by Kajsa Igelström, PhD
Autism in women is thankfully being increasingly recognized, even though we still have a long way to go to ensure adequate support for everyone. Improvements occur steadily through personal blogs, autobiographical books, increased research funding to studies on sex differences, and social media movements like #shecantbeautistic. Autistic women are beginning to find venues in which they can express themselves and find acceptance.
The Women's Questionnaire
We put out the Women's Questionnaire at the start of 2017, inviting autistic women to share their thoughts on any topic pertaining to being a woman on the spectrum. We received responses from 27 women (10 from the US, 9 from the UK, 3 from Finland, 2 from Australia, 1 from New Zealand and 1 from Germany). This was a pilot study aimed at getting inspiration for further studies and to give a voice to those with things to share.
We'll split our report and discussion of the result over several blog posts. This first one deals with one of the most dominating themes in the Women's Questionnaire: the challenge of getting a diagnosis.
The wish for an earlier diagnosis
In a previous pilot questionnaire, the Strengths & Challenges Questionnaire (we'll report more on that too eventually!), we asked the question of whether respondents felt they should have been diagnosed earlier. We did not have enough male respondents to make a comparison between sexes, but the answer was pretty clear among the 55 women who answered all relevant questions:
A whopping 82% said that they strongly (64%) or somewhat (18%) agreed that they should have been diagnosed earlier in life.
None of the women had been diagnosed before the age of 11, and 75% had been diagnosed after the age of 20. (Note, however, that our primary recruitment venue was closed Facebook groups, which almost certainly biased our sample towards women who did not get enough help from society).
Many years of suffering
It is likely that the age of diagnosis is decreasing, but today's adult women were often diagnosed after a childhood/adolescence/adulthood of turbulence, alienation, depression and other problems. Such experiences during brain development are difficult to recover from, although an autism diagnosis can often be the start of a process towards self-acceptance and better social experiences.
In the Women's Questionnaire, respondents were free to write anything they felt was important, and thus no specific questions about diagnoses were asked. Despite this, the most common theme, expressed by a large proportion of the women was a grossly delayed diagnosis and many years of suffering from not understanding themselves or others.
Their first-hand experience was often that professionals lacked critical familiarity with autism in females, with some women even being told that they can't have autism because they are female. Superior skills in camouflaging or compensating for difficulties were mentioned frequently as a barrier to diagnosis and a source of alienation.
Women's first-hand experiences
There is probably no better way to illustrate the problem than letting the women speak for themselves. Here are a few quotes from our respondents (edited for brevity and spelling that would reveal her geographical origin):
"We are conditioned from birth to be friendly and accommodating as women [and] this gets in the way of diagnosis. People do not see me as autistic because of this."
"Many people fail to understand that autism presents differently in women /.../ Even medical professionals /.../ seem to think that if you can have a conversation with them, you couldn't possibly be autistic."
"/.../ [N]o one ever recognized the signs of autism for the first 26 years of my life, so I went through it struggling and thinking nothing could help /.../ and/or gas-lighting myself into believing [my problems] weren't real or I was being a hypochondriac."
"I was diagnosed in my thirties. I was diagnosed with different things before, including ADHD, depression and dyspraxia. I don't disagree with the diagnoses but a lot of solutions offered did not work because of my underlying autism. /.../ A lot of my issues became more manageable once I realized I had autism."
"I am very sad I wasn't diagnosed earlier."
"It took a long time for anyone to recognize the problems I have, since I compensate a lot. No one realized until I told my therapist and the doctor that I myself suspected I had autism."
To summarize, our small pilot study, together with voices on social media and other venues support that autistic women need more attention, help and understanding.
We only studied adults, so it is possible that the next generation of females is already having a slightly better experience. (It will be at least a year before I get the opportunity to talk to younger autistic girls.) Regardless, we are still hampered by a paucity of knowledge about female autism, and there may be many undiagnosed adults out there.
What can we do?
As you know, we do outreach and neuroscience, and spread the word (please keep sharing your stories!). Some of our respondents suggested that autism could be screened for at an early age, and the screens could be better targeted to identify women. I know the autism field is indeed moving in that direction. Many adult women are finding self-acceptance and community support on venues like Facebook, where closed groups exist that only accept autistic women. In fact, our participants have sometimes mentioned such venues as "life-savers".
Anyway, we'll keep working on this. More posts are in preparation on other aspects of the results from our questionnaires, and we are planning to put out a questionnaire about specific topics related to pregnancy, birth and/or child rearing.
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