The Gas-lighting of Women and Girls on the Autism Spectrum

Artwork by Mirella Santana

Of all the traits attributed to Women on the Autism Spectrum, there remains one that not only continues to go unrecognized as a valid trait but has also suffered the fate of being reconstructed by professionals as a rationale for denying Women a diagnosis.

The trait I’m referring to is that of developing a strong sense of self-awareness.

In almost every description pertaining to the experiences of Women with Asperger’s Syndrome there is evidence of the development of an early, inexplicable sense of ‘otherness,’ to be found.

This sense of ‘otherness’ expands exponentially as girls grow older and develops into a keen sense of self-awareness.

Their strong sense of self-awareness in turn, increases their sensitivity toward any and all experiences that suggest or confirm their perceptions of themselves as different.

Undoubtedly, whilst at school, undiagnosed spectrum girls will find themselves showered, almost daily, with an endless array of situations that expose their responses and reactions as differing from those around them.

As a result, many spectrum girls may find it difficult to relate to their peers and feel that they have very little, if anything at all, in common with them.

Given that young girls are not yet bound by the pressure to conform, many will quiet happily choose to pursue their own interests instead of seeking to feign an interest in the activities of their peers.

Early schoolyard experiences can therefore be seen to reinforce and exacerbate the already strong sense of ‘otherness’ that many young girls on the spectrum feel yet do not necessarily view as being an issue for them.

It is not until the teenage years arrive that ‘feeling different’ truly becomes an issue.

During this time, the combined weight of parental, peer and societal pressures to conform begins to bear down on them.

Suddenly they find that any and all previous levels of tolerance and acceptance towards their uniqueness of being, are replaced with the message that their right to happily pursue their own interests, has been irrevocably and irrationally rescinded without their consent.

Now they are expected to act like everyone else and enjoy participating in only those activities that are deemed appropriate for teenage girls to engage in.

These radical and unexpected changes usher in a period of overwhelming personal confusion and sensory overload as the ability to escape into their own comfortable zones of ‘personal interest’ are stripped unceremoniously away from them.

During this time, some Spectrum girls will begin to experience melt downs due to not being able to escape either the sensory or the emotional pressures that surround them.

Often these meltdowns will mistakenly be viewed as deliberate acts of rebellion and punished accordingly.

Some spectrum girls, on the other hand, will set their minds to the task of trying to figure out exactly what the new rules of engagement are in order to seek out any loopholes that may still allow them to continue to pursue their own interests without falling foul of their peers.

This is often a process of trial and error which still has the potential to attract punishment for any and all inadvertent social infractions.

Yet no matter which option an undiagnosed teenage girl chooses the consequence all tend to lead to the same experience of psychological harm.

Psychological harms experienced include:

An extreme sense of personal disorientation

Confusion over what has taken place.

Erosion of their formerly strong sense of self.

Self-doubt.

The onset of the belief that being different is equivalent to being wrong.

Creation of the belief that no one will ever like them for whom and how they truly are.

Acceptance of the idea that they cannot be themselves and still be liked.

The combination of all of these psychological harms explains the overwhelming sense of social confusion, lack of self-esteem, lack of confidence and the propensity for self-doubt that many (both diagnosed and undiagnosed) adult Autistic women report experiencing.

It is worth noting that all of the negative messages that undiagnosed Autistic girls/women experience whilst growing up, produce the same responses that one would expect to find in an individual who has been the victim of prolonged emotional and psychological manipulation or abuse.

Another term that has more recently been applied to describe the way in which this form of emotional and psychological manipulation can be subtly delivered is Gas-lighting.

Gas-lighting is renowned for creating a sense of personal disorientation and self-doubt in those to whom it is applied.

Yet sadly, the process of gas-lighting for undiagnosed teenage girls does not end upon their reaching adulthood.

For many women who recognize themselves within the folds of female Autism later in life, the process of seeking understanding and validation in the form of a diagnosis from a professional, often leads to yet another round of gas-lighting.

