autism-design, not standard-design. And what we learn to do is live a life of pretending they are not, at massive exhaustion and massive personal cost.
So many of us are told, "There's no way you are autistic", and are denied a diagnosis. So we just think we're substandard instead.
The moment we 'come out' as autistic, few can believe we are. "But you're nothing like an autistic person!" "How could you possibly lie to us for all those years!" etc etc.

Hundreds of thousands of us in the UK have had to hide, or have no diagnosis and maybe no clue that they even are autistic. Living in a world that is obsessed with social grace and women being a certain way, we truly may be worried sick about anyone knowing otherwise about our inner reality - our actual lived experience of the world around us.

There's new research suggesting that many, perhaps most, autistic women are also part of the LGBTQ community. The pressure on us to also be straight, also be very female (even if that is not how we identify). Layer after layer of pressure to be something we are not.
All a generalisation, of course.
But....no, you won't know who of your female friends is autistic. Other autistic people often do. We can often spot each other a proverbial mile off. Only a proper diagnostic professional can give a proper diagnosis, of course. Some of us merely train those diagnostic professionals in the first place...

 It's not a crime, being autistic. It's a brain design.
If a female friend has a diagnosis, it doesn't mean there's something 'wrong' with them. It means they have to balance their social and sensory input really carefully...and ask good questions about how you are, rather than reading your body language. It means they don't intend to be clumsy with wording, or plan to have to rush home early if exhausted. It's not an insult or rudeness.

All that pretending to be normal? That was because they wanted to be with you and wanted to impress you and be a good friend to you. It wasn't a lie intended to hurt you.

Society expects us to be 'normal' no matter what the cost to us. Many of us are questioning that.
So, we are not trying to be rude to you by being autistic. Never doubt it.
Say it's OK for us to be us, and mean it. Then we know that you're a friend.