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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

Why Autistic Women Are Often Overlooked

Updated: 17 hours ago

By Patty Laushman


Historically, the understanding and diagnosis of autism have been predominantly centered around young male presentations, often leading to a significant oversight – the recognition of autism in women. As an autism life coach, I've witnessed firsthand the profoundly positive impact of understanding and appropriate support for autistic women. There is a crucial need to broaden our collective awareness of what autism looks like in women.

An autistic woman sitting on the sidewalk hugging her knees.

In this blog post, I explore some of the signs of autism as they appear in women. I provide this information not just for those seeking answers for themselves or their loved ones, but for the wider community as well, to foster a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of autism.


We will uncover why autism in women has been historically overlooked, touch on the unique experiences of autistic women, and discuss the importance of accurate diagnosis and support. I hope this blog post is more than an informational guide and becomes a step toward creating a world that fully recognizes and embraces not only autistic women but neurodiversity in all its forms.


While the focus of this blog post is cisgender autistic women, many of the concepts described here will also apply to transgender and nonbinary autistic individuals.


Hiding in Plain Sight

Autism has long been misunderstood, particularly in women. The oversight in recognizing autism in women is not a simple matter of misdiagnosis. It's rooted in a complex web of historical, societal, and psychological factors.


Historical Gender Bias in Autism Research and Diagnosis

The initial studies and diagnostic criteria for autism were primarily based on observations of male subjects. This male-centric view led to diagnostic tools and methods that are less sensitive to how autism presents in women. Consequently, many women with autism have either been misdiagnosed with other conditions or have gone undiagnosed altogether.


According to Dr. Marcia Eckerd, an expert in autism in women, "Clinicians miss and misdiagnose women because autism looks different in women. The research has been done on men so there’s a male model in clinicians’ minds."


Social Expectations and Stereotypes

Society's expectations of women often include being socially adept, emotionally intuitive, and nurturing – traits that can be challenging for some autistic individuals. When women with autism learn to adapt to these expectations, their struggles remain hidden, leading to a lack of understanding and support.


Dr. Eckerd also points out, "The model of autism used by most professionals is pathology-driven, and some clinicians go so far as to posit autistic people don’t know that other people think, have no desire to connect with others, and lack the caring that is basic to humanity.


"In fact, research shows that autistic people have emotional empathy, with some studies suggesting autistics have more emotional empathy for distress than non-autistics. This outdated understanding misses many of the positive qualities of autistic individuals that are supported by research – detailed analytic logical thinking, excellent pattern recognition, truthfulness, a strong sense of integrity and emotional empathy."


A woman in a yellow sweater and tan coat wearing a medical mask outside.

The Masking Phenomenon

Autistic women often develop coping strategies to mask their autistic traits and conform to societal expectations. This “camouflaging” includes mimicking neurotypical social behaviors, hiding their difficulties in social interactions, and suppressing their autistic traits. Such masking can lead to mental health challenges like anxiety and depression and makes it harder for professionals to recognize autism.


"Women often mask autistic traits, so the stereotyped image of an autistic male doesn’t apply. They can learn to mask at a young age, so by adulthood, it’s become almost automatic. It is still stressful and effortful, though," said Dr. Eckerd. "Research shows that even gold standard tests can miss women. Women are repeatedly told, 'You can’t be autistic, you don’t look like Sheldon [from TV's Big Bang Theory].'”


The Consequences of Being Overlooked

The failure to recognize autism in women has significant implications. It can lead to a lack of appropriate support, increased mental health issues, and a profound sense of isolation. For many women, the journey to an autism diagnosis is fraught with challenges, often not coming until much later in life, which delays access to crucial services and support systems.


In the next section, we'll discuss the unique signs of autism in women, shedding light on these often misunderstood aspects of the spectrum. By understanding these signs, we can move toward a more inclusive and accurate perception of autism, allowing autistic women the opportunity to receive the support and recognition they need to thrive.


Signs of Autism in Women

Autism manifests uniquely in every individual, and this is particularly true for women on the spectrum. Understanding these unique signs is crucial for accurate diagnosis and support. Here, we explore some of the key signs of autism as they often present in women.


Social Interaction Differences

Many autistic women excel in social mimicry where they copy or mimic the social behaviors of others. This can include adopting phrases, mannerisms, and even interests to fit in or to mask their social and communication challenges. This skill in camouflaging often leads to the misconception that they do not face social challenges, a key criterion in traditional autism diagnosis.


A stressed woman looking down and gripping her hair.

Sensory Sensitivities

While sensory sensitivities are a common aspect of autism, the way they are expressed or perceived by those around autistic females can differ. Women may have all the same sensory sensitivities as men, such as loud noises, bright lights, or certain textures, and while this leads to discomfort in everyday situations, women may be more inclined to mask them to fit in.


Then when women do express their distress around sensory sensitivities, they are more likely than men to have their concerns dismissed because women are expected to be more sensitive than men, or their concerns are dismissed in the same way the medical establishment has dismissed the concerns of women as hysteria.


Special Interests and Routines

Autistic women often have intense and deep interests, though they may differ from the stereotypical interests often associated with autistic men. These interests are often typical for females, while clinicians expect unusual interests like train tables. They dismiss interest in horses, reading, crafts, fashion, celebrities etc. as normal without enquiring into the intensity of the interest.


A strong adherence to routines and a dislike of unexpected changes are also common, providing comfort and predictability, but again, women are more likely to be successful at masking, making these challenges invisible to those around them.