If a woman expresses the capacity to recognize and understand that she may be Autistic, she’s then told by professionals, that she’s too self-aware to be on the Autism Spectrum and is summarily dismissed.

If a woman expresses feeling that she may have been let down by others or betrayed by a society that only values certain ways of being, she is told by professionals, that she has a persecution complex and is summarily dismissed.

If a woman expresses the capacity to feel love, empathy or even hints at the potential for having a sense of humor, she’s told by professionals, that she can’t be on the Autism Spectrum as Autistic people (according to some) lack the ability to feel any of these things.

If a woman’s married, in a relationship or has children, she’s told by professionals, that she can’t be on the Autism Spectrum as she obviously has both the capacity to maintain a relationship and care for others. Autistic women (supposedly) cannot do this.

If a woman is single, reclusive and/or unemployed, she’s told by professionals, that she’s suffering from depression and that all of her other issues will go away once she begins medication and starts getting out more.

And worst of all, if a woman is educated, articulate and well-informed about Female Autism and why she feels she belongs within it, she’s often told by professionals that she’s making things up about herself in order to gain attention and is instead diagnosed as having either a Personality Disorder or Bi-Polar Disorder.

The tendency of those within the psychological profession to constantly deny the validity of an Autistic woman’s understandings of herself by instead reinterpreting and reinventing her words as evidence that she is too self-aware to be on the Autism spectrum, is in itself, the ultimate form of Gas lighting.

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62 thoughts on “The Gas-lighting of Women and Girls on the Autism Spectrum

  1. Very informative. I hadn’t considered how this could be Gaslighting; I’ve only knowledge of that from the Narcissist Predator’s target perspective. Non-Spectrum women so often hear these negating comments from healthcare professionals; I can only imagine that it must be incredibly difficult to get a diagnosis and concrete treatment.

    1. hat struck a chord for me! This could have been straight out of my autobiography. My most recent brush with a doctor’s ignorance was getting a print out of basic NHS history for a private consultation elsewhere..the first entry age 14 (medical history obviously begins late) ‘Personality Disorder (NOS)’. I discovered that NOS is GP speak for ‘Not otherwise specified’ and what that means is anybody’s guess? It was succeeded by various ups and downs of biological symptoms very understated in some places and total fabrications in others. We should all take a good look at our medical records at some point. I argued with that GP that ‘Personality Disorder (NOS)’had no bearing on the chest pains i was having and could she delete it from the letter? This request was refused. I argued that it conveyed just enough to make a surgeon think i was unreliable but not enough to explain whatever it was had been observed and badly recorded. I was aware i had anorexia at that age but that again is a symptom not a diagnosis? I had a major meltdown over this after many years of stoicism. I never went for my appointment as i could not face a new doctor who would already see me as flawed. My GP said the offending statement was only there so that doctors could help me..but how? I have had no special treatment or consideration for anything other than periodic depression all of my life? Why would it be any different now. I was told the comment may not be deleted from records but it can be added to…so what are they going to add? I am still waiting.

  2. Very refreshing essay – despite my being male – I felt the same in my childhood and early teens – indeed I read somewhere that the word ‘autism’ actually means ‘otherness’ and that is the meaning it has borne for me all my life – I was about five and half years old when I sought the meaning of the word ‘autism’ because that’s how old I was when I was diagnosed with it – until then I was called a ‘parfait savant’.

  3. Gaslighting is a new term for me. Had to look that up. Will look up the film Gaslight later.

    If one professional doesn’t help then we can always seek a second, a third or a fourth opinion. Must be draining though, repeating the process. I think we ourselves can be the best professionals for learning about ourselves, we have so much to gain by finding out more, especially if one is “educated, articulate and well-informed about Female Autism.”

