For many adults who identify as female, a late or adult autism diagnosis has several benefits. Many newly diagnosed autistic women say their diagnosis brought newfound self-understanding and self-compassion. But their diagnosis did not erase years of damage from living in a world that is hostile towards neurodiversity. Even armed with their newfound knowledge and understanding, many autistic adults continue to struggle in some key ways.
This is what Toronto therapist, Dori Zener, found after working with autistic teens and adults for over 10 years. She outlines a therapeutic approach called INVEST (Identify Needs, Validate, Educate, Strengthen and Thrive) in Advances in Autism.
Here are some issues commonly experienced by newly diagnosed autistic women:
1) Low self-worth
Self-worth is one of the main areas where autistic women continue to struggle. They may have been diagnosed and welcomed into the autism community, but a lifetime of not fitting in has a major impact on how they feel about themselves.
“Their self-worth is eroded from a lifetime of being treated as if who they are and how they behave is odd or intolerable to others. … Many express the mental strain they have experienced from the cumulative effects of living with unsupported needs due to unidentified autism — mental health challenges, issues with self-worth, self-esteem and fatigue.”Dori Zener
Even those who did not experience blatant cruelty or bullying on account of their differences were likely teased, left out of social functions, barred from work or school opportunities, and so on. Since females on the spectrum tend to be hyperaware of these slights, the effects can build up and exacerbate trauma or even lead to trauma disorders over time.
Issues with self-worth can keep the autistic person from getting close to or trusting others. The individual may have developed deeply engrained avoidant behaviours as a way to protect themselves from getting hurt. This is especially true if the autistic person was victimized in the past. (The majority of autistic women have been victimized, often multiple times.)
“Intense empathy and a drive to help others can attract unsafe romantic partners. All-or-nothing thinking can blind autistics from recognizing undesirable and harmful traits [in others].”Dori Zener
While these avoidant behaviours may indeed protect the autistic person, they can also get in the way of forming friendships and can lead to loneliness and social isolation.
2) Ongoing sensory sensitivities
While sensory sensitivity is not included in the DSM-5 criteria for autism diagnosis, it’s well-known that sensory issues are a key feature of autism. Sensory hyperreactivity seems to be especially pronounced in autistic females, so much so that many claim sensory issues are the defining feature of their autism.
Having an autism diagnosis often helps the autistic individual understand their sensory differences and challenges, but more support is often required to help reduce the impact of sensory issues.
“Autistic women seek therapy because they want a greater understanding of their unique autism profile and how they can function in this world without getting confused, overwhelmed and drained. They want to improve their day to day lives by learning strategies to enhance their executive functioning and minimize the impact of sensory bombardment.”Dori Zener
Sensory sensitivities are hardwired in the brain, and therefore cannot be changed. However, there are many changes a person can make to their physical surroundings (at home and at work) to help reduce the constant onslaught to their systems.
Being hyperreactive to sensory stimuli can be incredibly enjoyable. Autistic people often notice aspects of the environment that others miss, and they often react more strongly to art, music, and beauty in general. Once overwhelming or painful stimuli have been reduced or removed from an autistic person’s environment, efforts can be made to increase enjoyable stimuli.
“Autistic women have been referred to as empaths and emotional sponges because they feel things deeply and pick up on the emotions of others on an affective level. … Difficulties sorting and processing multiple emotions intensifies distress and creates an additional layer of emotional anguish.”Dori Zener
Just as with sensory sensitivities, the ability to read others emotionally can be profoundly rewarding for autistic people. It can lead to greater intimacy with others, a new career in a helping profession (such as in psychology or social work), and deep insight into the human condition. But it also has the ability to overwhelm, create anxiety, and send stress levels through the roof.
Autistic people often need assistance in creating healthy boundaries that help invite or retain positive and rewarding social interactions and keep negative and unhealthy social interactions out. Without this, the burden of carrying other people’s emotions and emotional states can lead to significant distress and even physical and mental illness.
Due to the above ongoing issues, it’s important that newly diagnosed autistic women seek therapy or counselling with a trusted psychologist or therapist. Ideally, the therapist is autistic themselves or highly experienced in working with adult autistic individuals. Some therapists use the phrase “neurodiversity affirming therapy” on their websites to indicate that they work from a strengths-based and pro-autism approach.
“The goal is not to help individuals become more neurotypical, rather it is about accepting and embracing one’s autism.”Dori Zener
The materials used to diagnose autism are biased towards male presentations of autism. This means that autistic males are far more likely to receive an autism diagnosis than autistic females.
Undiagnosed autistic females are more likely to be described as highly sensitive, shy, depressed, or diagnosed with conditions such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions.
Autism is not a mental health condition
Autism is a genetic neurodevelopmental difference. Many autistic people experience mental health conditions, either as a part of being autistic or because of the difficulties autistic people experience growing up and surviving in a world that is often hostile to autistic bodies and brains.
