Autistic Women & Girls

How many autistic women do you know? Probably more than you think. Autism is typically thought of as something which affects mostly males but recent research shows that it could be affecting just as many females; it’s just that they don’t exhibit the same signs.

Girls and women with autism tend to ‘mask’ socially. That is, they mimic other people as a way of blending in but they also don’t show their true feelings or opinions. As you can imagine, this becomes exhausting and means they may well go unnoticed and undiagnosed for many years.

So what are the signs of autism in girls?

Challenges with Social Skills

According to Katherine G. Hobbs, a researcher and journalist for Autism Parenting Magazine, “One of the more classic symptoms of the autism spectrum can be seen when looking at difficulties involving social interactions. This is much easier to spot in men as girls and women tend to adapt to social situations more naturally than men.

It is inherently easier for autistic girls to mimic the behaviors of others when it comes to certain interactions at least initially.

This can change in the teenage years. During puberty when social interactions become more complex and the requirement to start understanding social cues becomes more important, the social difficulties of girls with Asperger’s syndrome become more obvious.

For example, young girls with Asperger’s might perform at an average to an excellent level at school, even socializing at what appears to be an age-appropriate level. “Some girls with Asperger’s will manage to keep their difficulties under wraps at school, but might have ‘meltdowns’ at home, where they feel safe to relax and release the feelings that they have been squashing down all day.”

Subtle clues such as difficulty maintaining eye contact during social interactions or escaping difficult events through mental processing or daydreaming can provide clues that girls may be autistic.”

Visual Thinkers

While we may associate boys on the spectrum as being predominantly visual thinkers, this can apply to girls too. In fact, one of the most famous women with autism is Dr. Temple Grandin and she pioneered revolutionary concepts in animal care due to her ability to think in pictures. In her book Thinking in Pictures, she writes about how this has proved to be such an advantage: “I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but […] visual thinking has enabled me to build entire systems in my imagination… I value my ability to think visually, and I would never want to lose it.” It is now widely recognized that many women and girls on the spectrum tend to also think and process information visually, rather than verbal thinkers.

Sensory Issues

Many women with autism experience issues with “filtering” sensory input, which can lead to an overload of information and the need to focus intently on one thing in order to avoid being overloaded.

People with ASD may be highly sensitive and over-responsive to sounds, sights, smells, touch, and tastes. Many women are particularly sensitive to the feeling of clothes and makeup, pulling off clothing tags and opting for comfortable clothes over fashionable clothes and shoes every time. 

According to Claire Jack Ph.D. , some signs of sensory processing issues may include:

  • Disliking tags in clothes
  • Being sensitive to high-pitched noises
  • Finding some sensations (such as wool or nylon) difficult to cope with
  • Disliking tight or uncomfortable clothes or shoes
  • Choosing practical clothes over “attractive” clothes
  • Disliking feeling of foundation or lipstick
  • Disliking feeling of substances on fingertips (e.g. fruit, dirt, roughness)
  • Being affected by bright lights
  • Feeling overwhelmed in supermarkets/shopping stores
  • Feeling overwhelmed or disliking being hugged/kissed by acquaintances
  • Desire for spatial organisation, such as colour coordination
  • Disliking loud environments (such as concerts)
  • Having a strong reaction to certain scents (such as perfume)
  • Strong aversions to types of foods

(Please note that this list is not exhaustive and may be indicative of a different condition.)

Special Interests

My favourite researcher into the presentation of autism in girls and women is Tania Marshall MSc, an Australian psychologist who has produced a extensive profile of women on the spectrum. What is particularly interesting about her research is the sheer number of cases she has studied and the variety of ways autism presents. In Dr. Tony Attwood’s book ‘The Complete Guide to Aspergers Syndrome’, there is mention of how a girl with autism may have similar interests to other girls her own age; it’s just the intensity and dominance of the interest in her daily life that is different. I feel also, though, that women and girls on the spectrum do tend to have a variety of special interests and those interests are not quite so idiosyncratic as the ones we may see in boys on the spectrum.

Here is an excellent list of possible special interest from Tania Marshall’s profile of women with autism:

  • Current research shows that individuals on the Spectrum do not have “restricted interests”, but rather a lifetime of interests that can vary. A special interest may involve the person’s career, Anime, fantasy (think Dr. Who, superheroes, and Harry Potter), just to name a few, writing, animals, reading, celebrities, food, fashion, jewelry, makeup, tattoos, symbols and TV Series (think Game of Thrones). This is not inclusive
  • May attend ComicCon, SuperNova, love dressing up as a character.
  • Ability to “hyperfocus” for long periods of time involved in the special interest, without eating, drinking or going to the toilet, is able to hyperfocus on her special interest for hours, often losing track of time
  • Loves and revels in solitude, peace, and quiet. Solitude is often described as “needing it like the air I breathe”
  • An intense love for nature and animals
  • Often not interested in what other people find interesting
  • May collect or hoard items of interest
  • Introspection and self-awareness. Many women spend years trying to understand themselves, reading self-help and psychology books and wonder why they feel so different, from another planet or that the “Mothership has dropped me off on the wrong planet”.
  • Justice Issues
  • May know every lyric to a song or every line to a movie from repetitively watching them or listening to them

It’s a sad fact that many girls on the spectrum are not diagnosed until they are shows signs of depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. They may even end up being misdiagnosed with a completely different condition. Thankfully, awareness of the way autism presents differently in girls and women is increasing, and with it, hopefully, the tools and therapies to help will increase also. I urge anyone who feels they, or a family member, may have autism to look at Tania Marshall’s blog post “Moving Towards a Female Profile“.