In general, Asperger’s Disorder is a form of autism. In the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, Aspergers has been combined with other forms of Autism into a general category of Autism Spectrum Disorders. However, there is still some contention about this, and many people with Aspergers prefer the label to Autism.
Unfortunately, the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s is based on a presentation that is much more common in males. Females with Asperger’s tend to be more socially adept. Like their male counterparts, they frequently make social mistakes and are easily overwhelmed in social situations. However, unlike their male counterparts, females on the spectrum tend to be much more socially motivated. Because of this, they tend to learn how to fit in. They are careful studies of social interactions and have learned to copy social behavior. However, because they are essentially faking social competence, it takes a lot out of them. They become easily overwhelmed and tend to isolate for long periods of time or get hyperfocused on specific interests as a manner of coping with anxiety and an over-sensitive nervous system. However, also unlike their male counterparts, females with Asperger’s tend to have more typical intense interests. Whereas males on the spectrum may have a fixation on a certain type of vehicle, road maps, or weather patterns, female fixations tend to be more gender conforming and are therefore missed as diagnostic. Some examples of these fixations include fantasy novels, fashion, music, body image, or animals. What differentiates this from a hobby is the extreme fixation and inability to “leave it at home” when out in the world. Also, because many females have been shamed or have been told they are annoying for talking about their intense interest, many have learned to hide these behaviors from the world.
Because this can sometimes look like extreme moodiness, they are often misdiagnosed as Bipolar Disorder. Also, because their relationships tend be “all on” or “all off” they are frequently misdiagnosed as having Borderline Personality Disorder. As a result, they are treated like mental patients and are given strong drugs that interact poorly with their extra sensitive nervous systems, often making them worse. Often, just informing and educating these individuals about their diagnosis can bring about immediate positive change. It allows these souls to view themselves as quirky and sensitive people, instead of lifelong mental patients.
Some common experiences of females on the spectrum are:
-Feeling like they are aliens, faking fitting in.
– Moving from social group to social group throughout life because they cannot find a place to fit in
-Social overwhelm above and beyond social anxiety – their brains may literally turn off or dissociate to avoid the bombardment of social stimulation
– Very sensitive senses – hypersensitive to touch (for example cannot wear certain fabrics, bothered by rumples in bedsheets, or require intense deep pressure to help regulate their anxiety), highly sensitive to smell (for example intolerance for any body smells or being able to smell bad food before others), light sensitivity, and picky eating due to difficulties with certain food textures and tastes.
– Intelligent, but strangely incapable of doing well in certain subjects
– Often confused at work because able to get the job done, but cannot fit in socially and is seen as a bad team player.
– Perceived to be snobby or self-centered because of difficulties with typical “back and forth” of social interactions.
For more information, I’d highly recommend a book called Aspergirls by Rudy Simone. If any of your listeners resonates with the above, they can get a psychological evaluation from a psychologist. However they should be cautioned that our understanding of females with autism is still in its infancy. Unless the professional has specific interest or training in females on the spectrum, they are likely to miss important nuances in the female presentation.
Dr. Joel Schwartz is a post doctoral psychological assistant in Torrance, California with particular interest in psychodynamic psychotherapy, trauma treatment, people on the Autism Spectrum, and LGBT issues. He also conducts psychological evaluations for teens and adults at his private practice and at Center for Discovery residential treatment houses. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. If so inclined, you may follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/joelschwartzpsyD or twitter @DrJoelSchwartz.