A recent women’s hour piece on “Late Diagnosis Autism” began with the statement that “of course there are more men and boys with the conditions”. To me there is no “of-course” about this, it’s a non-fact; what we know is that more men and boys are diagnosed with autism. However we also know that most autistic adults are undiagnosed and many are misdiagnosed. This mismatch between popular belief and reality reminds me of the account that lesbianism was never made illegal, unlike gay male sex, because Queen Victoria didn’t believe it existed.
My guess (and at the moment we don’t have the data to know the truth of this, we can only make informed guesses) is that there are probably as many autistic women as autistic men. It’s just that, as is often the case, the men have got all the attention.
In the groups I run for autistic people there are generally more women than men (I suspect this is because autistic women, just like non-autistic women, tend to be more social than men). Autscape (an annual conference/retreat for autistic people) seems to attract equal numbers of men and women, and a quite a few non-binary and trans people as well.
Jane Garvey presenting the women’s hour piece wondered if women are not being identified because “we are more adept at managing or masking the symptoms”. I am not sure that this is the case; I think that, just as non-autistic women have different behaviour profiles to non-autistic men, so autistic women have different behaviour profiles to autistic men.
I conceptualise it like paint. Say you have yellow paint (autism), if you add it to blue paint (men) you get green paint, however if you add it to red paint (women) you get orange paint. Of course, if you assume that autism looks like green paint you won’t identify that orange paint is autism too. However, if you are able to split colours and see what is really going on you might notice that there is as much yellow in the orange as there is in the green.
A way to address this imbalance would be to have as many autistic people as possible talk openly about autism. We need enough of us out there so that the experiences and attitudes of specific individuals are not taken to define autism more generally. This is particularly important because autism is so heterogeneous - autistic people are outliers in all directions – and both autistic individuals and the medical practitioners currently invested with the power to grant diagnoses are susceptible to catching on to a particular trait of autism and thinking a person can’t be autistic without it. I’ve lost count of the number of autistic women who were initially told by professionals that they could not be autistic for invalid reasons, such as “you looked me in the eye” or “we’re having a coherent conversation”.
I think that we need to be challenging all the stereotypes about autism including that there are more autistic men than autistic women. If you are interested in learning more about how autism affects both women and men you might like to come to one of my training sessions or indeed if you are autistic yourself or wondering if you could be, you might like to listen to comments about Exploring Identifying as Autistic and get in touch if you're interested in coming along. As ever I welcome comments and responses to this post.