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replaced with the message that their right to happily pursue their own interests, has been irrevocably and irrationally rescinded without their consent.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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