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YOUNG WOMEN ON THE SPECTRUM: What are some of the unique characteristics of women on the autism spectrum? What are their strengths, risks and challenges? And what resources are there to help them thrive?
Young women on the spectrum face the same social expectations and demands that their typically developing female peers face. How women on the spectrum interpret and respond to these expectations, however, can be quite different. Women with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also differ from their male counterparts in several ways.
According to recent research, females diagnosed with ASD present with unique characteristics in these key areas1:
Women with ASD also differ from their male counterparts in several ways. Females with ASD, for instance, have a slight but greater tendency to show empathy than males. Males, on the other hand, are somewhat more likely to view the world through approaches that use logic and rules to understand their relationships with others.1 These are not hard defining lines but do tend to appear more often in each respective gender.
One explanation for the different expressions between males and females on the spectrum may be due to societal expectations. In general girls’ play behavior is more relational than object or action oriented. Female play groups, for example, are often more intimate than male play groups and involve greater expectations for conversation skills and empathy. These expectations provide females with ASD more opportunities to study/observe and mimic socially expected interpersonal skills during their early development.2
“As a woman on the spectrum, I am well-acquainted with the thorns that cut us until we bleed. In addition to the typical hurdles put in our way by ASD, there are a variety of ominous scenarios females are particularly susceptible to. I have walked smack into many of those bad places. I have come face-to-face with some cruel people. Unfortunately, I am not alone.” – Liane Holliday Willey, “Safety Skills for Asperger Women: How to Save a Perfectly Good Female Life.”
At the same time, the social intricacies and demands placed on women with ASD may also be greater than those placed on males with ASD. In adolescence, females begin to be held up to high standards concerning their personal appearance: from their choice of clothing and hair styles, to hygiene practices, to interests and hangouts. These demands continue throughout adulthood. If they don’t develop or put emphasis in these areas it adds an additional emotional or psychological burden to the woman with ASD.
Another important difference from males with ASD is in how young women develop a healthy sense of sexuality; namely: gender identity (what does it mean to be a female?); sexual orientation (what does it mean to be attracted to females, males, both and/or neither?); and, romantic feelings, behaviors, and relationships. Unfortunately, statistics continue to show that women are more likely to be victims of intimate partner abuse and violence. Issues of bullying and peer victimization continue to permeate our culture. Young women diagnosed with ASD may be even more susceptible to these dangers due to their naiveté, difficulties in recognizing social cues, and engaging in self-advocacy.
Because of the increasing social demands and complexity of interpersonal relationships during young adulthood, some studies have shown2 that young women diagnosed with ASD are more susceptible to:
While it is important to understand the potential risks that women with ASD face, it is just as important to understand their many strengths and abilities. Australian psychologist Tania Marshall views women diagnosed with ASD as possessing an abundance of strengths that she describes in her popular book series “Aspien Girls.” A small sampling of these include:3
Supporting and Championing Young Women on the Spectrum:Resources and strategies to help them thrive
Luckily, young women with ASD have recently begun to share and write about their experiences as well as the coping strategies that they have used. This kind of support helps break down walls of many who feel alone and misunderstood. Many other resources, unique to this population, are also available and worth looking into. Here are some strategies and ideas by women with ASD:
1. Strategies to Support Healthy Friendships and Romantic Relationships
MGH Aspire offers teen and adult programs just for women.
The AANE also offers a Young Women’s Group.
Safety Skills for Asperger Women: How to Save A Perfectly Good Female Life by Liane Holliday Willey*Written by an adult woman diagnosed with ASD for women diagnosed with ASD; provides a personal perspective and advice regarding topics such as navigating adult friendships, personal hygiene and appearance, and travel.
Girls Growing Up on the Autism Spectrum: What Parents and Professionals Should Know about the Pre-Teen and Teenage Years by Shana Nichols*Written by ASD experts for parents and professionals; includes helpful information and advice for helping females with ASD navigate the challenges of puberty, self-image, romantic relationships, and bullying.
Asperger’s and Girls by experts such as Tony Attwood and Temple Grandin*Written for young women diagnosed with ASD; provides concrete ideas and scripts for friendship, bullying, dating, motherhood, and building a career.
Aspergirls by Rudy Simone*Written by an adult woman diagnosed with ASD for women diagnosed with ASD; includes commentary on a variety of issues including gender role and identity, puberty, sexual attraction, friendships, college, employment, marriage, and motherhood.
Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding the Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspective of Autism written by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron
*Written by an adult woman and an adult male with ASD the book. It is not specific to females with ASD but includes relevant material. It is divided into 3 sections: Perspectives on social thinking, how the autistic way of thinking affects social understanding and 10 unwritten guiding rules of social relationships.
Aspiengirlhttp://www.aspiengirl.com/blogFocused on young women diagnosed with ASD; a series of books and online resources that allows young women to recognize and utilize their strengths in everyday life.
14 Amazing Women with Autismhttp://www.makers.com/blog/14-amazing-women-autism/1Inspirational compilation of women diagnosed with ASD who have overcome social barriers and excelled within many walks of life.
Women and Girls on the autism spectrumhttp://www.autism.org.uk/about-autism/autism-an-introduction/gender-and-autism/women-and-girls-on-the-autism-spectrum.aspx The National Autistic Society, England
While we need to raise awareness across the board, let’s not forget that females have unique needs that need unique attention and resources.
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