Why are so many autistic women not being diagnosed?
Autism scholarship is inherently biased and many healthcare practitioners are not trained to recognize autism in females.
Autistic females with average or above average intelligence (IQ) are most likely to go undiagnosed “causing them to miss crucial support that may accompany a diagnosis and alleviate some of their struggle,” writes Dori Zener, a clinical social worker in Toronto, Ontario.
A deep sense of being different
“For women with unidentified autism, anxiety comes from knowing they are different, but not knowing exactly why or how.”Dori Zener
Perhaps the number one feature of autistic women who reach adulthood or even late adulthood without a diagnosis is an unrelenting feeling of being fundamentally different than their peers. They often describe feeling alien or incapable of being understood by others.
Many undiagnosed autistic women begin masking from a young age in order to try to fit in, and some do very well at this (to the point where no one, not even the best diagnostician, would be able to detect autism). Masking is almost always unconscious and the autistic girl often assumes that everyone has to put the same effort in to exist in the social world.
Some undiagnosed autistic girls function relatively well in school by being part of a small, close-knit group of likeminded friends. These friends may themselves be autistic or otherwise neurodiverse (e.g., ADHD, Tourette’s, etc.) which may explain the affinity they feel for one another. Autistic girls are often known to befriend those who experience rejection or bullying or who are otherwise seen as different by the majority. (They may themselves experience a great deal of bullying.)
Alternatively, the autistic girl may spend non-academic time pursuing hobbies or extra-curricular activities with an intensity not seen in her peers. Their enthusiastic participation may help further camouflage difficulties with social pursuits.
Some autistic girls have been known to be deeply committed ballerinas, athletes, musicians, artists, actors, and so on — pursuits that cut into class time or time at school and/or time that would otherwise be spent socializing with peers. Their social differences are therefore often chalked up to their intense talents or passions.
Whether or not an autistic girl is able to develop friendships with relative ease, they continue to mask and camouflage to fit in — often with disastrous results.
“Masking can be detrimental to a person’s sense of self,” says Zener.
“[Masking] communicates inwardly that their true self is flawed and needs to be concealed or altered. Frequently this leads to identity crises, because after years of piling on layers of camouflage they are left wondering who they really are …
“Years of rote learning and mimicry permits them to pass as neurotypical, but this incessant extensive posturing leads to significant fatigue and mental strain. Their minds are full at the end of each day, trying to make sense of all of the conversations that took place and wishing they had made a different contribution. Overload can be lessened through social withdrawal and sensory deprivation, such as baths, dark quiet rooms, immersion into intense interests” and so on. — Dori Zener
Undiagnosed autistic women often graduate high school. Those from privileged backgrounds may complete college or university with relative ease and go on to complete advanced degrees. In the right environment, with the right familial and financial supports, they can excel.
Deep thinkers, deep feelers
Autistic women, however, whether diagnosed or not and even with the substantial benefits that privilege may bestow, often struggle tremendously.
They feel more strongly than most (for better or worse), need more time to process thoughts and emotions, second-guess themselves constantly, and — due to their tendency to be people pleasers and their inability to detect nefarious motives in real time — are often the targets of bullying and abuse at the hands of unscrupulous individuals.
Their tendency to ruminate and process information and stimuli very deeply leads to the tendency to develop PTSD more often and more easily than their non-autistic peers. This also means that autistic women are more susceptible to developing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, trauma disorders, and other co-occurring conditions.
Autistic women have a very high risk of developing suicidal ideation, eating disorders, and stress-related health conditions. Many report feeling suicidal by late childhood or their early teen years. Lack of diagnosis only further increases the severity of these conditions and the likelihood of developing suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
Many autistic women who are diagnosed as autistic in adulthood report that their diagnoses brought a deeper sense of self-understanding and self-compassion.
Am I autistic?
If you think you might be autistic, here are some things to think about:
- Explore the process of getting a diagnosis or autism assessment. This process will differ from state to state, province to province, and country to country. The number one thing to look for in a healthcare provider is whether they have experience and training in diagnosing autism in adult women or those who identify as female.
- Connect online with members of the autism community and ask questions. Facebook in particular has many groups to choose from, many of which are private. The group I started can be found here.
- Ask parents, extended family, and family friends about how you were as a baby, toddler, and child. Autism does not suddenly develop or show up in later life; autistic people are born autistic, meaning that autistic traits exist from day one. Many autistic females develop normally (i.e., they generally meet developmental milestones on time), but all autistic people will have marked sensory differences: they will be either overly sensitive to sensory stimuli (textures, noise, bright light, touch, etc.) or under-responsive. Many of these sensory differences may be evident from the first days or months of life.
A couple weeks ago, I published a story on Medium titled, Dear Sia, You Might Be Autistic. The response has been massive and I wasn’t expecting it.
Let me know your thoughts.
Introducing our global directory of autism psychologists and other healthcare providers who are trained in diagnosing autism in adults, and specifically autism in women and those who identify as female.
