The women who don’t know they’re autistic

Autism is not always obvious.

Let’s call her Sophie. The description we’ll give could be that of any woman who is on the autistic spectrum without knowing it. Because they’re intelligent and used to compensating for communication impediments they may not be consciously aware of, these women slip through the cracks of our still-too-inefficient diagnostic procedures.

Studies reveal one woman for every nine men is diagnosed with so-called “high-functioning” autism, that is, autism without intellectual disability. If we compare this to the one woman for every four men diagnosed with the more readily identified “low-functioning” autism, we can easily imagine many autistic women are left undiagnosed.

Today, Sophie, who lives in France, has a job interview. If you could see her nervously twisting her hair, you might think she’s anxious, like anyone would be in the circumstances. You would be wrong. Sophie is actually on the verge of a panic attack. At 27, she just lost her job as a salesperson due to repeated cash-register mistakes – and it’s the eighth time in the last three years. She loved maths at university and is deeply ashamed. She hopes the person hiring will not bring up the subject – she has no justification for her professional failures and knows that she is incapable of making one up.

Learning accounting by herself at home

Sophie’s wish is granted: the interviewer asks her instead about her time at university. Relieved, she happily launches into an explanation of her masters thesis on meteorological modelling, but he cuts her off abruptly, clearly irritated. He wants to know why she is applying for a temporary job as an accounting assistant when she has no experience or training. Although her heart is racing wildly, Sophie manages to keep her composure, explaining that she taught herself accounting at home in the evenings. She describes the excellent MOOC (online course) she found on the website of the French Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, and tells him how one of the questions she asked the teacher on the forum led to a fascinating debate on the concept of depreciation expenses.

Sophie is not good at guessing what people are thinking, but she understands from the way the man is staring at her that he believes she is lying. Overwhelmed, she feels weaker by the minute. She watches his lips move but does not understand what he’s saying. Ten minutes later she’s in the street, with no memory of how the interview ended. She is shaking and holding back tears. She curses herself, wondering how anyone could be so stupid and pathetic.

She climbs into a crowded bus, swaying under the heavy odours of perfumes worn by those pressed up around her. When the bus brakes suddenly, she loses her balance and bumps into a fellow passenger. She apologises profusely and hurriedly gets off. In her rush, she trips again and falls to the pavement. “I must get up, everyone is looking,” she thinks, but her body refuses to obey. She can no longer see properly and doesn’t even realise her own tears are blinding her. Someone calls an ambulance. Sophie wakes up in a psychiatric facility. She will be misdiagnosed with a psychological disorder and given medication that will solve none her problems.

A unique way of thinking, a taste for solitude, intense passions

Sophie’s story is typical of the chaotic lives led by women whose autism remains undiagnosed because they are on that part of the spectrum where the signs are less obvious. In spite of her impressive cognitive capacities – like the ability to teach herself a totally new field of knowledge – Sophie has no idea of her own talents, and neither do those around her, or only rarely. Trapped in a social environment highly critical of what makes her unique, such as her unusual way of thinking, taste for solitude, and the intensity of her passions, Sophie is acutely aware that these are seen as shortcomings.

 

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