We are increasingly discovering that women with autism present in different ways to men with autism, which often means their symptoms can be overlooked. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects women in many ways but if you find yourself taking an online test for ASD, you may find that the questions do not resonate with your experience.
I have put together a list of symptoms based on what I have learned from working with numerous women with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The list is not designed to be a diagnostic tool but it may be a starting point to help you establish whether or not you display a significant amount of ASD symptoms.
“Women with Autism: Accepting and Embracing Autism Spectrum Disorder as You Move Towards an Authentic Life”. This book takes you through all the steps involved in seeking out a diagnosis and the types of issues you will need to come to terms with as you explore autism.
I have broken the list of symptoms down into various categories, the first of which is “social.” Women with ASD often struggle socially, feeling uncomfortable in social situations, finding it hard to work out people’s motives, and feeling exhausted and overwhelmed after socially interacting. On the flip side, they tend to be excellent at mimicking other people and learning to “pass” as normal.
- Being bullied by other people?
- Being sexually abused?
- Being emotionally abused?
- Monitoring your behaviour and responses in social situations?
- Feeling confused in social situations?
- Feeling exhausted after a group meeting/party?
- Drinking to cope with social situations?
- Feeling tongue-tied in social situations?
- Disliking “small talk?”
- Favouring one-on-one relationships to group relationships?
- Wanting to talk about issues/hobbies you are passionate about?
- Needing a “checklist” for what to say when you meet new people?
- Feeling awkward and out of place?
- Putting in effort to say and do the right thing?
- Needing time alone to recharge?
- Finding it hard to understand and follow directions?
- Difficulty in making and maintaining eye contact?
- Desiring a very few close friends rather than a large group of friends?
- Being happy to go long periods without catching up with friends?
- Finding it hard to identify with other women?
- Reacting very intensely to situations
- Finding it hard to regulate your emotions
- Feeling completely emotionally overwhelmed
- Taking a long time to calm down after becoming upset
- Losing your temper or crying through frustration
- Responding more strongly than other people to similar situations
Many women with autism experience issues with “filtering” sensory input, which can lead to an overload of information and the need to focus intently on one thing in order to avoid being overloaded. People with ASD may be highly sensitive and over-responsive to sounds, sights, smells, touch, and tastes. Many women are particularly sensitive to the feeling of clothes and makeup, pulling off clothing tags and opting for comfortable clothes over fashionable clothes and shoes every time. Some people with autism experience a reduced response to sensory stimuli, which may make them seek out sensory experiences to satisfy their need to experience things on a sensory level.
Have you, or do you currently find yourself:
- Disliking tags in clothes
- Being sensitive to high-pitched noises
- Finding some sensations (such as wool or nylon) difficult to cope with
- Disliking tight or uncomfortable clothes or shoes
- Choosing practical clothes over “attractive” clothes
- Disliking feeling of foundation or lipstick
- Disliking feeling of substances on fingertips (e.g. fruit, dirt, roughness)
- Being affected by bright lights
- Feeling overwhelmed in supermarkets/shopping stores
- Feeling overwhelmed or disliking being hugged/kissed by acquaintances
- Desire for spatial organisation, such as colour coordination
- Disliking loud environments (such as concerts)
- Having a strong reaction to certain scents (such as perfume)
- Strong aversions to types of foods
In addition to finding it hard to cope with a range of situations, women with autism may find that they respond in very deep ways to difficulties faced by others, but have problems in processing or expressing their reaction. Women with autism may find it hard to communicate their needs, generally, and keep things bottled up until they explode in a meltdown.
The following list of symptoms that women with autism may experience is not designed to be a diagnostic checklist, but may be helpful as a first start if you are beginning to explore whether or not you have ASD.
Have you, or do you currently find yourself :
- Becoming emotionally overwhelmed?
- Feeling exhausted?
- “Acting out” or having extreme emotional reactions (meltdowns)?
- Becoming emotionally confused and not knowing how to react?
- Being diagnosed with anxiety or depression?
- Feeling a deep physical response to someone else’s distress?
- Having difficulty in processing or expressing an emotional response?
- Finding it easier to shut off from other people’s distress?
- Having a fluid idea of sexuality?
- Having difficulty in expressing needs?
- Feeling confused or disoriented?
- Having poor emotional regulation?
- Feeling extreme anxiety when routines/plans are changed?
- Desiring to be alone to emotionally recharge?
- Experiencing an eating disorder?
- Engaging in “black and white” or “all or nothing” thinking?
- “Escaping” through music, real or imagined?
People with autism may have a strong desire to do things repetitively, to stick to one way of doing things and may face difficulties when their routines are interrupted. Everyday tasks may have to be carried out in the same way, over and over, in order to avoid feelings of anxiety.
Do you, or have you ever, engaged in:
- “Stimming” (for instance, rocking back & forwards, pulling hair, rubbing feet together)
- Having “rituals” that you need to follow
- Listening to same song over and over again
Focus, “obsessions” & organisational behaviour
Women with ASD tend to be very focused on their interests and passions. They can become extremely interested in a hobby or their work, sometimes to the exclusion of other interests and activities. They are often very good at conducting research and engaging in careers which involve a high degree of organisational behaviour – such as cataloguing and collecting – and often describe themselves as being quite “obsessive” in nature.
Do you, or have you ever, experienced:
- “Obsessions” with a celebrity or band
- Obsessive behaviour towards a romantic “crush” or partner
- Intense level of focus on your partner in romantic relationship
- Inability to switch easily from one task to another and back again
- Strong desire to engage in your hobbies, work or interests
- Difficulties when plans are changed with little or no notice
- Problems adapting to change
- Passionate about hobbies, interests or causes
- Having difficulties when your routines are disrupted
- Difficult establishing “day to day” routines when there are more interesting things to do
People with ASD often notice things that other people tend to miss, and may find themselves noticing patterns and creating systems from seemingly random information.
- Do you, or have you, found yourself noticing things like:
- Noticing and remembering car number plates
- Patterns in numbers
- Picking out sounds/ details in music
- Noticing the detailed picture rather than the “big picture”
- Sometimes missing details that others would notice
Autism doesn’t appear out of nowhere. It is a developmental disorder and, if you have ASD, the types of difficulties you currently face will be identifiable in your childhood, even if you and those around you weren’t fully aware of the issues you faced at the time. Talking to a parent is a useful first step in establishing the types of behaviours they may have noticed in you which they felt were different – perhaps in relation to any siblings you may have had – or which caused you difficulties. These might include social and sensory issues, meltdowns and obsessive behaviours.
During childhood did you:
- Have sensory issues (which are often worse in childhood than adulthood)
- Emotional meltdowns
- Trouble interacting with peers and adults
- Repetitive behaviours
- Obsessive behaviours
- A strong desire to be alone
- Trouble adapting to change