    I think I have not voiced my Aspergers outside my home for the reasons you write about today. You have given it a name for me, the fear of being doubted, the gaslighting. I don’t need to have funding or medicine so I can avoid the hurdles you mention with the medical profession. I have felt so understood this year after blogging online about Aspergers. It is enough for now. Actually it is more than enough. It is what I needed. It is the first time to feel really understood. Sure there is much to figure out but I don’t feel alone.

    I was just watching a little on the Refrigerator Mothers documentary today and an AfroAmerican mother was saying that because she wasn’t Caucasian, considered middle class or considered well educated then her child couldn’t possibly have been autistic. Her son was diagnosed as emotionally disturbed instead by the team of professionals. That was the 1950s and 60s. We don’t seem to have progressed too far on the autism diagnosis except that now the parents are not to blame. There is much confusion, a lack of understanding and a lack of empathy.

  4. I was told – yes you have autistic traits but you can’t be autistic because you were able to work as a nurse for 10 years. If you had autism you would not have been able to tell when someone was in pain. Your problems are all because you have a low self esteem.

    I am in the process of getting a second opinion from someone who is actually asking me indepth questions and listening to my answers.

    1. The idea that people with autism cannot tell when someone is in pain is utter nonsense, many autistic people are EXTREMELY sensitive to other’s pain.

    2. Aspies frequently become nurses or carers, so that’s absolute tosh.
      My Hubby and I are both Carers and I was diagnosed at age 47 having been a carer for most of my life. Tony Attwood is one of the leading professionals in the Autism diagnosis sphere, Has he got it wrong too? Perhaps you should send your consultant this short video to watch. It may educate him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZcDbPB-aA0
      Has you health professional considered that your low self-esteem may be due to the fact that you may have Aspergers perhaps!? Just putting it out there.
      Good luck with your second opinion.

      1. Thankfully, my GP believes that I am aspie even without the official dx. What I did do was see someone privately, and after 2 X 3 hour sessions with them, they told me that it is highly likely that I am aspie with concurrent sensory processing difficulties. That’s good enough for me.

        As for the NHS psychiatric team, this is not the first time they have gaslighted me as an institution and I have told my GP that I will refuse any future referrals to them.

  5. What a great post…every word so so true…I doubt myself because of these beliefs in others..I feel as though I don’t belong anywhere..I know I’m on the spectrum so why all the attitude from others…you can’t know unless you are autistic..it’s an inner knowing that defise all traits ever written. We just know!

    1. Yes we do know… Life would be so much easier if professionals were capable of truly hearing our truths when we speak them instead of constantly trying to reframe them to fit some very out dated ideas of how women should be and how all Autistic people should be…..We can be women who are self aware and still be women who are also Autistic…. Autism should not be being decided on personality traits but rather on our different ways of experiencing and processing the world around us….. Sigh…. One day, I hope they get it.

  6. From wikipedia ” In an influential 1981 article Some Clinical Consequences of Introjection: Gaslighting, Calef and Weinshel argue that gaslighting involves the projection and introjection of psychic conflicts from the perpetrator to the victim: “this imposition is based on a very special kind of ‘transfer’… of painful and potentially painful mental conflicts.”

    I have personal experience of this, itvhas defined many of my personal relationships.

    Empathy without boundaries and over self awareness can be used against you, not just when seeking diagnosis.

    In fact an experience of this kind of manipulation could and should probably be seen as a marker.

    I am haunted by the suffering of so many women – and men – who have gone to their graves in misery, suffering in not being heard, or understood, blaming themselves and being surrounded by a society and individuals that reinforce that it it our problem not theirs.

    Our culture would rather drug or institutionalise us than accept that the current view might be wrong.

    It also leaves us incredibly vulnerable, as we are traumatised by having to paper over the cracks, and cut off our limbs to fit in, and survive. Even the strongest of us become victims of this, and vulnerable to manipulative people, until we have the key that unlocks our understanding, and resets our sense of self as unconditionally worthy of love, understanding and support.

    The stigma of diagnosis has to vanish. The denial of the scale of this problem has to end. The sexism that states that autism is a set of purely male characteristics and almost entirely experienced by men can just f**k right off too.

