Hi! I'm a third year history student who loves cats, music, tattoos and records! I'm passionate about disability and mental health advocacy and awareness :)
Having only received my ASD diagnosis last year, I’ve been experiencing a lot of ‘But you don’t look Autistic!’ crap. I would like to dispel some of the myths surrounding the linear idea of Autism and the (typically in those assigned female at birth) trait of masking. Autistic people are often portrayed as either kooky savants or completely reliant on their caregivers – a scale from high-functioning to low-functioning. In actuality, Autism is more of a wheel of traits that differ from person to person.
The DSM-5 Manual defines ASD as “persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction” and “restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests” present from early childhood, to the extent that these “limit and impair everyday functioning”.
Autistic traits you may not have considered
Here are some ways that ‘atypical Autism’ may present itself, using myself as an example. This post on Instagram explains more moderate Autistic traits that you may see in yourself:
- Unusual sensitivity to sensory stimuli, including being unable to eat, wear or touch certain textures
- Passionate, specific, and restrictive interests
- Usually happiest at home or in a safe, familiar environment
- Typically doesn’t have many friends and spends a lot of time alone – may struggle to maintain a group of friends and often feels like an outsider
- Hyperlexia (excessive and above-average reading) from a young age
- May be prone to mutism when burnt out, stressed or overwhelmed
- Can be perceived as aloof or a closed book to new people but very outspoken about special interests
- Ability to socially mirror/mask from a young age
- May be described as ‘quirky’, ‘strong willed’, or a ‘daydreamer’ as a child
- Often high achieving or self-taught in many skills or qualifications
- May be highly strung, rule-bound and perfectionistic
- Poor eye contact, issues with intonation and facial expressions, seeming monotone or poker-faced
- Repetitive behaviours which may not immediately register as stimming as they tend to be more socially acceptable
This is just the tip of the iceberg, and my favourite resource when I was undergoing my diagnosis assessment was Tania Marshall’s blog, as she explains symptoms that may fly under the radar until adulthood, leading to a late diagnosis like mine due to not meeting stereotypes.
Where stereotypes fall short
Studies have shown that Autistic boys outnumber girls four to one. This may be more to do with underdiagnosis than a lower susceptibility, with Autistic girls hiding in plain sight due to prolific use of ‘masking’ or adopting neurotypical behaviours in order to fit in. This is how I managed to go 19 years without a diagnosis!
Autism is marked by two unusual kinds of behaviours: deficits in communication and social skills, and restricted or repetitive behaviours. Children with autism also often have sensory processing issues. But here’s the hitch, according to Susan F. Epstein, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist: “The model that we have for a classic autism diagnosis has really turned out to be a male model. That’s not to say that girls don’t ever fit it, but girls tend to have a quieter presentation, with not necessarily as much of the repetitive and restricted behaviour, or it shows up in a different way.”
Dr Rachel Hiller of Bath University found that boys and girls with ASD look different as early as the preschool years, according to their caregivers. Little girls are also more likely than boys to mimic others in social situations and to want to fit in with other kids. Boys are more likely to withdraw and isolate themselves from others. The boys’ parents tended to be more worried about their sons’ isolation, while the girls’ parents reported more concerns about emotional outbursts such as meltdowns. Girls control their emotions better at school, where they act far differently than they do at home, according to several studies of children with autism and average-range IQ. Teachers are much less likely to voice concerns about girls than boys.
Psychologists have dubbed home time the ‘Four O’Clock Phenomenon’, wherein girls come home from school and are much more likely to have meltdowns as a strenuous day of masking catches up with them. Take it from me, acting all day is exhausting and I’m glad that I didn’t go to school much – this article explains all about masking.
My autistic presentation
If you connected with the previous list of traits, you may recognise some of my experience in yourself:
- Hyperlexia – I was a prolific reader and lover of books from the word go.
- Issues with intonation and a monotone voice
- I struggle to tell when people are being sincere or genuine, or whether they are joking or have ill-intent.
- I struggle to leave my comfort zone of routine and my ‘safe’ people and interests. This means that I am perfectly content reading the same things, watching the same things, talking about the same things, wearing the same clothes (when I was a kid, my mum would have to buy the same outfits in different sizes so I could still wear them as I grew) and eating the same things. I do have a wide range of interests, but I struggle with drastic changes to my routine and require time to plan.
- I am able to teach myself all of my qualifications as I am highly driven and motivated when it comes to my hyperfixations (which, luckily were all of my A-Levels and now my degree!).
- I carry the same hyperfixations with me as I age, so I just acquire more and more and never let any go. For example, one of my first fixations was Robin Hood and I still adore him!
- I struggle to maintain friendships due to my Autism and physical illness, so typically only have one main friend and can’t function properly in groups.
- I struggle to regulate my emotions and have bouts of deep depression.
- Masking – giving off the illusion that everything is great or fine, when is it not. The mask often comes off at home with crying, meltdowns, or shutdowns.
If you think you might be autistic, you may find a diagnosis helpful! The university can provide you with support and facilitate any needs you may have. For more information, check out the NHS page on autism in adults or check out the advice page from the National Autistic Society.