April is Autism Awareness Month! But to me, as an autistic woman, awareness just isn’t good enough. The goals around autism must be greater! And one of the most overdue and urgent goals is gender equity.
When I was growing up, my mom would often tell me I was missing social cues. I had no idea what she was talking about (because I was missing them). But the thing is: neither did she. And that’s because in the 1980s and ’90s not much was known about autism. And what was known was known about boys. Unfortunately, not much has changed in the last 30 years.
According to Vanderbilt University, four times as many males as females are diagnosed with autism. Not only are we being missed altogether (undiagnosed), we are also being misdiagnosed. A study by the National Autistic Society found that, “Compared to males, women and girls are more likely to be misdiagnosed.”
There are many reasons for this—not the least of which is that, according to Somer Bishop, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, “Most autism screening and diagnostic tools were developed based primarily on observations of behaviors in boys.” Experts also say that females have a more “sophisticated social mask,” meaning we mimic others to fit in better. And also, in the words of the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, we are “hiding in plain sight.”
Misdiagnoses and underdiagnoses of autism in girls and women doesn’t just impact the missed girls and women, it impacts society as a whole; to miss their autism is to miss out on their skills and talents that better (and maybe even save) the world.
Take, for example, scientist Dr. Temple Grandin. Contrary to most media depiction of us as cold uncaring people, many autistics experience hyper-empathy. This is exactly what it sounds like. Empathy on steroids. Empathy with much more than just people. Empathy with nature and with animals. So it is no accident that Dr. Grandin is responsible for the invention of many pieces of slaughterhouse equipment designed specifically to minimize the trauma experienced by animals during the slaughtering process.
Not only is it not an accident, it is a “superpower” according to climate activist Greta Thunberg, who tweeted in May of 2019, “I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And—given the right circumstances—being different is a superpower. #aspiepower.”
So what are the right circumstances? Well that’s a much bigger discussion than can fit into 500 words. But without a doubt, gender equity is an integral part of it. And it can’t wait. Because in the meantime, while it waits, it is not only girls and women who miss out, it is the whole world that misses out!
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