The most up-to-date statistics tell us that Autism is approximately three times more common in males than females but this statistic is constantly changing, with the ratio appearing to even-out over time. More women and girls than ever before are being diagnosed with Autism, particularly later in life. But why is this happening? And why have we as a society been getting it so wrong up until now?
Outdated Stereotypes Of Autism in Popular Culture
Think about what you know about autism. Now think about media portrayals of autism. Chances are you’re picturing Rain Man, or perhaps Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-time. Often, when an autistic person is portrayed in popular culture, the creators rely on out-dated stereotypes, casting them as rude, robotic geniuses. This feeds into the mind of the general public, leaving them thinking ‘well, I’m not like that, so I can’t be autistic’.
Pop culture has failed to capture the nuance of the autistic experience and it has certainly failed in the most part to depict a realistic female experience. Thankfully, however, this does seem to be changing, as there has been a real shift towards ‘own voices’ in the media of late. Some excellent examples include the award-winning memoir, Strong Female Character by comedian Fern Brady and award-winning children’s novel, A Kind of Spark by neurodivergent author Elle McNicoll, which was also adapted into a BBC series.
Ability to Mask
Women and girls may not be diagnosed with autism as frequently as men because they are better at hiding the common signs of the condition, according to research published in 2019. This is known as ‘masking’.
Masking means hiding or disguising parts of yourself in order to better fit in with those around you. It is an unconscious strategy all humans develop whilst growing up in order to connect with their peers, but for autistic people the strategy is often much more ingrained.
When speaking to The Guardian, one of the authors of the study, Dr Will Mandy, from University College London, said: “In its most complex form, [masking] involves the adoption of a persona. In women particularly, this might involve observing other women or girls who appear to be popular, and copying their gestures or clothing,”
‘Masking’ can be extremely stressful and difficult for a person with autism and can result in severe anxiety and overwhelm, and those who engage in it show more signs of anxiety and depression. The recent BBC documentary Inside our Autistic Minds featuring Chris Packham examines the effects of masking particularly well.
Differences in Special Interests
Some of the most well-known characteristics of autism are things like repetitive behaviours and highly-focused interests, and these are often the kind of things that parents, careers and teachers will look out for in children in their care. Some stereotypical examples of these include things like hand flapping, rocking back and fore, or a fascination with vehicles or dinosaurs.
In autistic women and girls, however, these behaviours and interests might be more similar to those of their peers, for example finger flicking or twirling hair, reading books or learning languages. As these may be considered typical in non-autistic young women and girls, they may go unnoticed. This is despite the fact that the intensity and focus is likely to be significantly greater.
Gender Stereotyping and Sexism
Whether we like it or not, male and female children are treated differently. They are socialised differently. We as a society have different expectations about the way we think children should behave and this sexism can feed into the lack of understanding around autism in women and girls.
The comedian Fern Brady talks candidly in her memoir about how her autistic traits were considered to be bad behaviour, and, in an interview wIth Autism UK, the comedy writer Sara Gibbs says ‘many of my early autistic traits were written off as drama and hysteria’.
Indeed, the very tools that we use to diagnose autism in individuals could be considered sexist – autism assessments are less sensitive to autistic traits more commonly found in women and girls and this, of course, impacts their effectiveness.
What Can We Do About It?
The answer, of course, lies in education. Books and television programmes such as the ones mentioned above go a long way towards helping people to understand what autism in females can actually look like, and hopefully this will spark a sea-change in the number of people seeking diagnoses. This is only half of the battle, of course, as diagnostic tools need to further evolve in order to be more inclusive of more female characteristics.
Wade Therapy Services provides private Autism Diagnostic Assessments in South Wales. Founded by Chris Wade, a Consultant Speech and Language Therapist with more than fifteen years experience of working in multidisciplinary diagnostic teams in the NHS and privately.
If you are interested in finding out more about an assessment for yourself or a loved one, please do get in touch.