Hello Everyone! For most of you that know me, it should come as no surprise that I have high functioning Autism, formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome. For those of who you don’t know me, this might come as a shock for many. What I would assume to be the shock factor is that I don’t “look autistic.” Many people have this stereotype or belief that in order for someone to have something, there has to be a physical proponent to make what they claim to have more credible. For example, many people with cerebral palsy possess a unique gait that would allude to a condition they have. With Autism, there is no physical evidence to support a person has Autism. Autism is a neurological condition where there is a difference in how the brain is wired. Therefore, socialization skills and social cues that come innate to most people are skills that have to be explicitly taught to people with ASD Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Because of the social difficulties that come with being on the spectrum, many people with ASD are set up to be bullied and/ or socially isolated and ostracized. I was a prime target for bullying throughout various years of my life. I always found making friends and social connections at a young age very arduous, but I was bewildered as to why it was so difficult. I never realized or knew what behaviors I engaged in that pushed others away when I was in elementary school. By the time I was matriculated in middle school, I engaged in behaviors out of my own desperation for acceptance and approval that only attracted negative attention. Teachers chastised me for my behaviors, but because I was finally getting attention from peers, I never understood at the time what or why it was wrong. In retrospect, I didn’t understand positive versus negative attention and what those meant from a social perspective.
I eventually learned the hard way that I was the target of ridicule and derision. I became very depressed at school, and I started talking about suicide. I told students of these fake attempts I engaged in out of my own overwhelming hurt and pain that I did not know how to handle. I was also craving friendships so desperately, but I was devastated that I did not know how to make them. I also had a major crush on someone who did not like me back. However, it was not easy for me to get over that or forget people easily.
The school started having meetings with my parents, and I was sent to therapists to be evaluated and treated. The reason behind the school meetings were they did not feel I was capable enough to stay matriculated in that school district. They wanted to me to transfer to another school district; the same school district they send troubled children to. My parents sent me to a psychiatrist, and they hired that same psychiatrist to advocate for me at the school meeting. The school reluctantly allowed me to stay, but that came with high consequences. I was placed under restrictions in which I was cut off from social contacts at school. I had to report to the special education room and be escorted to and from classes, and I was not allowed to be in the hallways during passing periods.
There were many signs that alluded to ASD such as my sensitivity to sounds in which I had to go to Canada for 2 weeks to get treated, stemming behaviors, and failure to develop peer relationships. Yet, clinicians did not diagnose me with ASD at a time when it would have been crucial. To their defense, Asperger’s Syndrome only became included in the DSM IV Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1994. 1994 was the same year I matriculated in middle school. Furthermore, the criteria for an Asperger’s diagnosis was more male centric and did not take into account how the symptoms portray themselves in females.
For example, a symptom of Asperger’s Syndrome included being obsessed with parts of objects. That may be common amongst many males with ASD, but I know in my experience as a female; my obsessions were clearly not parts of objects. * Rather, my obsessions focused on relationships with others and why they were so difficult to obtain. Another obsession I would have is with crushes and my constant imagination of what it would be like to have a relationship with people I crushed on. I always felt like I was trapped in a maze never figuring out how to escape. Research supports that my obsessions about socialization are not an anomaly for other women with ASD.
Another aspect for many women that dissuades clinicians from diagnosing them with ASD early on is their ability to mask social behaviors.** However, that does not mean that socialization comes innate to them as it does for others who are neurotypical.*** Even though I was never able to mask social behaviors growing up, I was able to learn social skills when I finally got diagnosed at age 20. I underwent intense social skills training and talk therapy to help on an emotional level. I attended Autism Conferences where I learned insight on social behavior from other individuals like myself.
Before I go socialize with friends, I spend a good amount of time prepping myself for it. I consciously think about things to talk about with others and what I am going to say. I think of how long I will be able to be around social crowds. I tend to become very bewildered when people do not always live up to what they purport themselves to be in terms of friendships. That becomes another obsession for me, and there were times when I became very disconcerted thinking too much of the reasons why. This is where therapy is so beneficial.
All of the above aforementioned things I deal with are internal; once again showing that there is no physical component. Therefore, before one judges a female for “not looking autistic” or “looking normal”, please understand their experiences from an internal point of view instead of focusing broadly on the external outlook. Women who say they are on the Autism Spectrum deserve to be believed.
* Szalavitz, M. (2016 March). Autism-It’s Different in Girls. Scientific American Mind, 27 (2). Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/autism-it-s-different-in-girls/
BY Sonia Chand, Clinical Mental Health Counselor