  7. This is very interesting, I have only considered the possibility that I am on the spectrum in recent years. I have on a number of occasions, when I try to explain my feelings and perspective to my husband, only to be met by a completely different interpretation of events, that has led me to accuse him of gaslighting me. I have seen more therapists and doctors than I can count anymore and been told so many times that I “present well”. Meaning they can’t see what’s wrong with me because I have hidden myself so much behind the mask of survival. Part of me even wonders why I bother trying to “get well” and function more like everyone else when I am just not made that way. I do have to function in this world though even though it’s not made for me.

    1. Peta. You are neither sick nor broken. “Getting well” is not the task or goal you need to pursue. If you are confident that you are different in the Autisic way and not suffering from a brain based, pathological medical disorder like OCD, clinical depression or PTSD…then RELAX, be yourself. If you need some accommodations at work or home ASK. A quieter or more secluded work station. Less music? No music? Different lighting? Less clutter? Do you detest crowed, chaotic public places? Enjoy shopping online. Basically, don’t be embarrassed about your “special needs”. Many people CAN be sympathetic and learn to understand your differences. If something in your life is triggering anxiety, depression or compulsive (detrimental) behavior. Don’t force yourself to “tolerate” it until you have looked into getting it changed. This is where “owning” a diagnosis is most helpful. It a liscence for requesting tolerance and accommodation. Regardless, be yourself. Be unusual. Be quirky. Learn to smile and disarm people’s fears. Discover ways to be friendly that suit you. I send text messages like, “can I pick up a coffee for you?” Trying to be “neuro-normal” is exhausting and frequently leads to a breakdown.
      I am 55 and beginning wonder if I am not also “on the spectrum”. I have an adult son with high functioning autism and a language disorder. I have other family members with mental illness. I pretty much know the difference. Being on the spectrum, being yourself and asking for acknowledgement of your needs is NOT sickness or brokenness. Jean McCall

  8. Blimey that is definitely gaslighting! I was awarded two personality disorders for knowing I had Aspergers/ autism and for grieving over 4 relationships two of which were friendships, all went wrong due to my Aspergers and one of the 4 had had a stroke and was paralysed. ( but of course I wouldn’t be capable of caring about that would I lol)

    1. I have raised an autistic son and I am a bit “aspie” myself. I have observed that most adult Aspergers people are quite articulate and ready to discuss feelings, relationships and such. I have noted that non Aspergers “high functioning” autistic people, such as my son, ALSO have a keen interest in feelings, social justice, good and evil and the somewhat mysterious world of relationships. Some of these brothers and sisters who are language disabled, even to a mild degree, may not say much about this stuff. That doesn’t mean they are not thinking, feeling and, yes, experiencing empathy. I have observed that my son (and I) don’t always get it right. I have worked hard as a mom making sure my wonderful young man doesn’t get tripped up on stuff that the “normal” kids se

  9. This post sums up the reasons I haven’t tried to get a diagnosis for myself, after realizing that I was on the spectrum a little over a year ago (at age 48). My tween-age daughter was diagnosed just this month with autism and ADD (which I also believe I have) – maybe that’ll give me a little more “credibility” with the medical establishment.

    1. I am with you. I am also 48 and only realized in the past few years that I have Extroverted Asperger’s. It explains so much in my life. I don’t have a formal diagnosis and don’t know if I should even try. The extroverted part seems to get in the way. My son also is on the spectrum (PDD-NOS and ADHD).
      .

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  11. 65-year-old Asperger woman dx’ed at age 51. The diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s (from the DSM IV, since it doesn’t exist in the current DSM V) is very specific. Either you suit the criteria, or you don’t. “Not being self-aware” is *not* one of those criteria. Any professional who relies on “gut feeling”, or “we all know what autism is” instead of the DSM for a diagnosis is indulging in patient abuse, plain and simple. They are unprofessional and abusive, and *any* patient, not just autistics, should run like wildfire in the other direction.

