By the age of 18, a whopping 80% of autistic women remain undiagnosed, with a staggering number of studies excluding girls and women entirely. The result? A limited understanding of symptoms, long-term difficulties with work and relationships, the development of mental health disorders like anxiety and depression, along with masking.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by differences in social communication and behaviour. One aspect of the autistic experience that has long been overlooked is known as masking – this refers to the effort individuals with autism put into camouflaging or hiding their autistic traits in social situations. While masking can be observed in both genders, it has become evident that it is more common among women on the spectrum. Unfortunately, medical professionals skip over this common phenomenon, leading to late – and often times, non-existent – diagnoses.
Understanding Masking: The Social Camouflage
Masking involves adopting behaviours that may not come naturally to an individual with autism, with the goal of blending in or conforming to social expectations. This can include mimicking neurotypical social cues, suppressing stimming behaviours, or even imitating expressions and tones of voice. The effort put into masking can be exhausting and may contribute to stress and mental health challenges.
Research suggests that women with autism may be more motivated or adept at masking their autistic traits, often due to societal expectations and gender norms. From an early age, girls may be socialised to be more socially attuned and empathetic, making them more likely to engage in masking behaviours to fit in. Additionally, the diagnostic criteria for autism have historically been based on male presentations, which may contribute to underdiagnosis and misdiagnosis in women.
While masking can serve as a coping mechanism in social situations, it comes at a cost. The effort to constantly monitor and adjust behaviour can lead to mental fatigue, anxiety, and a sense of disconnection from one's true self. Individuals who mask may find it challenging to express their needs, share their experiences, or seek support because they fear the potential exposure of their authentic autistic traits.
Despite its prevalence and impact, masking in autism has received less research attention compared to other aspects of the spectrum. Understanding the nuances of masking is crucial for developing more inclusive and accurate diagnostic criteria, as well as providing appropriate support and accommodations. By recognising and validating the challenges associated with masking, we can work towards creating a more understanding and supportive environment for individuals with autism.
Through the Mask: Embracing Neurodiversity
As awareness grows, there is a growing movement to embrace neurodiversity and celebrate the unique strengths and perspectives that individuals with autism bring to the world. Breaking free from the mask involves fostering an environment where authenticity is valued, and individuals with autism feel accepted for who they are. By acknowledging and addressing the complexities of masking, we can contribute to a more inclusive and compassionate society for everyone on the autism spectrum.
Let’s take a look at some of the other signs of autism girls and women are more likely to experience – note boys and men with autism may also experience these, just as not all women with autism will mask.
Communication Differences: Delayed or atypical language development, a tendency to speak in a formal or pedantic manner or challenges in understanding and using non-verbal communication, such as gestures and facial expressions.
Sensory Sensitivities: Heightened sensitivities to sensory stimuli, such as sounds, lights, textures, or smells. Difficulty filtering out irrelevant sensory information.
Repetitive Behaviours: Engaging in repetitive behaviours or rituals, such as hand-flapping, rocking, or repeating certain phrases. Strong adherence to routines and resistance to changes.
Special Interests: Developing intense interests in specific topics or activities Immersing deeply into hobbies or subjects, sometimes to the exclusion of other activities.
Anxiety and Depression: Higher rates of anxiety and depression, often stemming from the challenges of navigating social expectations and sensory sensitivities.
Camouflaging: Some women with autism may engage in camouflaging, where they consciously mimic the behaviour of neurotypical individuals, making it harder to identify their underlying struggles.
Social Challenges: Difficulty in understanding social cues and norms. Unusual social interactions, such as trouble with initiating or maintaining conversations. Struggling with forming and maintaining friendships.
While the signs can differ from what doctors and the media often suggest, they're no less real. If you're struggling and in need of support, head on over to Empower Autism.
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