If nobody had suggested to me that I was autistic, I never would’ve reached that conclusion myself.

In early 2015, at the tender age of 14, I took the plunge and decided to start seeing a therapist for my constant anxiety, obsessive tendencies and fear of social situations. By the third session, my therapist deduced I was one of the countless girls living completely unaware with low-level autism.

At first, I was offended. Doesn’t autism mean you have no social skills, can’t understand sarcasm and always say the wrong thing at the wrong time? I had been expecting a diagnosis for generalised anxiety or something similar. Instead, my therapist gave me a book called Aspergirls by Rudy Simone. I went home on full defence and began to read, more out of disbelief than anything else.

Asperger’s syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism, is often overlooked in girls because they don’t fit the typical mould, which was modelled on symptoms of autistic boys in the first place. Autistic girls tend to have similar symptoms, including sensory issues and hyperfixations, but these often show themselves in quieter ways. Girls are also better at passing as neurotypical than boys.

Slowly, things began to make sense. Perhaps my screaming tantrums as a young child, which my parents chalked up to growing frustration at my worse-than-most visual impairment, were catalysed by autism. As a child, I hated wearing clothes and found a way to pull them off at the most inappropriate times. This carried into my teenage years, though with much less public nudity. In fact, hating the feeling of multiple layers of clothing is also known as a sensory sensitivity and can cause a sensory overload, which can show itself in confusion, panic and extreme anxiety. Sensory overloads can also be triggered by loud noises or large crowds of people.

Symptoms in autistic girls can be the complete opposite of boys. Girls appear more able to concentrate than boys, who become distracted more easily and can be disruptive. Girls tend to learn social behaviours by observation and copying, which can disguise their social deficits. Most surprisingly, ‘aspergirls’ tend to have higher levels of empathy, to the point where they can collapse into tears over the death of a stranger on a news report.

Many aspergirls were misdiagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, OCD, and, in the good old days, ‘hysteria’. But there are movements towards recognising symptoms in girls. Autism diagnoses are five times more common in boys than girls. This doesn’t necessarily mean autism is more common in boys, but suggests there are thousands of autistic girls around the world left undiagnosed, either through lack of knowledge about female autism or misdiagnoses. To help combat this, the National Autistic Society recently completely an EU-funded project called Autism in Pink, aimed at researching autism in women and girls to help create a more equal model for understanding autism.

For the trend of misdiagnosing autistic girls to end, they must first be accepted for their differences. For me, autism is an integral part of my personality. My many hyperfixations over the years mean that I have a wealth of general and specific knowledge, making me invaluable in a pub quiz, and I consider my ability to recite all seven Harry Potter books cover-to-cover a coveted skill.

Autism is not a disease, an illness or something that needs to be cured. It’s rewarding and doesn’t necessarily carry the negative connotations which have been historically assigned to it. Over 700,00 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum. For these people, and those who know them, autism is simply a part of their character. The future for everybody living with any autism spectrum disorder must be acceptance, understanding and celebration from those around them, not just for their quirks, but for their intelligence and their individuality.

Background image: Frank Kunert – ‘Diver’s Paradise’

Ida Palmer Grayson