Yes – Asperger’s may present differently in women – but…

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I’m still not sure what to make of this notion (now being presented to us as an absolute fact), that women with Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome are being diagnosed less frequently, due to their apparently inherent ability to ‘mask’ their symptoms by ‘mimicking’ those around them.

There are just too many assumptions hidden within this concept that have not been deeply analyzed enough for my liking.

It almost seems like once again, we as women, are being told to turn a blind eye to any and all personal experiences that do not match up succinctly to the now, almost biblical accounts being written by psychologists, as to how women with Autism should present.

Accounts that not only seek to define our presentation, but come complete with a rationale as to why our supposedly ‘hard to spot’ tendencies have, for so long been so tricky, that it’s entirely understandable, and therefore forgivable, that we’ve been over-looked by the very profession that has at last finally deemed us worthy of recognition.

Call me a cynic, but I can’t help but feel that there’s something a little too psychologically tidy and self-serving lurking somewhere beneath the surface of all this.

Yes, Asperger’s may present differently in women, but just how differently and why those differences occur, are issues that I believe should still be up for debate.

As it stands at the moment, there are women in their 60’s who are now finally being diagnosed with Autism after living through decades of feeling disconnected and different, rejected and misunderstood by their families and enduring years of being misdiagnosed by professionals.

So how can it be that the same professionals, who have clearly recognized the level of difference, disconnect and/or difficulties with sociability that these women experienced, at least enough to have diagnosed them with depression, bipolar or personality disorders, now suddenly see fit to turn around and make the bold claim that Women with Autism ‘mask’ their symptoms?

If these women were ‘masking’ their difficulties/symptoms so well, then how come they were misdiagnosed with any psychological conditions at all?

The only evidence of ‘masking’ to found within these revelations, comes not from the women, but from the psychologists who were unable to accurately diagnose them due to their own erroneous belief, that women could not experience Autism.

Which of course is how psychologists, via their own actions in refusing to view such women’s behaviors as evidence of Autism, turned the notion that women do not experience Autism, into a very neat and tidy self-validating and self-sustaining psychological fact in the first place.

Only of course, it wasn’t a fact at all. It was nothing more than one profession dictating and reinforcing the terms and conditions under which it would see fit to operate.

By so doing they also set out the definitions and the frames of reference upon which the foundations our understandings of Autism were formed.

Which means that for decades, thanks to psychology, women with Autism were often left out in the cold, alone and confused, and more often than not, grossly misdiagnosed and subjected to harmful treatments.

It’s an incredibly sad but true piece of history and I can well understand why those within the world of psychology would like to pretend it hadn’t happen.

But ignorance, whilst it may be bliss for some, can prove to be incredibly dangerous for others.

I for one, have absolutely no desire to ever see this kind of history repeating itself again.

And yet..

Once again, our understanding of the way in which Autism presents in women is now being crafted in much the same manner.

Psychologists are telling us that women ‘mask’ their Autistic symptoms, hence the majority of the population will believe that this is true.

Yet history has already shown us that this notion of women ‘masking symptoms’ is not a particularly true one.

If, (as has been the experience of many older Autistic women), there has been a propensity within the psychology profession toward misinterpreting and therefore misdiagnosing Autistic women’s symptoms, then they should already have in their grasp, the many well documented cases of older Autistic women who’ve been misdiagnosed with other mental health conditions in an attempt to explain their ‘different’ behaviors.

This in itself, should be enough to indicate that the notion of women ‘masking’ their symptoms may not be entirely true.

After all, one cannot be misdiagnosed with a mental health condition if one is not showing any indications or awareness of having behaviors that would mark one out as being ‘different’ or in need of a diagnosis.

So are we to believe that these older women were just a rare bunch who were exquisitely bad at ‘masking’ their symptoms, because let’s face it, if they were actually trying to hide their differences and their difficulties, yet still ended up being diagnosed with a mental health condition, they must have been exceptionally bad at?

Or are we to listen to their eyewitness accounts and give ourselves permission to explore these hidden implications?

I for one, am in favor of taking the time to listen to the real life experiences of our older Autistic women, the ones who are only just now, after years of struggling to find answers, being acknowledged and diagnosed with Autism.

