For many years, the narrative of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has been largely shaped by gender stereotypes. Which can lead to significant underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis in women. Women on the spectrum, much like their male counterparts, experience social difficulties. However, these challenges are often harder to discover due to the women masking. And they are complicated by the societal expectations of women to be socially adept and well-mannered.
For example, women with Autism may face skepticism in the form of statements like “She can’t be on the spectrum because she makes eye contact” or “She has friends, so she can’t be autistic”. This reveals a profound lack of understanding when it comes to how Autism presents in women. Understanding others’ intentions, interpreting social cues, and navigating the unspoken rules of society pose significant challenges to those on the autism spectrum.
Gender Differences in Mental Health Diagnoses
The complexity of these social interactions intensifies during middle school. This is a critical period for girls with ASD as they struggle to “keep up” socially. This age group often becomes the target of harsh relational bullying and social rejection. This is due to social interactions becoming more sophisticated and the demands increasing for understanding non-literal language, such as sarcasm. Understandably, symptoms of depression and anxiety may set in. It is more culturally acceptable and statistically likely for females to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression than males.
Unfortunately, this causes the underlying autism traits to be overlooked. Furthermore, societal norms have led women with ASD to develop more sophisticated strategies to conceal. This is otherwise known as masking, their autism traits. These strategies could involve polite gestures, such as nodding and smiling, even when the nuances of a conversation are not completely understood.
This is a Concept Called “Masking”.
From an early age, women with ASD have been misinterpreted. Because their brain is wired differently from their neurotypical peers, they may experience stronger emotions and sensations. But instead of receiving support for these differences, they are often told to “stop overreacting” or “be more like everyone else”. These invalidating messages can lead to feelings of shame and a belief that there is something inherently wrong with them.
Rather than being accepted for who they are, autistic girls learn to “mask” their true selves. Masking refers to the process of camouflaging or suppressing autistic traits in order to fit in and be accepted by society. It is a coping mechanism that is often used as a survival strategy for women on the spectrum. However, masking all day can be exhausting and take a toll on one’s physical and emotional well-being.
Autistic Girls and Women Tend to Become Extreme People-pleasers
In order to “fit in” or feel accepted, autistic girls often become extreme people pleasers and mask their true selves. They have learned that their own feelings and needs are not as important as those of others. This leads to a disconnect from their own emotions and an inability to effectively communicate their needs. As a result, they may develop low self-worth and feelings of imposter syndrome.
Many women on the spectrum struggle with knowing who they truly are because they have spent so long trying to fit in and mask their differences. From morning until night, they are trying to pretend to be someone they are not. And, deep down, they are only masking because they feel they are bad or broken and need to hide it. This is the harsh reality for many autistic women and girls. They endure the physical and emotional toll of masking in order to conform to societal expectations.
Maybe Women Develop Better Compensatory Strategies Due to Social Pressure
Women are held to a higher standard to be socially aware and are therefore given more implicit and explicit social training. Maybe this is because being shy and averted when someone speaks to you is more acceptable for females than males in our society. At the end of the day, it’s okay to be shy and polite because you’re a girl, and so potential autism traits can get missed. However, when autistic girls or women don’t mask they can be direct, which can come off as blunt, rude, or offensive. They may share an observation that seems harmless to them, but the other person takes it as an insult. This is confusing for an autistic girl who has good intentions.
They may learn to withdraw or begin masking because it’s safer than the painful experience of sharing their thoughts and being misunderstood. Autistic girls crave connection like anyone else, but it can be difficult when society tells them they must act a certain way to fit in and be accepted. They tend to process emotions more intensely and may have difficulty expressing them in ways that are deemed socially acceptable. For example, an autistic girl may have a blank facial expression, leading others to believe she is cold or uncaring when she is actually experiencing intense emotions. This constant misinterpretation can lead to feelings of being unseen and rejected.
Despite Society’s Expectations, People on the Spectrum Have Unique Strengths and Talents.
These can include intense focus and attention to detail, advanced pattern recognition abilities, and a deep connection to music or art. However, they can also lead to a great deal of suffering, especially when they are misunderstood or overlooked. Understanding your own autistic traits can help you find self-compassion for your challenges and the many ways you have been misunderstood. It can also enhance your self-awareness and help you make sense of your life, making you a more confident and integrated woman on the spectrum.
Embracing Neurodiversity and Building a Supportive Community
Many autistic women have learned to mask their autism well, but this can take a toll on their social and emotional well-being. It is important for them to trust their instincts and seek support from understanding communities, therapists, or allies to navigate the challenges of living as an autistic woman. By embracing neurodiversity and building a supportive community, autistic women can find acceptance and empowerment in being their authentic selves.
Getting a formal diagnosis of autism can be helpful for some. But, others may find that a self-diagnosis is enough to provide a sense of relief. Then they seek support from others who understand their experiences. This is why communities like Neurodiversity School exist. These communities offer an online space for autistic women to connect with others and find support. Having a community where one feels heard and understood is crucial for survival, and women on the spectrum have been marginalized and misunderstood for far too long. It’s time for that to change, and for autistic women to feel empowered and supported in their identities.
Autism may bring challenges, but it also brings unique strengths and talents. Autistic individuals are often creative, honest, passionate advocates for justice, equity, and other important causes. And for therapists, working with autistic clients can also be a learning experience. By doing so, they help them better understand and embrace their own authentic selves. Every day, we should be grateful for the relationships we have with autistic women and the insights they bring into our lives. Together, let’s create a world where neurodiversity is celebrated and embraced, and all individuals are free to live authentically.
Women With Autism in San Diego and Beyond Deserve to Be Seen and Heard
It’s time for society to recognize and appreciate the unique strengths and challenges of autistic women. Let’s work towards creating a world where they are seen, heard, and supported in all aspects of their lives. Whether it’s through self-discovery, building supportive communities, or seeking therapy from neurodiversity-affirming professionals. Let’s empower autistic women to embrace their true selves and thrive. At Open Doors Therapy, we offer a range of services that are tailored to the individual needs of neurodiverse individuals. If you’re interested in learning more about our team, our services, and which may be right for you, you can follow these steps to gain more information:
- Reach out to our autism therapy practice and schedule a free phone consultation.
- Learn more about our team
- Start feeling heard, seen, and confident by meeting with a therapist who understands what it means to be autistic.
Other Services Offered with Open Doors Therapy
At Open Doors Therapy, we proudly serve the San Diego community and beyond. We believe that everyone deserves to live their authentic life without fear of judgment or exclusion. This is why our team offers a variety of services so we can help individuals on the spectrum and their loved ones. Our California-based practice is happy to offer a variety of services that include: individual therapy, parent counseling, and group therapy. In addition, we also offer social skills groups. These include college students with autistic traits, young adults with autism, women who identify as neurodiverse, a mother’s group, and an online parent support group. Please feel free to visit our Autism Resources page for info and helpful resources. Learn more about our services by reaching out or visiting our blog today!
About Tasha Oswald Ph.D. and Her Team
Dr. Tasha Oswald, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist (#30423) and the Founder of Open Doors Therapy and Neurodiversity School. Boasting over 15 years of experience in developmental and clinical psychology, Dr. Oswald, alongside her dedicated team, specializes in providing compassionate therapy for neurodiverse individuals and putting a spotlight on the unique strengths and struggles that autistic women face. Open Doors Therapy offers a safe, nurturing environment for embracing neurodiversity and achieving personal growth. They provide invaluable support and guidance to navigate life’s challenges, empowering individuals on their unique journeys of self-discovery.