Female Autism – 7 Myths busted!

Nikki Butler

Nikki Butler

Female Autism: Did you know this about me?

Female autism is a subject I’m hugely passionate about. Some of you may, or may not know that I am autistic with ADHD.  I was diagnosed late in life, and whilst it has been overwhelmingly positive for me, in terms of understanding myself and my experiences through my life, it has also been incredibly hard dealing with the reactions, responses, and society. 

I wanted to write a blog about female autism, for World Autism Acceptance Week, which is from 27th March – 2nd April. Honestly, I have a fundamental issue with the fact we have ‘awareness’ days and weeks for anything, as it’s something that’s lived every single day, but I really want to make a positive difference, bust some myths and share real-life experiences of what being an adult female with autism feels like, in today’s society. 

If you would like to learn more about autism, then I would recommend Chris Packham’s BBC series ‘Inside Our Autistic Minds’. It’s incredibly insightful and moving. Click HERE to watch. 

There are also some scary facts about the impact on mental health for those with female autism, including attempts at taking life. I hope that this alone is enough to encourage you to learn more and think differently. Click HERE to discover more. 

Female Autism, some scary facts

I was actually diagnosed with ADHD first, and it wasn’t until I was told, after my final assessment, that I was being referred for a full ASD assessment.  I was stunned, in truth. 

I 100% recognised the ADHD side of things in myself, but I hadn’t considered autism. I was extremely lucky that the psychiatrist that told me, was incredibly kind and gentle, and pointed me in the right direction of where I could gain support and find out more, whilst I awaited diagnosis. 

My ASD diagnosis came a few months later, and the process was exhausting and emotional. 

Since my diagnosis, I’ve been met with a LOT of ‘but you don’t look autistic’, and/or ‘I wouldn’t have said you’re autistic/ADHD’.   I’ll talk about this later in this blog, but the consequence of this response is HUGE, and why I passionately believe that the stereotypes of neurodivergent people must be changed, and fast.

Female Autism: What it feels like for me

This is how I have felt my entire life. It was like I just couldn’t figure out how to be a part of the bigger world, at least not in a way that was acceptable to most other people. 

I became used to the funny looks I’d get, I’d get called ‘quirky’, weird, or ‘off the wall’. I didn’t understand why, and in the end – two things happened. 

Firstly, I very quickly learned from a young age how to appear normal. How to mimic what others were doing and how to act like my peers. 

Secondly, as I grew up, I played up to my ‘weirdness’ and almost became a character in a play. In fact, I used to say that I felt like I was stepping onto a stage every day, and then would be exhausted when I came home and closed the door. The personal consequence was huge. Funny thing is, I thought everyone lived and felt like this, but they were just better at doing it than me. I just felt like I was a failure, I couldn’t keep up, and I wasn’t as good any anyone else. 

What you see V What's going on

Here’s one of the big things about female autism – many of us are experts in masking. Research has shown that girls learn how to mimic what others are doing, in order to fit in. It’s thought to be due to a higher drive than boys for social acceptance. 

You might be looking at females with autism, and have no idea. She may be acting ‘normal’ to you.  However, there will be so much more going on inside her mind, and the effort that she’s going to, to engage with you, and to appear ‘normal’ can be immense. 

I share in my video, how it can be for me. Please bear in mind I am just one autistic woman and every single autistic and ADHD person is different. We are ALL unique. 

OK, so, let’s bust some myths below. I also frequently appear on Suzi Payton’s podcast and TV channel, where we discuss what it’s like to live with autism and ADHD, in a society that isn’t built for us. She’s an award-winning coach for neurodivergent folk, and she’s just incredible! 

Myth 1: Autism = Intellectual disability

This is fundamentally incorrect. And this doesn’t just apply to female autism, it applies to ALL autism. 

The opposite is in fact true, in many cases. Ironically, the fact that someone can hold down a job, has had a successful career, or has achieved higher education, has been a reason some women have NOT had an autism diagnosis. 

Many autistic women are highly intelligent and capable. They hold down highly successful jobs, run businesses and achieve academic excellence. 

Here are some examples of autistic women, whose names you might recognise: Anne Heggarty, Greta Thunberg, Tara Palma Tomkinson, Darryl Hannah,  Melanie Sykes, and Christine McGuinness. 

Myth 2: High Functioning Female Autism

Female autism can so easily be labelled ‘high functioning’ autism. This term is outdated and doesn’t exist! It kind of follows on from the last section and was a term that used to be used to describe autistic people that seemingly functioned well in society. 

Here’s why it’s wrong and outdated. Actually, a GP said to me ‘you’re clearly high functioning, and being autistic doesn’t really affect you’. I cried. 

What you SEE, is not a reflection of what’s going on for someone with female autism. As I mentioned earlier, females become highly attuned to mimicking and masking, from a very early age. You might experience what you consider to be ‘high functioning’, but the effort that is put into appearing ‘normal’ can be immense. 

For me, when I was in a corporate career, and owning my own home,  everyone assumed I was happy and successful. My truth is, I used to drive home from work crying, collapse inside my front door, and deal with chronic anxiety and insomnia. I ended up experiencing immense burnout and overwhelm, causing me to quit. At work, I was also bullied by a leadership team member that I just couldn’t connect with. 

Myth 3: Autistic people don't have friends

I think there’s two sides to this one, if I am being open and honest with you. I know many autistic women that have great friendships and can enjoy being social. If they are lucky enough to have people in their life that they connect with, and who take the time to understand them, they can thrive in social groups.  My personal thoughts on this are that this may be easier if these women are comfortable being themselves and understand their diagnosis and needs. 

