What You Need To Know About Autism In Girls and Women, by Christy Wilkens

In December 2020, at the age of 43, I learned I was autistic. Really, I learned nothing new. I was simply given a new lens to understand the things I had always known to be true about myself. But without that lens, I had struggled to understand those truths, and even fought against and loathed them.

I am easily overwhelmed by sensory input. It’s hard for me to engage in conversations with multiple participants. I forget names and faces. I consciously mimic the body language, tone, and facial expressions of people around me. I immerse myself so deeply in my “special interests” that I lose track of the real world. And when I run out of capacity, my brain and body just shut down.

These traits made homeschooling six children an unusually large challenge. Eventually, it wasn’t feasible anymore, and I spent no small amount of time feeling like a failure and beating myself up. But these same traits are very common to many autistic people. In fact, they are some of the hallmarks that led me to wonder about a diagnosis in the first place.

Along my path of autism education and diagnosis, I learned that — as an autistic female with low support needs who is also intellectually gifted — my “flavor” of autism is the most likely to be missed. On average, autistic females are diagnosed later than males, and we are often misdiagnosed with other conditions first. Here’s why.

Existing diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorders are based on research using boys and men.

The seminal studies used to define autism and establish diagnostic criteria have relied on data from study participants who were overwhelmingly male. It should be no surprise, then, that boys are diagnosed at much higher rates than girls.

Recent research using brain-activity measures has shown that the brains of autistic girls are markedly different from neurotypical girls, but different also from autistic boys. New and better studies are needed to investigate what’s known as the “female autism phenotype”, and should lead to more accurate diagnoses for females of all ages.

Girls and women are more socially adept at camouflaging and masking their autistic traits.

Girls who are diagnosed at young ages tend to be the ones who have the most profound (and most “male”) autistic traits: extreme repetitive behavior, restricted interests, and lack of social reciprocity. Many autistic girls, though, hide in plain sight because they study and adopt the behaviors of the people around them, practices known as camouflaging and masking. These practices come at a steep mental cost, though, and eventually the strategies may fall apart, especially during the socially delicate middle grades or at major life transitions.

Girls and women often have “special interests” that are more socially acceptable.

Autistic boys might memorize train schedules or line up cars by the dozens. Autistic girls, though, might be obsessed with more typical interests like fashion, horses, or art. The difference lies in degree. They are interested in these things with a ferocity, passion, and depth that is atypical.

Where autism co-occurs with other diagnoses, their effects compound and obscure each other.

Autism and giftedness can both lead to extreme social awkwardness. It’s why, especially given the complicating factors already mentioned, gifted autistic females are under-diagnosed. But autism can also be either compounded or hidden by other neurodivergence or mental health issues, like anxiety, ADHD, or mood disorders. Diagnosing autistic females becomes even trickier in the context of related neuropsychological issues.

Accepting my autism as a blessing

Why write an article like this for a website about raising Catholic kids with disabilities? For one thing, this is a crucial issue in the autism community (and beyond!) that needs wider acceptance. I am an autistic female, one who reads a lot about disability, and I only learned this information within the last twelve months of my 43 years on earth. If this can help even one girl or woman to gain a diagnosis or simply greater self-understanding, thanks be to God.

Also, when we advocate for more tailored and precise medical and psychological care for women (autistic or otherwise), it is because we acknowledge the countercultural but Catholic belief that females and males live, behave, think, and feel differently and that these terms are not interchangeable.

Finally, I struggled with my own autistic traits for years, practically and spiritually, because I did not understand them as autism. Things I thought were bugs were actually features. “Why did you give me all these children, God, if I can’t even tolerate being home with them?”

It turns out that God knew exactly what He was doing, when He gave my children to me and me to them. Part of what He was doing was calling us all to greater compassion for others and for ourselves; sanding each other’s rough edges down to reveal the underlying truths about who He was calling us to be and what our particular work in the world is.

Autism, while burdensome in a neurotypical world, is also His blessing to me. It has afforded me an empathy with the outcast, a closeness in prayer, a responsiveness to music, and an ability to contemplate that many of my friends do not share.

The Autistic Path to Heaven

An autism diagnosis, like any other diagnosis, reveals only one part of our full humanity. It should not be an all-encompassing identity; we are children of God first. However, autistic traits, like any other inherited or acquired traits, provide parameters that shed light on our individual path to heaven. This way, not that. These crosses and virtues, not those. Autistic girls and women have a unique and still-unfolding role to play in the Body of Christ.

Christy Wilkens, wife and mother of six, is an armchair philosopher who lives in Austin, TX. She writes about disability, faith, doubt, suffering, community, and good reads. Her first book, Awakening at Lourdes: How an Unanswered Prayer Healed Our Family and Restored Our Faith, a memoir about a Lourdes pilgrimage with her husband and son, was released by Ave Maria Press in October 2021. Find her at christywilkens.com.

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