Believe it or not

I was recently at the DMV to update my driver’s license to get my Real ID for an upcoming trip. The DMV clerk that day looked at my documentation, performed the eye examination, and asked me the routine questions. Veteran? Organ donor? Autism?

Wait, what?! I was beyond surprised when she asked me if I had autism, because this was a new and unexpected question compared to previous visits. I think she was equally surprised when I answered, “Yes.”

“… Are you sure?” she inquired further, looking at me incredulously.

Yep, pretty sure.

Since the last time I had renewed my driver’s license, one of the new optional designations is to add an autism spectrum disorder indicator to the license. According to my state’s DOT website, this designation was added “in order to help avoid miscommunication issues and negative interactions for people with an autism spectrum disorder, simply because they may not behave in a way that is expected. The information assists in alerting law enforcement that the driver may exhibit a demeanor or display behaviors that could otherwise be misinterpreted. This is a voluntary indicator and is not a restriction of driving privileges.” Very cool.

Sometimes I’m hesitant to tell others about my diagnosis. It’s not really something that I talk about much beyond this blog. Not because I’m ashamed, but because I’m afraid people won’t believe me. Like the lady at the DMV. When you think of autism, I’m probably not exactly what comes to mind.

For all intents and purpose, despite feeling like I was born on the wrong planet, I look and act like a relatively normal person. (Key word – relatively.) Granted I’m highly introverted and socially awkward, but, as you probably know from reading my previous blog posts, that doesn’t necessarily equate to autism.

After my son was diagnosed with autism, I began noticing many characteristics of autism spectrum disorder that also applied to me and I really believed I was also on the spectrum. So I decided to get evaluated myself. I needed to know once and for all why I am the way that I am.

Although my son and I both exhibited some of the symptoms and behaviors of ASD and are quite similar in many ways, we aren’t carbon copies. I have always tried to internalize just about every possible symptom or behavior that would make me appear “abnormal” to others, whereas he has openly exhibited classic autistic behavior all his life. But, of course, if you don’t know what these autistic characteristics and behaviors are, you wouldn’t necessarily recognize autism when it presents itself.

One thing that is inherent in the majority of females on the spectrum is that we mask or camouflage our autism very well. In other words, we are experts at hiding and minimizing our natural tendencies, which makes recognizing autism in females more difficult than in males. The ratio between boys and girls diagnosed with ASD during childhood is approximately 4:1, although that’s not necessarily because autism is more prevalent in males. Many girls intuitively develop the ability to conceal their symptoms which, therefore, go unnoticed by parents, teachers, and doctors. In adulthood, the diagnosis ratio narrows to 2:1 male to female, presumably because adult women have developed the maturity to more capably recognize their deficiencies than young girls. *points at self*

Although she doesn’t intuitively understand certain social norms, a girl or woman on the spectrum might painstakingly observe someone else who seems capable of behaving normally in social situations and then copy or imitate that person’s behavior so as not to seem abnormal. Another strategy she might use is to appear well behaved, meek, and polite in order to avoid interactions with others.

While autistic boys often fail at establishing and maintaining relationships with peers, a girl on the spectrum might actually be able to develop a close friendship but usually only with someone who demonstrates an almost maternal-like attachment to her, i.e., the other person feels compelled to take her on, almost like their personal project. She is unlikely to take the first step at establishing and maintaining a relationship, but instead waits for the other person to make the first move.

Thinking back to friendships I had in childhood and young adulthood, I can check off nearly every masking behavior box. I’ve never taken the initiative in any relationship I’ve ever had. Every close friend I’ve had (and there have only been a few) has occurred only because the other person seemed to take an interest in me for some unknown reason. I don’t strike up conversations with people. I will never reach out to a friend or acquaintance just to find out how they are or what they’re doing. I don’t make phone calls or send texts or emails unless there’s a very valid reason to do so. I can now openly admit that I’m not a good friend and am not good at maintaining friendships, although when I was younger I tried really hard to convince myself and others that I was more normal.

In the Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, author and practicing clinical psychologist Tony Attwood highlighted one autistic person diagnosed in adulthood who described their experience as follows:

“I was always ashamed of who I was, so I never told the truth about anything that would embarrass me. If you had asked me if I had troubling understanding others, I would have said no, even though the true answer was yes. If you had asked me if I avoided social contact, I would have said no, because I wouldn’t want you to think that I was weird. If you had asked me if I lacked empathy, I would have been insulted, because everyone knows good people have empathy and bad people don’t. I would have denied that I’m afraid of loud noises, that I have a narrow range of interests, and that I get upset by changes in routine. The only questions I would have answered yes to would have been the ones about having unusually long-term memory for events and facts, reading books for information, and being like a walking encyclopedia. That’s because I liked those things about me.”

That’s me on the left, hiding behind my witch’s mask, with my older brother, Dracula.

In April 2018, I announced on social media that I had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I had expected to receive some doubtful responses from at least a few people. That’s really the main fear I had before making the announcement – that people wouldn’t believe me. Astonishingly, not a single person has said this to me to date. (At least not to me directly, anyway.) In fact, I have received nothing but kind, thoughtful, and supportive responses, for which I am extremely grateful. This support has made my journey much more bearable and allows me to feel more open and willing to discuss autism.

So thank you to those of you who have believed me and believed in me. It truly means more to me than I can adequately express. If you or someone you know needs help identifying characteristics of autism in females, this checklist might be beneficial.

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