It has been assumed that most autistic people were men and boys, this is wrong; there are many women, girls and non-binary people on the autism spectrum.
Although we know more about the experiences of autistic women and girls, society's understanding of autism has been limited by outdated stereotypes and incorrect assumptions. It is important that autistic women and girls receive a diagnosis (or recognise that they are autistic) so they can understand themselves and access support. However, many autistic women and girls struggle to get a diagnosis, receive a diagnosis late in life or are misdiagnosed with conditions other than autism.
Autistic characteristics in women and girls may differ from those of other autistic people. They might seem to have fewer social difficulties than autistic men and boys, but this could be because they are more likely to 'mask' their autistic traits (though the stress of doing so can result in anxiety and overwhelm). At school, autistic girls may be more likely to be part of a friendship group and this could be a reason that teachers don't notice their differences. They may also be missed if their academic achievement masks difficulties they are facing in other areas.
Some of the core characteristics of autism are having ‘repetitive behaviours’ and highly-focused interests. Stereotyped examples of these include rocking backwards and forwards, and a fascination with trains. However, in autistic women and girls these behaviours and interests may be similar to those of non-autistic women and girls, such as twirling hair and reading books, and as such may go unnoticed despite the greater intensity or focus typical for autistic people.
Doctors and other healthcare professionals can lack knowledge about how autism may present differently in women and girls. This means women and girls may be misdiagnosed with mental health issues or their autistic traits may be missed amid the symptoms of co-occurring conditions. Some tools used to diagnose autism are designed to identify autistic characteristics that may be more common in autistic men and boys. This means the process may not be as sensitive to characteristics more commonly found in autistic women and girls.
In November 2022, NAS launched ‘Now I Know’, a campaign highlighting the experiences of late-diagnosed autistic women and non-binary people from across the country. It’s worth looking at the stories on the NAS website and if they resonate with you going further and talking to a professional to see if a diagnosis of ASD could help you !