Female Aspies

Hi, I’m Lady Nym and I’m pretty sure I’m an Aspie. I’m also very sure I’m female.

Is the combination of those two things surprising?

For a long time it was thought there were more boys with ASD than girls.  The figure I’ve seen most often and the one quoted on the EarlyBird programme (the course I’m on for parents of young children with ASD) is that for every one female with autism there are four males.

So, autism is more common in boys?

Maybe.  Maybe not.

I know at least as many women with autism as men (both with and without official diagnosis) but despite the fact I feel like a huge number of the people I know are on the spectrum, they form a relatively small sample.  As I’m obnoxiously quick to point out to other people: anecdotes do not count as scientific evidence.

But it’s not just my experience.  A lot of professionals are also coming to the conclusion there are many more women with autism than was previously thought.  They simply haven’t been recognised as such until now.

So, why?  Why isn’t ASD in women picked up on as often as ASD in men?

For the same reason doctors used to tell women they should try not to think too much because it would divert the blood flow to their brain and away from their uterus (thus causing it to wither up): good old fashioned sexism.

Leo Kanner is often hailed as the man who ‘discovered’ autism.  Out of the 11 children he studied in the cases he used to characterise autism, only 3 were girls.  Later, came along Hans Asperger (it probably won’t come as a shock to you to learn he was influential in the study of Asperger’s/’high functioning ASD’) and his cases consisted of four boys; no girls.

I’m not criticising either man for their selection.  They were entering uncharted territory and worked with what they had.  However, it seems odd the people who carried on their studies apparently said, ‘Huh, these diagnostic criteria have largely been clarified through watching boys, and girls don’t seem to display them so that must mean girls don’t tend to be autistic,’ rather than, ‘Huh, these diagnostic criteria have largely been clarified through watching boys so maybe we should look at whether girls show different symptoms.’

Female Aspie Comic

It’s not surprising.  I mean, it’s only recently that anyone seems to have become aware of the fact women tend to suffer from different symptoms when they’re having a fracking heart attack.  A measly disorder that was long considered to be purely neurological is small fry compared to, you know…fracking heart attacks.

There is another aspect of our historically misogynistic society that plays a part in fewer girls being diagnosed with ASD.  Girls are conditioned – from a very young age – to be compliant, attendant to others’ needs and generally passive.

A born leader of a boy is a bossy girl; a determined, strong boy is a bitchy girl; a focused boy is a selfish girl.  And it works the other way (because sexism negatively affects everyone): a caring, thoughtful girl is a wet boy; a sweet, sensitive girl is an oversensitive boy; an artistic girl is a pussy of a boy.

We’re all shoehorned into these roles by society without anyone even realising it’s happening and people with Asperger’s are at least subconsciously aware of all this.  One of the common characteristics of Aspie girls, especially, is a painful concern about what other people think.

We’re told autistic people don’t do empathy, don’t like socialising (or at least aren’t very good at it), and have lots of weird tics and stims (repetitive movements).  Now, the first two are dubious anyway but I can at least see why it may appear that way in a lot of boys (and some girls) with ASD.  However, for many girls on the spectrum who know they’re in some way different but are desperate to fit in, they may in fact try very hard to be more empathetic, better at listening, very good at socialising (even if it gives them terrible anxiety) and they’ll likely repress their stims or find more socially acceptable ones like hair twirling or finger tapping (rather than hand flapping or head shaking).

We expect people on the spectrum to have obsessions and/or collections: trains, historical dates, Star Trek, Pokemon, vacuum cleaners etc.  Females on the spectrum are also prone to this but often make their obsessions and collections more ‘socially acceptable’ and stereotypically ‘girly’.  They may be particularly obsessed with a particular band or with horses, they may collect make-up or handbags.

Or make up brushes.
Or make up brushes.

