Stereotypes cloud women in the autistic community — the perception that they need to be 'cured,' that they're just shy, and that they don't have an interest in dating are just a handful of examples. It's stigmas and misinformation like this that often mean that women are diagnosed with autism later in life, if at all.
In Australia, at least one in 150 people are affected by autism, though others argue that that number is closer to one in 70. While men and boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed, it doesn't mean that women and girls are four times less likely to have autism. Systemic prejudice and a lack of research and understanding afforded to autistic women mean that misdiagnosis is all too common.
Here, we chat to four autistic Australian women from various walks of life about what they wish more people knew about autism.
"Autistic people experience empathy! Think of it like this; we feel a range of empathy, no more or less than those who aren’t autistic. The trope that we don’t is harmful for several reasons: firstly, autistic people can miss out on diagnosis and support because many of us are highly empathetic and think this means we can’t be autistic. That was me. Secondly, a lack of empathy is also a hallmark of a stereotypical psychopath. A movie villain. The link contributes to stigma for autistic people.
"I think this myth came about because we communicate differently and are very solutions-oriented, so might try to help solve your problem when you really wanted a hug and a vent. I can only speak for myself though, because if you’ve met one autistic person then… you’ve met one autistic person.”
"I wished people knew more about how autism affects women compared with men. Nearly 80% of us are misdiagnosed with other conditions like eating disorders, borderline personality disorders or anxiety. Our special interests are also more 'acceptable' compared with autistic boys, such as animals, books and music, instead of trains or video games.
We’re also more likely to have co-occurring conditions like ADHD alongside our autism. Instead of stereotyping us based on movies such as Rain Man, it’s good to take the time to sit down and listen to our lived experience. Learn from other prominent autistic women out there, such as Grace Tame and Hannah Gadsby, as examples of autistic women who have thrived in their professions."
"Functioning labels not only increase stigma around autism, but they are also incredibly damaging to our lives. Because autism is a neurotype rather than a disease, the neurotypical urge to fit everything into a certain box doesn’t quite work with us. ‘Asperges’, ‘high needs’, ‘high functioning’ and all the other array of functioning labels out there are attempts by neurotypicals to fit our varied symptoms in a neat little description, and to try and compartmentalise autism. Functioning labels are, simply put, ableist terms dictating how ‘normal’ we appear, and how well we ‘fit in’ to a society that was never built to accommodate us.
"Much like all the other humans out there who have good and bad days, my ability to ‘function’ fluctuates daily. Some days I’m able to mask (hide) my autistic traits (stimming, echolalia etc) and sit at a café and order a drink for myself, and other days my speech ability disappears (non-verbal) and the mere thought of even being near a noisy café will result in an uncontrollable meltdown of screaming and tears. And, on top of that, what many neurotypicals don’t realise is that both of those examples result in a two-day recovery where all I can do is recluse into my safe, silent space. So, no, I’m not low functioning, nor high functioning, I’m simply autistic."
"I wish people knew that autism isn’t something that needs to be changed, but something that we need to accommodate for. It's something that we need to understand after years of misrepresentation and lack of information. I wish the expectation wasn’t on autistic people to continuously mask and hide the factors that cause us to struggle or to appear differently. I wish that information and awareness around autism was widespread and loud enough for us to demand change, not to always be expected to change."