“She’s just shy.”
“She’s a late bloomer. She’ll grow out of it.”
In girls, mild autism can be an elusive and hidden thing; it is so easily mistaken for something else. Lack of social skills becomes shyness. Sensory issues become sensitivity. Passionate, intense interests become bookishness. We may have friends at school. Our interests, while unusual in their intensity, tend to be common for girls-animals, art, nature. Adolescence can be horrid at times, but many of us pull through, get good grades, and go to university or find some type of employment. Because it is it is harder to spot, because it presents in ways that are different from boys, there is reason to believe that ASD in girls is underdiagnosed.
“Symptoms together limit and impair everyday functioning.” ~ DSM-V
The question some people may ask, then, is this: if we can hide our symptoms well enough to go through the motions of a “normal” life on a day-to-day basis, why is a diagnosis so important?
This is why: girls internalize their feelings and experiences, and the effects over time can be devastating. It happens when we make a hundred little faux pas a day, when we embarrass ourselves in public, when we lose friends and don’t understand why. It happens when we stand on the side, like an actor on opening night without a script, while everyone around us plays their part effortlessly. It happens when we lose track of homework because of our poor executive function, when we trip over our own feet because of our motor clumsiness, when we completely lose it over the smallest things because we need to feel in control. It happens when when we walk by and people whisper, when we dread recess, when we have to pair up with the teacher in class. It happens when we become overwhelmed by things that don’t seem to bother anyone else-bright lights, tight clothes, loud voices. It happens when we blame ourselves over and over again for everything that goes wrong, for being so awkward and clumsy and weird and unlikeable.
Over time, our self-esteem bottoms out. We internalize the pain and embarrassment until morphs into social anxiety, eating disorders, and depression. When we don’t know about autism, we often don’t get the right kind of help. We might be medicated for depression or anxiety without ever understanding why we’re depressed and anxious. Without that knowledge, it can be much harder to make a full recovery.
Girls and women on the spectrum often *are* limited in their day-to-day functioning, but in ways that are less obvious. And that is why it is so critical to diagnose girls with ASD at an early age. Let’s empower the next generation of girls with ASD with the knowledge and skills they need to feel positive about themselves and their future.