Not always, I should point out.  The thing about ASD is no two people on the spectrum are the same (it’s almost like we’re people or something).  Autistic girls can collect Magic the Gathering cards or obsess over maths, too, but there is a tendency towards less ‘obviously autistic’ interests in ‘high functioning’ autistic women.

I could write a list of specifically female autistic traits but other people in a better position to do so have beaten me to it so if you’re interested check out Tania Marshall’s list here and the post on Everyday Asperger’s here.

So, for a long time many girls on the spectrum have slipped under the radar.  They often know there’s something different about them.  They often sense they don’t quite fit in and feel like they’re faking it.  They probably struggle with social communication and have anxiety but hide it as best they can.  If they have actually sought help they may have been misdiagnosed with something else like a personality disorder or depression (though, there’s a chance they will also have depression…just in case you thought things were in any way simple!).

Does it matter, then?  When girls and women on the spectrum have been ‘passing’ as neurotypical for so long anyway, do they – or anyone else – even need to know they’re autistic?  Does it benefit anyone?

Yes, absolutely.

For one thing, it’s nice to know why you feel so different and removed from the world.  I have spent my whole life just not quite fitting in and not quite ‘getting…it’.  The realisation this is probably because I’m autistic is quite comforting.  There is a reason; I’m not just crazy (and now I have a pass to watch Firefly over and over again endlessly…right?).

Only super cool people will get this.
Only geeky super cool people will get this.

Also, it’s nice to figure out why you do some of the things you do.  Ah, that’s why I feel so horribly overwhelmed and uncomfortable and even angry when there’s a lot of noise.  That’s why I’m just so utterly crap at organising paperwork and why I have such anxiety over making phone calls etc.

On a more serious/medical note, being autistic means women are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, OCD, eating disorders and a whole host of things.  I don’t know about anyone else but I think it’s kind of important people know this and know if they’re at higher risk.

They are also more at risk of finding themselves in abusive relationships (this can mean emotionally, physically, sexually or financially abusive).  Again, sort of important information.

With appropriate support in place, girls on the spectrum are more likely to leave school with better grades rather than getting overwhelmed and anxious and not reaching their full potential.  Colleges and universities also offer support for autistic students and employers are legally obliged to make certain allowances.

On a less official level there’s also support available from fellow Aspies online.

Knowing about how female Aspies present is also beneficial to boys on the spectrum because, strangely enough, we’re not all perfect cliches who fit neatly into boxes and many boys who exhibit some of these typically more female traits also don’t get a diagnosis.  If female autistic traits become more widely recognised simply as ‘autistic traits’ it will help boys on the spectrum who don’t present in such a typical way (like Tyger).

My suspicion is there’s probably a fairly even number of autistic females and males.  It’s taken me getting on for 30 years to realise I might be autistic.  I’m willing to bet there are many, many other girls and women out there who have no idea but feel out of place in a neurotypical world.

 

 

 

 

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34 Comments


  1. I used to hear this alot as my brother was severely autistic (I only say was because he passed away a few years ago now) and it’s interesting to know it’s probably because girls just weren’t studied as much as boys, it doesn’t seem rocket science to come to the conclusion that that’s probably why, and I sadly can see exactly why more hotels aren’t diagnosed, because of the reasons you stated above. Let’s hope this changes so that more families and women can get answers earlier on in their life! Thanks for linking up to #MarvMondays. Kaye xo

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    1. Condolences on your brother passing away.

      It certainly seems to be changing. More and more professionals know what to look for with women on the spectrum and it’s becoming more widely recognised that many women with autism don’t receive the correct diagnosis. As is always the case with these things, it takes a while for everyone to catch up.

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  2. Great post, you have given me a lot to think about! I have a family member with ASD, it’s truly amazing how medical research into ASD has evolved since they were diagnosed 5 years ago. #bigpinklink

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    1. Things are progressing but sometimes it takes a while for the information to filter through to all professionals etc. It varies vastly depending on where you live and who you happen to see.