Emotional Processing and Expression

Autistic women may experience and express their emotions differently. They might have a rich and intense inner emotional life but find it challenging to express these emotions. This can lead to frequent misunderstandings in their emotional experiences and make getting their needs met more challenging.


A woman who is struggling to fight internalized criticism of her behavior.

Internalized Experiences

Due to societal expectations and the pressure to conform, autistic women often internalize their struggles. They might experience higher rates of internalizing disorders such as anxiety or depression, often as a consequence of the constant effort to fit into a world that is not designed for their neurology.


Recognizing these experiences of autistic women is a step toward understanding the diverse manifestations of autism. It's important to remember that every autistic individual is unique, and these signs may vary greatly from one person to another.


In the next section, we will discuss the vital importance of accurate diagnosis for autistic women and the positive impact it can have on their lives.


The Importance of Accurate Diagnosis

Obtaining an accurate diagnosis of autism can be transformative, especially for women who have often lived without understanding their unique neurology. Here, we dive into why an accurate diagnosis is crucial and how it can significantly impact the lives of autistic women.


A Gateway to Self-Understanding and Acceptance

For many autistic women, receiving a diagnosis is often a moment of clarity and validation. It provides a framework for understanding past experiences and challenges through a new lens. This recognition can lead to greater self-acceptance and an appreciation of their unique strengths and abilities.


Mental Health Benefits

A woman talking with a therapist about a diagnosis and what that means.

Misdiagnosis or a lack of diagnosis can lead to inappropriate treatment and support, exacerbating mental health challenges. An accurate autism diagnosis can help in tailoring mental health support that is more effective and understanding of the individual's specific needs. It also helps in addressing co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD with a better understanding of their interaction with autism.


Access to Tailored Support and Services

A diagnosis opens the door to resources and support systems specifically designed for autistic individuals. This includes educational accommodations, workplace adjustments, therapy tailored to autistic needs, and access to a community of peers for support and shared experiences.


An accurate diagnosis can also lead women who are struggling to the help of an autism life coach like those here at Thrive Autism Coaching where they can get individualized help with better understanding themself and setting and achieving goals that can positively impact their quality of life.


Improving Relationships and Social Understanding

An autism diagnosis can also aid in personal relationships. It allows family, friends, and colleagues to better understand the autistic individual's experiences and needs, fostering stronger, more empathetic connections. It also provides a framework for autistic women to understand their own social and communication needs better.


Challenging Stereotypes and Expanding Awareness

Each diagnosis contributes to a broader understanding and awareness of the spectrum of autism presentations, particularly in women. It challenges long-standing stereotypes and helps in shaping a more inclusive and accurate portrayal of autism in society.


The value of an accurate diagnosis is immeasurable. It's not just about labeling; it's about understanding, support, and empowerment.


In the next section, we will explore how we can move toward a more inclusive understanding of autism, breaking down barriers and expanding our collective perspective.


Recognizing the Diversity of the Autism Spectrum

Autism is a spectrum with a diverse range of experiences and presentations. Moving toward a more inclusive understanding of autism, particularly in women, is not just a medical or educational challenge but a societal one.


First and foremost, it's essential to acknowledge that autism does not look the same in everyone. This recognition should be reflected in our diagnostic criteria, therapeutic approaches, and societal attitudes. By embracing the diversity within the autism spectrum, we can ensure that no one is left without the support and understanding they need.


A doctor and a patient who are on the same page and have a strong relationship.

The Role of Healthcare and Educational Professionals

Professionals in these fields play a crucial role in recognizing and supporting autism in women. Continuous education and training on the diverse presentations of autism, including gender differences, are vital. These professionals can advocate for and implement more inclusive diagnostic criteria and support systems.


Societal Change and Awareness

Society as a whole benefits from a greater understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity. This includes challenging stereotypes about autism, promoting positive and diverse representations in media, and creating inclusive environments in schools, workplaces, and communities. Public awareness campaigns and education can play a significant role in changing perceptions and attitudes.


Empowering Autistic Voices

One of the most powerful ways to foster understanding is by amplifying the voices of autistic individuals, particularly women who have been underrepresented. Encouraging their stories and experiences to be shared in media, conferences, and education can provide invaluable insights and challenge misconceptions.


Building Supportive Communities

A group of people discussing their experiences with autism and how they've learned to adapt.

Creating supportive networks, both online and in person, can offer a space for autistic women to connect, share experiences, and find solidarity. These communities can also be a resource for families and professionals seeking to understand and support autistic individuals better.


By moving toward a more inclusive understanding of autism, we not only support those on the spectrum but enrich our society with diverse perspectives and experiences.


Conclusion

In this blog post, we uncovered the often-overlooked world of autism in women, the unique ways it manifests, and the challenges faced in achieving recognition and understanding. 


We've examined the historical biases that have prevented the recognition of autism in women, the societal pressures that compel them to mask their true selves, and the many ways in which their experiences differ from the more commonly recognized male presentations of autism. 


We've also highlighted the importance of accurate diagnosis – not merely as a label, but as a key to unlocking self-understanding, appropriate support, and a fuller, happier life.


This blog post serves as a reminder that autism, like all aspects of human experience, is not a one-size-fits-all condition. The stories, struggles, and successes of autistic women are integral to our understanding of the spectrum. They challenge us to broaden our perspectives, question our assumptions about autism, and create a more inclusive world where every person is valued for their unique contributions.


As an autism life coach, my mission extends far beyond this blog. It's about creating a more understanding world where autistic women can thrive, where their voices are heard, and where their experiences are acknowledged and respected. It's about building bridges of understanding and mutual support between autistic women, the autistic community, and society at large – so we can all benefit.

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