Autism in girls isn’t what you think

No one ever guessed that this socially awkward child had autism. After all, she didn’t fit any of the stereotypes. She was highly intelligent, meeting all developmental milestones ahead of schedule. She was polite and articulate with seemingly good social skills. The clues were very subtle that much of her inner world was regimented, repetitive, and restricted. It would take a highly trained expert to spot these elusive clues.

There was another side of her she kept in check most of the time. She learned early that other people did not like it, so she suppressed it as best she could. She was hypersensitive to stimuli. Lights, sounds, smells, noises — it was all so overwhelming. Sometimes the urge to shut out the world was irresistible, yet she tried to turn off the impulse to curl into a ball, rock back and forth, and scream in protest. In doing so, she only built up emotional tension that inevitably demanded release. The meltdown would come as an angry, unprovoked outburst or buckets of hysterical tears that could not be soothed. The explosion simply had to run its course. Out of steam, she would collapse in a heap, unable to stay awake.

Her parents noticed the pattern, but interpreted the problem incorrectly. They assumed, since she fell asleep at the end of the meltdown, that exhaustion was the cause. So they encouraged her to relax and rest more often. She resisted their attempts to slow her down.

Then there were those unfamiliar social interactions. Whenever she was faced with a new social situation, she behaved out of character. She would withdraw, almost as if she were shy. What no one knew was that she carefully rehearsed her behaviors. Each one was crafted according to the social rules she observed. Social interactions did not come naturally to her. She had to practice them over and over in order to fit in. When new situations caught her by surprise, this normally poised young lady became an immature social pariah. She responded with odd comments, inappropriate emotions, poor physical boundaries, and complete lack of comprehension with sarcasm, innuendo, or humor. In short, sometimes she was really weird.

Everyone saw these lapses and knew there was something unusual about her. But no one ever thought to consider autism. In the late 80s, autism was believed to only affect boys. Even then, only the most severely non-verbal children were diagnosed. It would be almost 30 years before society started to recognize the unique sub-type of autism that affected this little girl.

That little girl grew up undiagnosed, untreated, and misunderstood.

That little girl is me.

I knew I was different. I didn’t want to be. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to stop the stares and eye rolls directed at me. It hurt. I just didn’t always know how to fix it. Sometimes my attempts to correct my behavior only made my problems worse. It was just so much easier to stay locked inside the quiet safety of my own mind. But it got lonely in there. I wanted friends. So I kept trying.

Wanting to understand people, I eventually became a student of human behavior. Those studies led me to a job working with people on the ASD spectrum. I was a natural. I understood these kids in ways I couldn’t explain. Their struggles were familiar and my compassion kicked in. I felt at home. Meltdowns didn’t alarm me. Instinctively, I knew how to calm an overwhelmed child. I didn’t have to rehearse my  lines anymore.

I knew the truth about myself now, but kept it hidden. Even though I learned that symptoms of autism are difficult to hide from the trained eye, I tried to disguise myself. Surrounded by a team of some of the best autism clinicians in the city, I thought I could hide in plain sight. After all, what would it mean for my career if someone outed me?

I eventually accepted the truth and openly acknowledged my autism after a colleague diagnosed my son. The behaviors she described were traits he inherited from me. I confided in her with my suspicions. She confirmed what I had been trying to hide.  Apparently I’d been hiding pretty well, because it took describing my socially awkward childhood before she finally saw the truth. I had been faking neuro-typical (NT) my whole life…and doing a damn good job at it.

But I was tired of faking my way through life. It is exhausting trying to be someone you are not. I can fit in, but sometimes I need a break. I need to retreat inside my quiet bubble, block out the world, and give in to my urges. When stress is high and no one is looking, I stim. Some days I don’t speak a word. It is  sweet relief.

I have high-functioning autism and it doesn’t look anything like you would expect.


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