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  3. I’ve read a lot about this recently – an especially interesting link was a correlation between eating diarises and undiagnosed autism. A support worker fobbed me off on this saying “people with aspergers don’t care about their physical appearance” but it’s not about that, is it? It’s control and obsessive behaviour. Anyway, great post! Jel of the make up brush collection! 🙂 #bigpinklink

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    1. It really annoys me when people say things like that! It reminds me of my sister’s GP saying she couldn’t be autistic because she wanted to have friends (my sister has since received a diagnosis)! I think eating disorders in girls on the spectrum are about control and obsession – like you say – but also about trying to fit in to a world they don’t feel like they belong in and also often a sensory thing. Many autistic people have big problems with food textures and even have food phobias so I think that probably plays a big part, too.

      The make-up brush collection isn’t mine! Haha. I hardly wear any make up. It’s my sister’s.

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  4. Great post and I think you are quite right, not every one presents the same and because there are such varying degrees not everyone is recognized or diagnosed, I suspect a couple of my children have elements of autism present. #marvmonday

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    1. Thank you. It really does cover such a wide variety and degree of problems and abilities and I suspect there are probably thousands of undiagnosed people wandering around.

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  5. I found this really interesting. It’s so sad that sexism has even pervaded the science/medical world to such an extent. I hope more research is conducted with fairer control groups. #bigpinklink

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    1. I know. It seems ridiculous but nobody thought to check whether these things affected women in the same way as men. Hopefully, that’s changing.

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  6. This is good information to learn. I am surprised that girls weren’t studied more but I am glad that girls are now being taken into account and maybe that means there will be more research into how girls display symptoms of Autism. Thanks so much for sharing this. #thebigpinklink

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    1. I think it’s just one of those things. Men often aren’t diagnosed with depression because the way it presents for them is often with increased risk taking and aggressive outbursts, which society thinks are just ‘normal’ ‘male’ behaviours. Hopefully, we’re doing away with all these harmful gender stereotypes now and everyone will have the opportunity to get the proper care and support they need.

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  7. Wow, this is an absolutely fantastic read! To be very honest, as I don’t know anybody affected directly affected by this, I know very little about it. The differences between diagnosing boys and girls would now seem obvious, now you’ve highlighted it, and I hope a conclusion towards a more accurate diagnosis for girls is found quickly. I clicked the Tania Marshall link, and was surprised to find that I struggled to find ANY on the list that I couldn’t attribute to myself. I have a history of being bullied, eating disorders, abusive relationships, intense social anxiety (especially hating group situations, and only feeling comfortable talking about things I know well,) a history of seeing many therapists with no progress, and constantly wondering why I’ve never fit in in the world. I find I can only express myself through my blog, and have avoided a lot of social interaction since starting it. I’d never thought any of these things could mean anything before, I’d just presumed I was hugely unlikeable, and that’s why all these things had happened! Food for thought… Thanks for bringing this fantastic, thought provoking piece to #bigpinklink

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    1. I hope it’s a positive consideration for you. I certainly found, when I started to wonder whether I might be autistic, it helped me like myself a little better because I understood there were probably reasons why I am like I am (if that makes sense?). It’s probably worth your while reading up on ASD a bit just to see if there are other things you can relate to.

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  8. Such an informative and interesting piece of writing. You make a compelling case and I utterly agree with you.

    Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

    Dawn x

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  9. I recommend you read Neurotribes by Steve Silberman for the history of autism – Asperger saw many children, including girls, and saw autism as a continuum but his work was lost for decades sadly.

    There is a lost generation (or two) of female aspies. Increased awareness might stop GPs laughing off requests for assessment, so thank-you for writing this post 🙂

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    1. I actually gave Neurotribes to my mum for Christmas and was going to read it when she’s done but that could be a while so maybe I should get my own copy (I should point out my mum asked for it; I didn’t get her a present that was really for me!). I probably don’t know as much about Asperger as I should.

