- Many autistic women are diagnosed later in life, often after having their autism ignored or misdiagnosed during their younger years.
- Diagnosis can bring a huge sense of relief; it can also bring feelings of regret.
- Most women report that they wish they had known they had autism earlier in life.
- Many autistic women would like to tell their younger selves that they are perfect as they are and that there's a reason for their struggles.
Women with autism are often under- or misdiagnosed. Many autistic women live their entire lives with little understanding of why they struggle so significantly in particular areas.
A diagnosis later in life, then, often comes with a sense of relief: Finally, you understand why some aspects of life are simply so challenging. It also often comes with a sense of regret, as women realise that they have spent their whole lives being self-critical and judgemental, berating themselves for being not as good as other people when, in fact, they displayed remarkable resources in navigating a world which is designed for neurotypicals. In my book, Women with Autism: Accepting and Embracing Autism Spectrum Disorder as You Move Toward an Authentic Life, I use the voices of some of my clients to describe what a diagnosis as an adult feels like.
When I’m working with clients who experience low self-esteem as the result of living a life with undiagnosed autism, I ask them the question: What would you have liked your younger self to know? Here are their most common responses:
1. You’re different—and that’s OK.
From a young age, most autistic people have a sense that they are different from most people around them. Often, this sense is reinforced by feedback from friends, family, and peers. Some of the nicer feedback involves words such as “quirky” or “interesting.” Some of the less nice feedback includes words such as “weird” or “odd.”
Autistic people’s brains process the world in a different way than neurotypicals and thinking, feeling, and acting differently from most people is part of the autistic experience. My client Marina told me, “I would like to tell myself: 'You’re perfect. You’re wonderful and creative and you’re not like everyone else, which is just fantastic.'”
2. You need to shape your life according to your needs.
Many women with autism struggle through and try to fit themselves into roles and expectations which are always going to be problematic. There are some things that never get any easier when you’re autistic. By the time you’re well into adulthood, you may well be beginning to realise this. But when you’re younger, you tend to keep hoping that you can just change yourself from being a square peg trying to fit into a round hole into a round peg.
Instead, you might need to change the world around you to fit your square peg. Another client, Diane, told me, “I spent so much energy trying to pursue a job in teaching. It made me so sick, but I thought that’s what I had to do. I would say: 'Go figure out what type of career is right for you.'”
3. Your relationship needs may not fit “the norm.”
Autistic women may have a range of needs that can make it difficult to be happy in what many people consider to be a “normal” relationship. Some autistic women, for example, have issues with touch. Some may have a broad perception of sexuality. Some may need a considerable amount of space within a relationship.
Shona told me, “I thought there was a certain way to have a relationship. I kept putting my needs last as I tried to accommodate my partner. I wish I’d known it was OK to have a different type of relationship. I don’t live with my partner now. I didn’t want to have children. And all of these things are right for me.”
4. You can be yourself.
Women with autism tend to report a high degree of camouflaging, or masking, who they really are. They do this in order to “fit in” and pass as “normal.” My clients’ experience backs up the research which shows that camouflaging comes at a cost and leads to issues including low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.
Mary told me, “I spent my whole life trying to be someone else, learning how to talk, hiding the subjects which fascinated me, putting on such an act that I was exhausted. I wish I’d known that I can be myself and I’ll attract the right sort of people for me. I won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but who cares? I’ll be a lot happier.”
5. You can ask for help.
Many of my clients have faced considerable difficulties in life—everything from career problems to mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and suicidality. And so many of them struggled on their own, feeling bad about themselves for having these difficulties in the first place.
Angela explained, “I just internalised everything. I didn’t have a clue how to ask for help or explain to anyone that there was anything wrong. I didn’t try and get help until I was in my fifties. I’d tell my younger self: 'Tell someone you can’t cope. Look for help and support.'”
If you suspect you might have autism, seeking out support can make all the difference between struggling and leading a life that is fulfilled and meaningful. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.