This list was compiled through recommendations from patients and submissions from psychologists and other healthcare providers through the private Facebook group, Female Autism Conversation.
If you would like to be considered for addition to the directory please contact us.
This is a video for healthcare professionals — including doctors, therapists, psychologists, social workers, and nurses — who may be confused about autism in women, girls, and those who were assigned female at birth (afab). If you suspect that you may be autistic, feel free to share this video with your healthcare provider.
“There is increasing evidence that … autism symptoms in women and girls are frequently overlooked and misdiagnosed.”Robert T. Muller
Autistic females and some males who have not yet received an autism diagnosis often go through life with only partial explanations for their difficulties and differences. These explanations usually come in the form of psychiatric and mental health misdiagnoses, incorrect, or partial diagnoses.
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Social anxiety disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Anorexia and/or other eating disorders
It should be noted that just as these conditions can co-occur in various combinations in those who are not autistic (aka neurotypical), autistic individuals can also have one or more of the above conditions. The majority of autistic individuals, for example, are diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression and/or PTSD at some point in their lives, either as a direct result of autism or from living in a world that is discriminatory to autistic people and autistic traits.
Many individuals on the spectrum have significant and numerous experiences of being bullied, rejected, sexually abused, and otherwise mistreated and victimized. There is significant evidence showing that those on the spectrum are more naive, trusting, and desperate for acceptance from peers — and therefore more likely to get into abusive relationships (due to not noticing or responding to red flags sooner) and other scenarios that put them at risk.
So why should we be concerned?
“I’ve been through quite a long journey, being given about 10 mental health diagnoses along the way. It was getting to that point where it felt like I was caught in the middle of a guessing game. … ‘We don’t really understand — let’s keep throwing labels and see what sticks.'”Emily Swiatek
When an undiagnosed autistic adult is diagnosed with any of the above conditions or other mental health conditions, it’s only part of the picture.
An undiagnosed autistic individual who receives misdiagnoses or partial diagnoses can experience significant problems with stigma and discrimination (especially in the case of schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder), and even discrimination from healthcare professionals who specialize in treatment of these conditions.
They can also receive years of unnecessary psychotropic medications and various forms of talk therapy with little to no positive impact on their lives (often due to the therapist or psychologist not understanding autism and therefore not able to address the main presenting concerns). This can lead to significant frustration, hopelessness, and a tendency to self-blame.
Most importantly, undiagnosed autistic adults who have received wrong or partial mental health diagnoses lack the knowledge that will set them on the path to self-acceptance.
For autistic individuals of any age, sex, gender, and ethnicity, self-understanding and self-acceptance are key to contentment and thriving in life.
Some females are diagnosed as autistic at a young age, but the majority go undiagnosed until their teenage or adult years. A large number are never diagnosed. Why is this the case?
The girls that get diagnosed as autistic at a young age often present with more male-like or “traditional” autistic characteristics. One might say that they present with more “obvious” autistic traits. While the girls who get diagnosed early in life are NOT “more autistic”, their characteristics DO happen to be more in line with the stereotypical, incomplete account of autism, on which the DSM criteria are based.
Both the earliest research in autism and the majority of research in autism have been done in men and boys. This has led several autism experts to conclude that significant revisions to the diagnostic criteria and assessment tools are required to ensure reliable autism diagnosis in all genders.
The other reason that girls might be diagnosed early is that they had the good fortune of receiving an autism assessment by a healthcare professional who was well-versed in the many faces of autism (aka, autism’s heterogeneity) and highly knowledgeable about the ways that autism can present very differently in females.
Here are some ways that autism presents differently in females:
Autistic females are generally more socially-inclined and socially-capable than their male peers. While their social lives will usually be different than those of non-autistic females — generally having fewer friendships and spending more time alone — they are less likely to be seen as different or abnormal.
Autistic females are better able to unconsciously “camouflage” or “mask” their autistic characteristics and difficulties in such a way that they generally fit in and do not seem different from their peers. There are incredibly high emotional and physical impacts of camouflaging, which can result in significant risk of developing mental health disorders and autoimmune disease. High risk of suicide is correlated with camouflaging behaviours.
Autistic women and girls tend to have fewer repetitive behaviours (such as hand-flapping and rocking back and forth), or are more inclined to hide these behaviours from others.
The special interests of autistic women and girls tend to be more varied and seen as more socially-acceptable than those of autistic men and boys (though there are clear exceptions). Autistic women and girls are more likely to have special interests in makeup, celebrity culture, crafts, literature, poetry, music, and fine art.
Undiagnosed autistic girls who present with behavioural or emotional problems are likely to have these problems blamed on “feeling blue”, shyness, being highly sensitive, family problems, trauma, or other issues, while undiagnosed autistic female teens and women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder. Usually the last option, or the option that no one thinks of, is AUTISM.
Read more here.