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    2. Asperger also noted that many of the mothers of the children he saw in his clinic displayed some autistic traits themselves. And yet here we are still struggling to convince uninformed practitioners that, yes, autistic women can and do have partners, children, family lives…

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      1. I don’t think it’s a leap to say autism can be genetic (at least in some cases), at which point it seems bizarre that there’s so much surprise when autistic people have families.

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  10. I found this a really interesting read because when I first started looking into autism I read that more boys than girls are effected by it with a ratio of about 1 girl to four boys. Then I watched a documentary and there was a doctor on there who said that actually it is probably just that girls are able to hide it better and that made so much sense to me. It’s also interesting what you said about not fitting into any particular box because my son is currently waiting for an assessment to see if he has autism and all the professionals so far have said that they aren’t sure he is on the spectrum (even though he displays lots of traits) because he doesn’t fit a particular box. I kind of thought that was the whole point with autism lol but what I do know? They say he is borderline.

    Anyway just wanted to say this is a great post and I really enjoyed reading it.

    #twinklytuesdays

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    1. It varies a lot by area and different professionals. It might well be the case that if you happened to live in a different part of the country they’d diagnose him without issue. That’s the problem with it being a spectrum; it can be hard to pin down. Good luck getting some answers.

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  11. I agree whole heartedly that the numbers are more likely to be equal. I think for too long stereotypical views have been allowed to dominate in the news and reporting about autism. Most news articles are entered around the extremes. I agree that it is because girls are really good at mimicking behaviours and are desperate to fit in. I think we become really good at modelling behaviours seen.

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    1. Yes, the picture most people have in their heads of an autistic person is quite specific. They either think of someone completely unable to communicate who spends all their time rocking back and forth or they think of a genius type who’s quirky but brilliantly intelligent. A lot of people don’t know anything about all the nuances in between.

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  12. Great read. You’re right, everything I’ve ever read, been told, suggests that the ratio is much higher in boys than girls, yet most people I’ve met who were diagnosed later in life have happened to be female.
    Maybe it is as simple as girls are better at mimicking in order to fit in. I’m sure the numbers will change over the next few years and the difference will be much smaller
    #SpectrumSunday

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    1. I think eventually the ratio will be much more even but not all professionals are good at spotting ASD in girls and women yet so it might take some time.

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  13. Power of research and.mpney sadly.inflience what is what. It sucks for females and probably some males too especially with all the stereotypes and stigma. X #spectrumsunday

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    1. Oh yes, I think boys and men are definitely affected as well. Hopefully, though, things are starting to change.

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  14. Very interesting Nym. ASD is such a complex thing isn’t it?! This is why I hate the assumption that autism is increasing and people are questioning whether certain things and lifestyle choices are to ‘blame’. It is increasing at all, it is just becoming more and more understood and exposed. I can pretty much quite a few people I was at school with who I would probably have said were on the spectrum with what I now know about it, but they were just considered disruptive and a nuisance and ended up always being in trouble. Great post as always lovely. Thank you for linking up to #spectrumsunday hope you join me again this week xx

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    1. Completely agree it’s not increasing at all but just better recognised. My grandma was definitely autistic (or is, though she has Alzheimer’s now) but there’s no way it would have been recognised back then. My dad, too, is certainly on the spectrum but also wouldn’t have been considered autistic when he was younger.

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  15. Another informative and interesting post, Nym. Along the lines of your post, I have wondered about other conditions/illnesses which have been studied from a male perspective or based on a male manifestation. But is it really better to know? That again is a question for an individual, isn’t it? I really don’t know. Thought provoking indeed! #abitofeverything

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    1. There are definitely biases in medicine that negatively affect both men and women (depression in men is often dismissed because it tends to present in a way that just makes them have more ‘manly’ traits like aggression and recklessness so doctors don’t recognise it).

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