We share Mair Elliott’s latest blog on living with Autism and Mental Illness. In this article Mair talks about what it’s like to be a woman with Autism:
“I don’t fit any stereotypes, I am not the non-verbal low functioning boy that rocks back and forth in the corner of the room. In fact the majority of people with Autism don’t fit that stereotype. I wasn’t ‘naughty’, I reached most of my developmental milestones and I can look at you in the eyes. I am not a genius or prodigy either, I am intelligent, I am academically able, I do have the ability to obsess over things until I am very knowledgeable or able in that particular field, but I am not the next Einstein or Mozart.
Autism is a spectrum condition in which someone can be anywhere along it. Each person will have a different combination of symptoms at differing levels of severity. Each person with Autism is different to the next person with Autism. You may ask why it is important for everyone to understand this fact? It is important because at the moment, despite the fact that many people in society have heard of Autism, people with Autism are affected by these stereotypes and misunderstandings which can be detrimental to a persons well-being and abilities to function. For example, employers may not hire someone who is autistic because they have prejudged this person by their diagnosis.
Another thing that many people do not realise about Autism is that girls can have it as well as boys, not only that, but Autism affects girls differently to boys. I was 15 years old when I got my diagnosis, but it was at the age of 6 that I actually realised I was different. I noticed that my peers could see and interpret a world that I couldn’t comprehend. I noticed that my world was brighter, louder, and over all more overwhelming compared to the world my peers lived in. At 6 years old I felt the intense vulnerability that came along with being different, I felt this uncomfortable feeling of being exposed. I wasn’t one for sitting back and not doing anything about it, so I decided to learn to be ‘normal’. Of course being Autistic meant that I didn’t feel the need to involve any other people in my plan or how I was feeling, not even my family.
So over the years I went through the process of watching other people communicate, how they used their hands, facial expressions, the words they used etc, practising what I had observed, and then incorporating it in my bank of diagrams and flow charts in my head to navigate socialising. It wasn’t until I fell ill and my psychiatrist noticed I was on the spectrum at the age of 15 that I was diagnosed.
Apparently, many women and girls with Autism take the same approach and from an early age ‘mask’ their difficulties. You may think ‘what an ingenious way of overcoming the difficulties Autism can cause’, which in some ways it is an incredibly effective way of coping. But it also means that many women don’t get a diagnosis until they become severely affected other problems like mental illness.
I fell ill when I was 14 years old with Depression and Anxiety, and very quickly became so unwell I developed an Eating disorder and psychosis on top of that. I had to live in a psychiatric hospital for 4 months and I have been in mental health services for over 4 years now. The main reason for my illness was that the task of maintaining my ‘mask’, trying to appear ‘normal’ to the outside world was so exhausting and mentally draining that my brain couldn’t function any longer.
Being a woman with Autism means that I am misunderstood frequently, it means that people don’t understand the difficulties I face everyday because I appear ‘normal’ on the outside, it meant that lack of knowledge and understanding of Autism in girls prevented me from getting a diagnosis at an early age and getting the right support from an early age which could have prevented mental illness. Being a woman with Autism means that when things do go wrong and I struggle people can’t comprehend why because to their knowledge I am ‘normal’ and am perfectly capable of functioning in the same way as them. Being a woman with Autism means that I am frequently told by people, both professionals and non professionals, that I couldn’t possibly be Autistic because I’m ‘not weird enough’.
The world to me feels a bit like being dumped in the middle of a vast lake and not knowing how to swim. The majority of my time is spent trying trying to keep my head above water, and avoiding the strong currents of mental illness. I find socialising terrifying, confusing and complicated. My life is spent trying to understand things that neurotypical people don’t even batter an eyelid to.
I am not ashamed to be Autistic, and I am not ashamed to be a woman. If I set my mind to something you can be assured that not only will I get it done, but it will be done at the best quality I can possibly achieve, I have high standards, and I work hard. When I get interested in something I will get so knowledgeable and able in whatever it is that I could probably get mistaken for a professional. I am reliable, I am truthful, and I am organised. Being Autistic in a society built for neurotypical people is not easy and can cause lots of problems, but being Autistic in itself can prove to be a gift.
If people simply understood that just because I appear to be ‘normal’ and able to cope doesn’t actually mean that it is true. If people were aware that autism is different for girls compared to boys then maybe less girls will have to grow up feeling like a failure and a freak. If people knew that each person with Autism is an individual then maybe some of the harmful stereotypes could be vanquished”.
Mair gave us full permission to publish this article which first appeared on her blog.
You can also read Mair’s articles “Puberty and My Autism Diagnosis” and “Autism and Mental Illness: A Teenager’s Perspective”.