Women and Autism

The Equality Team has been working with our students to raise awareness of World Autism Awareness Week. In this second blog, Chantelle Wright shares her own story.

Despite the increasing prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders throughout society and the media, there are still areas of the Autistic community which lack adequate representation. For example, there appears to be a general lack of awareness and understanding of females with ASD, which is something which needs addressing.

Evidence indicates that more males are diagnosed with ASD than females, and a high proportion of females on the spectrum are not diagnosed until later in life (e.g. adolescence or adulthood). This is problematic as it prevents these individuals from accessing vital support during the developmental period. It is suggested that one of the reasons for delayed diagnosis is that Autistic females (particularly those who are high functioning) typically demonstrate ‘camouflaging’ behaviours which enable them to hide their ASD traits in public settings. This gives the appearance to others that they are able to successfully cope in everyday life without difficulty, however, the challenges often then present more visibly once in the comfort of their own space.

As someone diagnosed with ASD (Asperger’s Syndrome) at the age of 17, I have experienced first-hand the difficulty in obtaining a diagnosis for females. Having spent nearly four years attending the Child and Adolescent Mental Health services and being assessed by three different psychiatrists, I felt incredibly frustrated that nobody seemed to be able to explain why I was experiencing the difficulties I was facing. I frequently experienced overwhelming feelings of anxiety when in social situations and environments with large amounts of sensory material, leading to public meltdowns. Following these meltdowns, I would feel emotionally numb for hours afterwards but at the time had no understanding of why I felt this way. Additionally, I experienced a large amount of bullying throughout my time at school and never felt as though I fit in with my peers. I would tend to copy the behaviour of those around me, or behaviour I had observed on TV, in order to hide the level of discomfort I felt in social situations.

At an early age, I was taught the importance of maintaining eye contact when talking to others, so I learnt to imitate this behaviour through focusing on facial areas around the eyes, so as not to appear rude. I now realise that these are typical ‘camouflaging’ behaviours used by females with ASD, but these are less recognised by others. I was always regarded as being ‘shy’ or ‘standoffish’, whereas in reality I didn’t understand why these types of behaviours were important.

Based on my own experiences, and those of many other females on the spectrum, I believe it is vitally important that we work to raise awareness of ASD in hidden groups (e.g. females) and how Autistic traits/symptoms may present differently across the spectrum. This is important for both clinical professionals and society in general, as it will help promote earlier diagnoses, which can therefore allow for early intervention.

Find out more about Autism on the National Autistic Society website