It’s no secret that more males than females are diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Evidence shows that there are differing behaviors between autistic males and females. Some feel the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorders, the DSM IV has neglected to address this important issue. The theory of autism being a form of an “extreme male brain” may be at work as well—and not always to the advantage of us unique and varied autistic ladies!
When people question if autism is really different in females than it is in males, I find myself thrown back into a nice neat square box from which it seems there is no escape.
Though he’s behind the “extreme male brain” theory, Dr. Simon Baron Cohen has stated that we shouldn’t assume that autism would look the same in both sexes. This is no moot point, as there are a lot of females who are either passed over, or denied a diagnosis, due to the lack of sensitivity in regards to ferreting out the distinctive differences related to how autism may present from individual to individual.
Dr. Judith Gould from the National Autistic Society states that characteristics such as shyness and over-sensitivity, common in autistic people, are sometimes deemed to be typically female traits.
David Skuse, a psychiatry professor from Institute of Child Health at University College London adds that because girls’ general aptitude for communication and their social competence helps some females on the autistic spectrum “pass”—they pick up on their difference and carefully mask it by mimicking other girls’ speech, manner, and dress.
As an autistic female, I can identify and attest to Dr. Skuse’s commentary, as it is true in my case. When I disclose my diagnosis as an autistic person, it is not uncommon for me to hear these types of remarks:
“You seem so with it! Matter of fact, I have always admired how together you seem to be.”
Meanwhile, I am thinking about how shattered someone’s image of me would be if only they knew how cantankerous and unreliable my executive functioning skills are. I conjure images of people visiting me at my home and becoming alarmed at my sudden change in behavior if too many things are set out of place. (Also mentionable, is my incessant staring off into space, trying to remember what it is that I was, or am supposed to be, doing.)
“But you speak so well and seem to have so much going for you! You’re so articulate. Gosh, I would never have known!”
When I hear these types of comments, which are often well-intentioned, it is reiterated that autism myths—including what autistic people should look and act like—need to be stamped out for good. It is especially important to realize that autistic people possess uneven skills. For example, being articulate, wearing make-up, and dressing in clothes that I think are fashionable, does NOT mean that I have it together.
Haven’t we all been warned not to judge books by their covers? Simply put, casually pointing fingers—or not—at autism is a subjective business.
Here are some suggested links for further exploration on this topic (mini-disclaimer: there are a few insensitive references about autism in a some of the links below):
- BBC News: Autism ‘may be missed in girls’
- The New York Times: What Autistic Girls Are Made Of
- The Telegraph: Autistic women: a life more ordinary
- Street Roots: Pretending to be normal: A photo story of Asperger’s syndrome
About the author, Elesia Ashkenazy.