    I am self-diagnosed with gluten intolerance. I went to a meeting of the Houston Celiac Society many years ago, and after the meeting went around the room and spoke one-on-one with each sufferer, about 30 of them. In every single case, without exception, I got exactly the same story: “I went to X number of doctors before I got my diagnosis of celiac, and along the way, I was diagnosed as a hypochondriac.” That “X” number ranged from a low of 20 to a high of 50. These people were horrifically sick. One young man in his late 20s had had large portions of his intestines surgically removed (NOT a treatment for celiac, the treatment is diet only), had had several heart attacks, and looked as if he was in his 50s.

    It took me years to discover the *right* place to go for an autism diagnosis: MHMR (the agency for Mental Health and Mental Retardation). Oddly enough, even though I have an IQ close to the genius level, I had to go for my assessment to the “Mental Retardation” side of the agency, because that is the only place they do autism assessments. (My intelligence had nothing to do with the assessment; it was *not* a handicap in any way.)

    Any one with a medical degree who tells you that you are not autistic because you are too self-aware is NOT COMPETENT to make an autism diagnosis, positive OR negative. You have no business being in their office, or paying them your hard-earned cash. THEY ARE RIPPING YOU OFF and playing on your “unawareness” that they don’t even know what they are doing to make money off of you.

    Don’t play that game. Walk out and never come back. And take your money with you.

    1. Fantastic advice Athena. I completely agree with you and would add to that you should also run if you find yourself confronted by any “professional” who tries to tell you that Autism in Women is “rare” or that Women are somehow “Immune to Autism”. Thank you for sharing.

  12. This strikes a chord with me. I remember asking a case manager at Voc Rehab about where I could meet men at. My mother was sitting there beside me and I was about 40ish at the time. The case manager who happened to be female at the time told me without missing a beat don’t think that way. It wouldn’t have hurt as much with my mom sitting there but it hurt like hell. This individual also wanted to tell me how to dress and to quit wearing make up both of which pissed off my mother to no end.

    1. That’s terrible Andrea. It’s also part of the bigger issues that women with Autism are forced to deal with on a daily basis. Discrimination. The phrase “Be yourself, no not like that!” Springs to mind. Thank you for sharing.

  13. This is an wonderful article. I very much appreciate the words you have poured fourth here.
    This resonates very strongly with my own experience. I am recently on a journey of gender discovery and as such can relate strongly to much of what you have expressed. In particular that ever present sense of otherness and knowing it deeply and intensly.

  14. Great post. I was drawn in at the beginning, especially with this excerpt:

    “Suddenly they find that any and all previous levels of tolerance and acceptance towards their uniqueness of being, are replaced with the message that their right to happily pursue their own interests, has been irrevocably and irrationally rescinded without their consent.”

    I struggled so much as a child as I watched the world around me like a movie on fast forward. It wasn’t until my son was diagnosed at the age of 10 that I finally realized the reason behind that struggle.

  15. Lol, i feel it’s being almost optimistic in feeling pressure to conform doesn’t kick in until the teens.
    I certainly ran afoul of failing to conform to expectations ling before then. As dud i suffer autistic meltdowns, undiagnosed of course.
    I was subjected to massive amounts of bullying, manipulation, and misplaced expectations.
    Including tge time my teacher stood me up in front of the class on the assembly room stage no less abd adked anyone who liked me to step forward.
    I was 12. It was the culmination of a lot of hatred that teacher held towards my inability to conform. And there was more than enough egression towards my clear otherness.
    Fun times.
    In my teenage years i learned to conform, through careful study of social behaviours, long hours with a mirror mimicking noted expressions and body language, and assembling conversation flowcharts.
    But that’s just my experience.

  16. Disclosure: I’ve never been diagnosed (or, as far as I know, ever evaluated for autism at all), but I do have some of the traits associated with it.

