“Too much and not enough”: Women and Autism
So many women with autism struggle to accept themselves. Often, they see themselves as “too much”—yet at the same time, not enough.
Like many other women with autism spectrum disorder, I learned from an early age to “mask” or “camouflage”—hiding or suppressing certain behaviors in order to pass as “normal.” Autistic women aren’t the only people who camouflage aspects of themselves—it’s a behaviour that is seen in autistic men, too, as well as neurotypical people of both genders.1 But women with autism tend to mask to a far greater degree than other groups,2,3 in order to fit into a world that feels alien in many ways. Misunderstanding social rules, facing criticism for being oneself, becoming overwhelmed and exhausted in social situations, and dealing with sensory overload can all lead to consistent masking behaviours in women with autism.
When you have autism, you may feel as if you are constantly adapting to a situation that doesn’t inherently work for you—often, because it doesn’t make any room for your needs and wants. You may learn that you’re not just “shy”; you’re too shy. You’re not just “direct”; you’re too direct. You’re not just enthusiastic; you’re too enthusiastic. Too tantrummy, too obsessive, too blunt, too sensitive—the list goes on.
Inherent in these statements is a strong judgment that your real, authentic self is not acceptable. And so, at the same time as you’re learning to smile, ask questions, put up with people touching you, and stifling your boredom when you’re subjected to small talk, you learn to hide, suppress, and deny those parts of your personality which other people consider less acceptable—until you might end up considering them to be unacceptable, too. After years of internalising the messages around you, you come to the conclusion that not only are you too much, you’re also not enough. Many women mask so efficiently and consistently, they grow up with a lack of self-acceptance and self-worth.
Judging yourself as unacceptable because you’re different from many other people means that you stop listening to and recognising what you need to feel fulfilled in life. It means making choices that don’t fit with your values or meet your needs. And it means that you become fearful of revealing your wonderful personality to the rest of the world because you are scared of rejection and judgment.
Until you can accept who you are and value yourself deeply enough to bring your true, authentic self to others, you will experience an incongruence between your values and your actions. When you keep acting in a certain way because you think you should, even when it feels wrong to you, you will feel anxious and disillusioned. When you fail to get in touch with what excites and nurtures you—because those things are considered “weird” or unnecessary—you will feel unfulfilled. When you cannot reveal who you are and what matters to you, you will feel frustrated and unseen.
Taking the first tentative steps towards authenticity involves getting in touch with who you are and what you need and want out of life. When you’ve spent a lifetime being all things to all people, this can be particularly challenging. It’s a tough call for anybody and especially challenging for someone who is starting from a different point to most people: the point of being neurodiverse in a neurotypical world.
One of the first things you can do to challenge any beliefs you have that you are not good enough, or that your true self is not acceptable, is to work on accepting your autism and the fact that although you may be different from many people, you’re in no way lesser. It’s OK to be quieter or louder than most other people and it’s OK to have different interests.
Far from making you unacceptable, being “too much” for some people is precisely what will help you to succeed in some aspects of life. Your ability to become obsessed with a subject, speak your mind in a direct way, and see the world differently from most people can be what makes you unique and special.
My client Angela summed it up when she told me, “I always felt like I was too much for other people. When I decided to embrace the ‘too much’ part of me, and stopped being scared or embarrassed about it, I finally felt like I was being me for the first time. And I’m learning to like me.”
In my new book, I talk about women and masking and how to move towards authenticity.