If we do, we may just find ourselves questioning the validity of the idea that women with Autism have a history of ‘masking’ their symptoms.

 

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The problem with the Mask Analogy for Women with Autism

Digital art by Rik Oostenbroek

A mask is a false external covering.

It can be worn to conceal a person’s true identity for better or for worse.

The idea that Women with High Functioning Autism are not being adequately diagnosed, simply because they wear masks, also carries within it the ideation that all women with Autism intentionally try to conceal their true selves in order to ‘pass as normal’.

This in turn implies that all women with Autism willingly engage in the act of perpetrating some form of female deception which, in turn, somehow creates the inability of professionals to recognize them for who they are.

The idea that women are fiendish creatures, capable of deceiving men, is not a new one.

In fact, that particular idea is as old as humanity and has been used successfully over the course of history to deny women the same basic human rights and considerations as men.

Which is why I’m not convinced that the increasingly accepted notion that women with Autism are being misdiagnosed because they “mask” their symptoms, is an entirely valid or correct one.

So let’s look at this concept of ‘masking’ a little more closely.

Women with Autism will often express the feeling that they’ve ‘never fit in’ with those around them and that they’ve always, including childhood, felt somehow ‘different’ to others.

As far as I can see, such expressions are not consistent with the idea of ‘masking one’s true self’ from others.

If anything, most women diagnosed later in life often express a sense of both exasperation and sadness over the fact that no one close to them either noticed or addressed their difficulties as a child.

So what are we to make of these facts?

Are we to say that the inability of those around them to acknowledge their differences and their needs, as children (girls), somehow created in them a desire to ‘pretend’ or ‘mask’ who they were?

To me such rhetorical connections make no sense at all, as it would be more accurate to say that women with Autism experienced having their needs ignored as children, rather than saying that they ‘masked’ their needs under such circumstances.

Whilst, it may be fair to say that as we grow older we learn how to try to ‘fit in’ better, I don’t think it is equally fair to say that we learn how to ‘mask’ ourselves better.

We don’t ‘mask’ ourselves but we do try our best to ‘fit in’.

As far as I know, the desire to ‘fit in,’ to not stand out and therefore become the object of ridicule, is a trait that is common to all humanity and not just those of us who are female and have Autism.

And this is the problem with the mask analogy.

Everyone tries to ‘fit in’.

Not everyone, however, practices deceit in order to do so.

We women with Autism are a profoundly honest lot.

Our honesty, along with our lack of awareness of social cues, forms one of our key features.

We are so honest with other people that our honesty often see’s us labelled as ‘blunt’ or ‘rude’.

Given these facts, perhaps someone can tell me just how it is, that we ‘mask’ our true selves again?

Oh yes, that’s right, we ‘pretend’ to be ‘normal’.

Well obviously we’re not doing a very good job of it, are we, if we’re constantly being accused of being too ‘blunt’ or ‘rude’.

We also apparently make ‘easy targets’ of ourselves because in reality, we are more often than not, the people who are lied too and taken advantage of  by others.

Given all of this, one could ask; just whose perception of ‘normal’ are we applying here and whose definition of ‘pretending’ or ‘masking’ are we using?

A mask is usually used to denote a form of visual perception, a false front, a concealment.

So are we being accused of ‘masking’ our true selves simply because we look so normal?

If that’s the case, may I just point out one simple fact, of course we are going to look like human beings because we are human beings.

Women with Autism are not some kind of exotic sub-species, (demarcated by purple spots or pink hair), any more than men with Autism are.

We can’t change who we are and in all honesty, most of us don’t try to ‘mask’ who we are either.

What we do is try to ‘fit in’ so that we can avoid being ‘easy targets’ for disreputable people to hit.

And what makes us easy targets?

Our trust, our propensity for taking people at face value and our inability to discern when someone is deceiving or lying to us.

Clearly the only things we need to get better at ‘masking’  are our vulnerabilities. Oh but wait, isn’t that exactly the very thing we’re already meant to be so blindingly good at?

‘Masking’ our true selves so well that we confuse professionals?

Think about it.

Is the mask analogy, truly one that  fits, women with Autism?