    I never found that ostracism by other children made me doubt my sense of self or my value. When young, I considered them an alien species I was unfortunately forced to deal with, and in truth, that feeling didn’t change much once I hit my teens. (Except that I did find a few friends from the goth, art, and advanced placement groups who were perfectly willing to accept me as I was). I developed a keen sense of misanthropy quite early, and had no desire at all for acceptance by any of the others.

    As an adult, I am married to another introvert, and have no strong interest in meeting or making friends locally. Most of my friendship relationships are online. I feel no lack in this. So, I think it should be recognized that lack of acceptance from those around us doesn’t necessarily do us significant harm, unless we are bullied. Some of us really don’t want or need it.

    And we’ve always felt free to pursue whatever interested us, whether anyone else likes it or not, lol.

    1. You make some really great points wingedwolfpsion. I agree with you that the “need for acceptance” isn’t necessarily an aspect of Asperger’s. Which is why I don’t believe that women with Autism “mask” their behavior in order to gain “acceptance”.

      Often we are simply too busy being who we are and following our own passions to bother with such stuff.

  17. As I was finally being treated for the PTSD from nearly constant verbal and emotional abluse in childhood and beyond (successfully reducing the frequency of vivid flashbacks, at least most of the time), that therapist finally saw the evidence of lifelong (78 years at that point) undiagnosed Asperger’s. When I looked back at the past with the new eyes she gave me, my life finally made perfect sense. And I learned quickly just to enjoy and be very careful who gets to share. This article rings so many bells from my own experience, especially about the teen-age years.

    1. Thank you Marji. You must be a very strong woman to have gone through so much and for so long with so few answers. Keep enjoying life through the lens of your new and much deserved understanding.

  18. Beautifully written. You made some great points and I fully appreciate you highlighting this very real issue.Thank you for your insight.

  19. I’m 40 years old, and learned I was on the spectrum nearly a year ago. Before then, I’d had a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, which never seemed to fit. It wasn’t until my current therapist looked at my records and found out the BPD diagnosis came from a misunderstanding – I had traits that paralleled ones that childhood abuse victims had, and I’d had an abusive marriage, so doctors just assumed my family abused me – even though they didn’t – and based the BPD diagnosis on that.

    My therapist figured this out about the time I’d been wondering if my son might be on the spectrum. She’d suggested a screening test, one that turned out to not be for kids. Bored, I took the test for myself…and a week later walked into my therapist’s office with the results and asked “What does ‘neurodivergent’ mean?” That’s when she figured it out what the deal was, and referred me for testing.

    I’d gone through my entire life feeling like everyone had been to some class on how to be human, and I was absent that day. Everyone just seemed to KNOW how to act, and I could fake it, but sometimes I’d stumble, and everyone would look at me because I’d violated some sort of unwritten rule no one had told me about.

    No one had ever raised the idea of autism with me or my parents. Likely, they looked at my college degree and marriage and children, and figured there was no way, because EVERYONE knew what autism looked like, and that wasn’t it.

    1. Oh yes Shawna. That’s exactly how I felt too, as if everyone else had been given some secret rule book on how to be human and I’d somehow missed out on getting my copy. You have put it so well. So glad that you’ve finally gotten the answers you needed. Thank you for sharing.

    1. There are lots of resources on the internet to do some further research Brianna. Feeling alienated from those around you could mean that taking a deeper look into Asperger’s could be worth your while.

  20. I identify with all of this! Thank you! oh, and agree as well, about the societal/medical/psychological reactions, opinions, diagnosis criteria. You ARE very articulate as well! Your writing is concise, expressive, and very touching as well.

  21. So… umm. Wow. I think I tick every single experience one way or another. And not being “perfect” was *not done* at home. Still learning it’s okay… and I think this helped a lot. I am going to seek further advice. Not sure how that will pan out with the new DSM, but I think maybe knowing I really wasn’t being “deliberately difficult” or “melodramatic” every time something wasn’t okay… it helps. It helps a lot. Thank you.

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