For me, as a late diagnosis autistic ADHD’er, this is an area that I found painful, uncomfortable, and difficult. I have always felt like an outsider, I struggled to truly connect with other people, and I have always felt like I don’t quite belong. I do have a best friend, who I show up completely with, and she is amazing.  When I reflect, I think that much of my challenges with friendships have come from not knowing I was autistic and not understanding my needs, so I masked them. And, of course, when we mask and pretend to be someone we’re not, it’s very hard to connect with people.  I was bullied a lot from my teenage life into adulthood, and as a result, it’s been easier for me to live a relatively isolated life. 

Myth 4 - We're all geeky and/or nerds

The best way to describe what happens when it comes to being ‘geeky’ is that many of us have special interests.  These special interests are topics that we spend a lot of time focusing on, and often like to talk about them with others.  Special interests don’t have to be ‘geeky’, and it’s certainly not all about trains!

I have two areas of special interest, and they are actually what makes me incredibly good at what I do!  I am fascinated by the human body, and its ability to repair, regenerate, and support us. I have trained, researched, and read about many different areas in this field, which is why I hold multiple qualifications in anatomy & physiology, skin, wound healing, and cell regeneration.  If you’re a client of mine, you benefit tenfold on this one.   My second special interest is spirituality and the mind-body connection. I have a strong suspicion that this is linked to the fact I have never felt that I belonged, and always felt like I was on the outside, looking in. Learning about spirituality and mind-body connection helps me to feel connected to myself, but also to feel I am connected to the universe and, somehow, we are all one. 

Those with female autism, or indeed male autism, may have a special interest, but that doesn’t mean they are super geeky or nerdy. They could be equally as interested in gardening, animals, and nature, as they could be in trains, science, or maths.  

Myth 5: Autistic people don't have empathy

This is possibly the myth that causes me the most upset and distress.

Whilst some autistic people do struggle with empathy and emotions, the opposite can also be the case – where someone is so overwhelmed by emotions and feelings, that it causes them to shut down. 

I have had many moments where I have been so overwhelmed with emotion, that I feel crushed. I have absorbed another person’s pain and distress and it has impacted me greatly. This is something I have had to manage very carefully, given the nature of my work.  I believe that my empathy is one of my greatest strengths in my work, particularly with the way I can connect with clients I am treating for trauma scars. 

Never assume that an autistic person has no empathy or understanding of emotions, you’re doing them, and yourself a huge disservice if you assume that. 

Myth 6: Autistic people can't have relationships

Sadly, this can be another reason why females fail to get an autism diagnosis. The assumption is that we can’t form relationships, and that’s simply not true. Many women with female autism get married and become parents. They lead happy lives, in positive relationships. 

I can only speak from personal experience here, but I have spent my life longing for connection, acceptance, and for someone to truly accept me for who I am. A longing to feel seen, heard, and understood. Sadly, that has not been my experience, as the relationships I have had, have been with men who have wanted me to fit into a box that I was not made for.  I do believe, that had I had a diagnosis earlier in life, I would have understood myself and my needs better, and chosen better-suited partners.  

I know so many autistic women in relationships. Some happy, some not – much like every societal group. 

Please don’t dismiss someone as a potential partner, if they share with you that they are autistic. They will undoubtedly have a lot to give to the right relationship.  I have been rejected and dismissed because of my autism and ADHD, because people are quick to make judgements and assumptions, based on outdated stereotypes and a lack of understanding. This is why I am so driven to step up and be seen, to change the landscape for other autistic females, for future generations to come. 

Myth 7: 'We're all a little bit autistic'

I hear this ALL the time. It’s not true, we are not all a ‘little bit autistic’.  Every single one of us is different and everyone has their own personality traits and quirks, for sure. But that does not make us all a ‘little bit autistic’. 

Research, particularly for female autism, has a long way to go. But previous studies have found that the brains of people with autism process information differently than those without the condition. It’s common for autistics to process sensory information differently to allistics, and this affects how we perceive and respond to social cues.

Interestingly, there was a study published in the journal Neuron, in 2014, which found differences in the connectivity between brain regions in people with autism, particularly in regions involved in social communication and language processing. And, a further study in the journal Nature in 2017 found differences in the structure and function of the amygdala, a brain region involved in processing emotions, in people with autism.

The truth is that autism is a spectrum and every single person will have different traits, and different triggers. And, those might differ from day to day. Personally, I find that many factors in my life affect how I cope with certain situations. One day I could be absolutely fine in a situation, but the next day experiences immense burnout and overwhelm.  

Female Autism: Ignore what you've been told!

I invite you to ignore what you’ve been told by society, when it comes to female autism, and autism in general. 

I am still navigating life as a female with autism, and this journey is one that is filled with sadness about the life I could have led, and hope for the life I can go on to lead. 

Whilst I am passionate about raising awareness for late-diagnosis women, I am also driven by an innate desire to make sure that our younger generations do not have the same experiences that I and many other women diagnosed with female autism in later life have had.  I have the strength and resilience to forge forward and protect the young females that are living amongst us, both unsupported and undiagnosed. 

Will you join me? Will you challenge the stereotypes that society has currently put in place? 

Nikki Butler Autistic ADHD'er
Thank you for reading

I really hope that you’ve found my blog on female autism helpful. If you’d like to get in touch, then please click on the the button below.

I really believe that we are in a time when we can all come together, and take time to connect and understand each other better. 

Whilst I think it’s amazing to see how much is being done to raise awareness around female autism, I also think there’s lots that needs to be done with regards to truly understanding autism in general, the differences between male and females, and the diagnostics and support that are out there.  

I’m currently working on a super exciting project, that I will share with you in the coming weeks and months. If you would love to connect with me, then please do get in touch. 

Kindest wishes, Nikki x 

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