To celebrate International Women's Day, here's an article from Laura James, journalist, National Autistic Society ambassador, autistic woman and winner of the Award for Outstanding Achievement by an Individual on the Autism Spectrum.


 

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #pressforprogress. It’s an optimistic theme. The campaign is focused on how – when it comes to gender parity – women are making positive gains day-by-day.

Although there is certainly a long way to go, this is true when it comes to recognition and acceptance of autistic women too. It might be much slower than we would like, but women are getting more exposure and understanding than was the case even a few years ago. 

Social media campaigns – such as Nicky Clark’s #SheCantBeAutistic – bring autistic women together and show the wider world that, while we may not always present in a stereotypical way, we are here and we will be heard. Anne Hegerty, best known for her role as ‘The Governess’ on ITV’s The Chase, recently spoke of her autism diagnosis and many other strong and prominent women are speaking out about the positives and the struggles that come with being autistic. 

This is great and I am hopeful that more prominent women and girls will stand up and make their voices heard. 

Natasha Harding, the mother of a young autistic daughter, adds a note of caution to my optimism, though. She says: “In the autistic community there’s definitely more understanding and knowledge, but not in the wider world. I’m forever having to listen to people say my daughter doesn’t look/seem autistic and I feel as though I’m always having to justify her. 

“There are still so many misconceptions. Female campaigners have gone such a long way and I’m forever grateful for that but there’s still a long way to go. I’ll be honest, I was one of those people five years ago. I’ve just had to learn about autistic girls!” 

That’s a key point. While representation of autistic boys and men – albeit often slightly flawed and inaccurate – is out there, there really isn’t enough on girls and women. Despite having written on health issues for many years, I didn’t recognise my autism and I struggled initially to find people like me. 

Social media has been instrumental in helping me adjust to my diagnosis, a view echoed by Jessie Hewitson, who has an autistic son and is the author of Autism: How to raise a happy autistic child. She makes the point about how powerful social media can be for women on the spectrum. 

“I was struck,” she says, “by a new generation of young autistic women who are not afraid to tell people they are autistic and who have the language to explain their experience and difference clearly.” 

She also talks of how autistic women are making a difference on the ground too:

“Autism campaigner Robyn Steward stands out as someone who had a very tough time at school, but instead of feeling bitter she now trains teachers to better understand their autistic students. She told me her special interest was helping people. I was blown away by her and the empathy she showed the teachers who were struggling to understand their students' point of view, empathy that wasn’t shown to her.”

It is well known that autistic women often work incredibly hard to ‘pass’ as neurotypical. I, as much as anyone, know only too well that this can have an enormous impact on one’s sense of wellbeing. It’s exhausting and is rather like trying to pretend to be a Parisian when you’re in fact from Peterborough. Social media and wider acceptance, interest and understanding allows autistic women like me to build confidence and be ourselves.  

The pressure we have felt to mask (something at which we can be highly skilled) has in the past confused professionals; many women have gone undiagnosed or perhaps, even more worryingly, misdiagnosed. It’s not all bleak, however. The clinical lead at the Lorna Wing Centre has said that she feels diagnosticians are beginning to understand how some people present more subtly and, as a result, they are taking into account gender differences. 

As with many causes, it often takes those who are directly affected by an issue to make the difference. I firmly believe autistic women and the parents of girls on the spectrum can come together and build on the work that has already been done in gaining recognition and acceptance. 

Steve Silberman said during a TV interview that autistic adults were leading the “first civil rights movement of the twenty-first century”.  I believe this to be even more important for autistic women. I’m also convinced that our time is now. 

Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World by Laura James (Bluebird, £8.99) is out March 22.