Sample 2 – Article based on interviews with autistic females

Autism, Females and the Effects of a Late Diagnosis

            ‘I always felt like I was different, never quite fitting in.’                                          

For many women the realisation that they are on the autistic spectrum is life-changing. To discover that those feelings of being different, an outsider, were not figments of their minds but the result of undiagnosed autism can be a defining moment in their lives.   

            ‘To know that other people had actually experienced life like I had was a revelation that I can’t describe. I felt like I had found myself after 49 years of being lost.’                                                 

            The initial relief that all the feelings of not belonging were valid can be accompanied by disbelief that, as an adult, you suddenly have to think of yourself as an autistic individual.  It can be even harder for those around you to grasp that you have an actual disability particularly when many people may not have even realised that you were experiencing problems because autism in females is often hidden.

            Autistic females can be very successful at masking their social difficulties learning from a young age how to mimic other people and remain undiscovered. Behaviours may be inconsistent, with autistic females appearing confident in one situation but unable to cope in another. Yet fitting in is always a struggle however successful these females’ social masking skills are. Gradually a disconnect can develop and it can feel for these women as though they are leading a double life and hiding their true selves from the world. But this coping strategy of masking inevitably has consequences which over time can become more difficult to manage than the actual effects of autism. The psychological strain of being undiagnosed can lead to emotional and physical exhaustion through the constant stress of acting ‘normal’, not understanding who they are and being unable to express themselves in a way that reflects their autism.

‘I can put on a very good show of being ‘normal’, but the effort this costs me is enormous.’

            A diagnosis of autism provides legitimacy for the difficulties these females have experienced. This label offers a chance to redefine their life and understand how much they have had to deal with and overcome to get through life. Moreover, the constant sense of fear, stress and lifetime of alienation can finally be released and acknowledged through the validation of an autism diagnosis. Yet this process of discovery can bring up conflicting feelings that take time to process and accept before it is possible to move on from a past that may seem full of lost opportunities and unresolved trauma.

‘The emotions I’ve been through have swung from utter despair to elation, passing through confusion, anger and numbness on the way! I still have a huge amount of grief for the child that I was, and the woman that I became, because of the lack of support.’

Over time, this journey of learning about autism and what it means for them as an individual can lead to a sense of self-acceptance and a renewed energy to start again and move forward with this new identity.  

‘I had to review my whole life with this new AS lens, at last everything made sense but there was sadness for the fact that no-one has ever really known the real me and how difficult everything had been for me, all for no reason.’ 

            Until awareness of how autism presents in females is more widely understood many women will continue to be overlooked and not receive the diagnosis that will help them become who they are meant to be. The lack of understanding of autistic females can lead to the underlying difficulties that indicate autism being overlooked or misdiagnosed as a range of other conditions including bi-polar, depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Only when autism is understood from the perspective of those females affected, rather than the typically male stereotypes portrayed by the media, will these women become visible in their own lives, for who they are, as women on the autism spectrum.  

The world is changing. People are becoming more aware of autism, its challenges, and its blessings. And I fully intend to help bring about that positive change.’