I have had many personas in my life, fundamentally I have always been the same, but what I choose to show is often selective and carefully thought through. That isn’t to say that any of these ‘personas’ are contrived fakes, I am not a sociopath I am a female with Autism who has learnt that the only way to get through life is to hold part of yourself back and try to disguise the rest. I can go through many in a day, from a highly organised business woman wearing a metaphorical power suit, handling my multiple clients with the efficiency and seriousness commonly undertaken by people such as the Foreign Secretary (I am unsure who that is exactly but I am sure we are quite similar and our work equally as important), to an extremely cool music person akin to one of those gangster rappers, cruising in my hood with my car stereo turned up blaring out Eminem to the elderly passerby’s on a Tuesday afternoon. Neither very successfully I’d like to add, but just enough to give me the confidence to not really care. Every human on the planet does it automatically, but it is amazing how many you can get through just to keep you on top on things when you have to manually manage them.
As stressful and as highly energy and time consuming a strategy this may be just to cope with everyday life, it is thought that many females with autism are slipping through the net by employing such masks of disguise. It is often the case that females with autism are identified with other mental health difficulties before they are even noticed by specialists as possibly being on the spectrum, most likely because they have got so good at hiding their impairments. Doctors, parents, therapists and teachers see very isolated problems in girls, they see a bit of social anxiety and ‘shyness’, or perhaps mood instability, but never the full picture. The classic clues such as lack of eye contact and obsessive and odd interests have been covered up and given more socially acceptable disguises, such as obsessive interests in pop stars or books. Both of which are fairly common interests for most people and would not draw attention; however, it is the intensity of such interests which become abnormally heightened in a female on the spectrum. At this juncture I shall attempt to give you another example from my own bank of embarrassing aspie behaviours. When I was 13-14 years old I developed a keen interest of the pop star Pink, much like all my peers at that time. However, instead of just being content to listen to album and catch up on her antics in Heat magazine, I obsessively listened to her Misunderstood CD for days on end, learnt all the lyrics, learnt how to mimic her voice on the songs, clad myself out in some cargo trousers, white ‘wife beater’ vest and silver dog tags so we even had the same look (in retrospect we didn’t but the intention was there), and followed her every move online (in a non stalkerish kind of way). This obsession eventually died down and now I just get obsessed over new albums and repeatedly listening to the same tracks over and over again, much to my partner’s, family’s and ex-housemate’s annoyance. The point being that my interest could clearly be classed as ‘unhealthy’ yet it wasn’t obvious to anyone on the outside, not in the same way as it would have been if I had an obsessive interest in the different patterns of moth wings or an obscenely large collection of train timetables.
So what does the research say? To date there has been very little on this specific topic, although it has been widely discussed and theorised on. Tony Atwood (2007) described how such a coping strategy may be a female specific reaction to being different, and in order to achieve superficial social success women imitate people deemed as socially competent. In their report on the missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis of women on the spectrum, Gould and Ashton-Smith (2011) found girls were typically more socially aware with a greater desire to interact socially, and could follow social actions using delayed imitation of other children.
The reason that such research is important is because if females are simply learning to mimic better than males with autism, and are better able to disguise their impairments, then many females struggling with the disorder may be missing the chance of a diagnosis and appropriate help and support. As I recently wrote about in my blog post The Misdiagnosis of Women on the Autism Spectrum: A Shared Story, the stress caused from constantly trying to hide your difficulties can be overwhelming and lead to other health problems including mental health difficulties. What is clear in the research is that females and males with the condition share the same core triad of impairments; researchers at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge conducted a behavioural comparison of male and female adults with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Conditions, and discovered that the severity of childhood core symptoms did not differ between the sexes, and neither did they differ in self-reported empathy, systemising, anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive traits. However, females with the condition seem to have more self-reported autistic traits and their parents report more social problems (Hutman, Bolte and Pouztka, 2007). What this suggests is that females may be more aware of their ‘abnormalities’, and may have higher expectations placed on them to be ‘normal’ by their parents, and perhaps society as a whole, compared to their male counterparts. Typically females are expected to be polite, friendly and socially competent, placing more emphasis on fitting into society than males, whose individuality is typically more accepted and often celebrated. If you look at famous men and women who display autistic traits, our perceptions of them are often completely different. Such men are viewed as geniuses and leaders, whereas the women are viewed as unfriendly loners with mental health problems. Before I start a feminist rally this is a huge generalisation meant for dramatic effect and cannot be applied to everyone. However, there will always be differences in the way the sexes are viewed and treated in society, differences which mean that women with autism spectrum disorders may feel pressured into trying to fit in, and as such learn to mimic those around them.