I can’t remember standing out as a young child and had lots of friends at primary school. Now senior school was very different. I didn’t look weird or dress in a way to draw attention to myself. Still, I couldn’t seem to fit in with my peers. Years later, I found out I was on the autistic spectrum and set out to learn all about female Aspergers.
I’m calling it female Aspergers because that’s what the specialist that diagnosed me said when she tried to explain it to me. Naturally looking at the stereotypical cases of autism, I proclaimed “that’s nothing like me”. She smiled and said, “well, female Asperger’s is so hard to diagnose because it’s often mistaken for other conditions”.
In this post, I want to discuss what it’s like to be a woman on the autistic spectrum and hopefully dispel some of the misconceptions people often have.
The Aspergers Checklist
When I began to write this post, I wanted to see how accurate online Asperger’s checklists are for adults. I completed this checklist and scored towards the higher end of the scale. So why then, did I start getting unwell at 12 years old, spend 12 years in the mental health system and still not receive a diagnosis until I reached 24?
Specialists call it female masking, and it makes complete sense. Us females are often so good at hiding the traits of our condition; even the professionals don’t notice it. So what is masking? Let’s look at some examples.
Mimicking Social Behaviours
I remember doing this all the time at senior school. I’d watch people and follow their cues. For example, when someone was upset within my group of “friends”, I never knew how exactly to react. Was I meant to say that the other person was a complete bitch? I did that once, and when they made up, it was revealed I’d always thought of this girl in my group as a total bitch. Not good!
After that experience, I hung back and followed the cues of others. If they smiled, I smiled. When they made a compassionate noise, I copied. It’s a great way to camouflage your insecurity, and as time goes by, it becomes second nature.
I used to plan all the time. Seriously. I would think about how to get out of the car, the way I should say hello to someone and try to have a conversation topic others would find interesting so that I wouldn’t feel left out.
Even something as simple as asking a teacher a question felt like a huge challenge I had to prepare for, and I did everything I could to avoid speaking up in class or taking part in large presentations. When I did have to, I made sure I never went first so I could watch others and copy them.
When is the right time to hug a friend? When should I join in with playful pushing? The list of whens was endless, and I still suffer with it today. I followed others because I genuinely couldn’t work out the simple things that teenage girls know. One of my group brought the new girl at school to meet us, and I remember feeling a wave of panic come over me as I tried to figure out whether or not to hug her.
Eye contact was often the most challenging thing to navigate, and I still don’t understand it today. If you look away too much, then it comes across as shy or rude. But if your eye contact is too intense, it can seem threatening to others. Eye contact is the one thing I’ll never be able to master or even mask very well.
The Impact of Masking
Well, as I’m sure you can imagine masking is exhausting. It’s a full-time job trying to fit in, and for a teenage girl, it gets very distressing. You know you’re different, but you don’t see the reason for it.
Naturally, a lack of confidence and self-esteem creeps in, and you spend your time trying desperately to impress people and end up feeling more isolated than ever. Autistic men usually have physical responses to stress, but women internalise everything.
We feel like aliens on a strange planet, and looking at the behaviours of others can become so tiring, it’s easy to see why us girls retreat into our corner and are reluctant to come out.
Female Aspergers and Depression
It’s especially common for females to suffer from a range of other conditions, including eating disorders, OCD and depression. I have MDD (Major depressive disorder), and while I’ve managed to embrace and accept my autistic tendencies, I’ll never be able to handle the depression that occurs frequently.
For some, like myself, depression is a condition that occurs due to the way our brains work, and we’ll have to take medication to remain stable. But for others, depression can be caused by the stresses of navigating life with Aspergers.
If you feel you might be suffering from depression, The National Autistic Society has a great website with a depression checklist here.
The Traits of Female Aspergers
Once I received my diagnosis and looked at how Aspergers in females presents itself, I noticed a lot of similarities with myself. Nobody looks at me and assumes I’m on the autistic spectrum. Most people comment that I’m shy or slightly standoffish, but they’re always surprised to learn I have Aspergers.
If you have these traits, then you can go to your GP and ask for a specialist assessment.
How Do We Think?
Most women with Aspergers are incredible deep thinkers. It’s common to escape into a fantasy world when things get too much, and tend to be quite creative. When other girls are shopping or talking about boys, we’re more likely to be reading a book or listening to a beautiful piece of music.
How Do We Behave?
Aspergers is a spectrum disorder, and the way we cope with it defines how we behave. For example, I’ve always preferred to be in the background, and I’m regarded as being very quiet and difficult for others to get to know. I do this because I’m unsure of how to behave and don’t want to embarrass myself. It also means that like many other women, I struggle with saying no.
Now for some other women, they over-compensate, meaning they’re often very loud and don’t understand personal boundaries. These females can be a bit too touchy-feely and come across as domineering (think Penelope Trunk).
Humans? Take Them or Leave Them. But I Need My Animals
A LOT of women with Aspergers love animals – and I mean love them. I can take or leave most people, and spending time on my own is much better than hours of small talk in a pub. But animals are non-negotiable for me.
I would do anything for my animals and love the connections I form with them. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that we don’t have to pretend, but I couldn’t imagine life without being able to interact with animals.
Living With Female Aspergers
I used to hate having Aspergers and would sit in my room, wishing I could be “normal”. Now, at 32 years old, I’ve come to accept it a lot more and don’t waste time trying to fit in with other women.
The fact is, I get on better with males and I do have some friends I regularly see. But I know that I’m too introverted to be a social butterfly and that’s OK.
Female Aspergers isn’t a sickness or disease; we just think differently to you. There will always be people that judge me for being different, but as an adult, I’m able to let that go and make time for those who like me for who I am.
The one thing I do wish is that I had my diagnosis as a teenager. Perhaps then accepting life as it is would have been a lot easier, and I wouldn’t have spent so much time beating myself up.
If you think you might have Aspergers or know someone with traits of the condition, then speak up, get an assessment and start learning about how to embrace your brain instead of hating it.