Autism and its Invisible Females

As a woman with Asperger’s, I relate to the belief that women on the autism spectrum are invisible.

In my job as a substitute teacher’s aide, I am often assigned to autism units. It didn’t take me long to realize that the overwhelming majority of students in these classes are male. Their behaviors are usually more visible than the few female students there are.

As to the question of why are men more likely than women to have autistic traits, or receive a diagnosis of autism, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre who, along with PhD student Emily Ruzich, led the Cambridge/Channel 4 study. They found there’s a lot of research showing that testosterone changes brain development.

Males on average produce more testosterone than females, even when in the womb, and the data shows that children with autism on average have higher levels of the hormone than typically developing kids.

This backs up a 2009 study that looked into the prenatal testosterone levels of typical four-year-olds. “The higher the child’s prenatal testosterone, the more autistic traits they had,” says Professor Baron-Cohen.

These findings suggest the critical factor may be hormone levels rather than gender and could be pivotal to further understand the higher rates of autism diagnosis in men. But, as Professor Baron-Cohen points out, “It’s only one piece of the puzzle.” He adds: “The nature of science means one new finding opens up a hundred new questions.”

Wendy Lawson, author of “Build Your Own Life: A Self-Help Guide For Individuals With Asperger Syndrome” and a self-described autistic woman, believes girls on the spectrum may be underdiagnosed because if they have obsessive interests (often a feature of spectrum disorders), these are more likely to be socially acceptable than the obsessions of boys with autism. Girls, she says, might get into reading or animals, which seem normal, “so people don’t pick up on our social difficulties.”

Jennifer McIlwee Myers, who has Asperger’s and is the author of “How to Teach Life Skills to Kids with Autism or Asperger’s,” concurs. She says boys on the spectrum are more likely to respond to their difficulties with anger and aggression, while girls are more likely to “deal with issues quietly,” cultivating extreme “niceness” and imitating other girls’ behavior. Boys who have the vision problems that sometimes go with autism spectrum disorders may hit other boys, she explains, while girls might instead cling to other girls. And a boy who attacks other kids is going to get intervention a lot faster than a girl who cries quietly every day. Myers says there are “a lot of invisible girls” who are autistic but never get help because nobody notices.

I personally didn’t realize how I try to act like other people until I learned I was on the spectrum. I act “normal” to avoid making people mad and not being singled out as different.  Females on the autism spectrum may just be better at imitating neurotypicals than our male counterparts.  And that imitation makes us invisible.

It Isn’t Easy

Marsha England
Marsha England, Special Education Teaching Assistant at Elementary School and Elementary Schools (2014-present)

For what it is worth, this 59-year-old adult who lives on the Spectrum knows you don’t have it easy. I am a substitute teacher’s aide and I am often assigned to assist in special education because that’s where substitutes are most needed. Since I work in various schools throughout the week, one day here and one day there, I have worked in several special education classes throughout a suburban school district in the Dallas area. In my four years of experience, I haven’t met one student for whom classwork was no sweat. Special education students struggle just as all other students do.  Those students who are gifted with high IQ don’t have it easy. There are pros and cons of being a genius as there are those who burn the midnight oil, so to speak, to make a decent grade.

In truth, no one has it easy. Everybody has something on their plate they wish wasn’t on their plate. It is a common mistake most of us make, including me, that someone or a group of people have it easier than them. The rich have it easy? No. The most attractive person you ever did see has got it made in the shade? No. The student with the highest grade point average has it easy? No. Poor, rich, high IQ, low IQ, middle of the road IQ, it doesn’t matter — no one has is living on easy street!

As for your friends who say you got it easy in special education, they are wrong. If they could literally be your identical twin for just a matter of minutes in your class, they would know how wrong they were. It might not change any of their minds, but what I would say to any of those friends is, “How can you know I’ve got it easy until you walk in my shoes? If you could, would you like to trade shoes with me?”

The Uniqueness of Autism

She’s on the Spectrum but she doesn’t know that yet. She’s 5 years old going on 35. This kindergartner reminds me that if you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person.

Most students in the autism unit are on the shy side. As one with Asperger’s Syndrome, I am not a chatterbox either. But this child has not met a stranger. It doesn’t matter how long has it been since I’ve subbed in her class.  When I walk in, she makes a beeline towards me as if she sees me every school day.

One of her repetitive behaviors is asking people their name over and over again. The teacher warned me about this the first time I had laid eyes on her. The teacher and classroom aide advised me not to answer every single time she asks. I didn’t but my silence didn’t dissuade her from asking every half hour.

When I escorted her to and from gym class, we passed by several teachers. There wasn’t a single teacher she didn’t say hello and give a hug. She knew all the teacher’s names. I’m good at remembering faces, but names? Forget it! I asked the teacher when we returned from the gym if the child knew every teacher on campus by name and she said with a smile and a wink, “She’s working on it.”

The last time I was with her class, she repeatedly asked not only my name but my mother’s name, my brother’s name, etc.  Finally, I turned the tables on her and asked her what was her name.  Her answer: “NOYB”.  I said what???  She said, “none of your business.”  Okay, she is a smart aleck too, but an adorably cute one.