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The social challenges of autistic women

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Women are diagnosed with autism 2-3 times less often than men (Lai et al. 2011). However, studies indicate that the number of unreported cases of autistic women is much higher than previously thought. Read here why women are so rarely diagnosed and why their daily work can be an immense psychological challenge.

Researchers uncover gender difference in people on the autism spectrum

A team of researchers from Cambridge University (Lai et al. 2011) took a closer look at the compensation strategies of autistic individuals. People with autism often find it difficult to assess social situations and interpret them “correctly”. In some cases, there is even a so-called facial blindness, i.e. the complete inability to interpret the other person’s facial expression. In order not to attract attention, many autistic people develop certain mechanisms to conceal their gap – with devastating psychological consequences. For the continuous observation and imitation of their fellow human beings is associated with great cognitive effort. In this context, the researchers found that autistic women have a much higher discrepancy between externally observable behavior and inner experience than men.

Appearance in the social jungle

Those affected often try to hide their autism – for fear of not being accepted. There are several reasons why this becomes a challenge, especially for women. It is a foregone conclusion that many women are not diagnosed at all in the first place. The majority of existing diagnostic criteria are designed for men. There is still a widespread myth, even among general practitioners and psychiatrists, that autism does not exist in women. Closely interwoven with this is the classic role model of women: from an early age, girls are expected to make others feel at ease by being friendly and social. From this perspective, it makes sense that autistic women inevitably develop increased camouflaging skills. A diagnosis, if one is made at all, can take years. One of the reasons is that these women often learn to assume an adapted behavior in their early childhood.

The strain of autistic women at work

Many autistic people, if they get a job at all, have great difficulties with the challenges involved. Small talk can be a stressful situation and a handshake can be painful. It is the social surroundings, the profiling, and self-expression with which some autistic people have problems, not the work itself. For this reason, they are often unemployed despite their high qualifications.

Especially autistic women are under pressure to correspond to a gender stereotype. Relaxed conversation, understanding and courteous behavior as well as form-fitting clothing are some of the unspoken expectations with which those affected are confronted. In order to master the unpleasant small talk at the coffee machine, many women in the autism spectrum learn corresponding phrases or sentences by heart at home, which they can recall in such situations. Many people with autism are not able to understand the complex social rules and consequently do not want to take part in discussions about the weather, fashion or the latest gossip.

It is also not uncommon to practice certain postures or facial expressions. These are often borrowed from the behavior of their colleagues in order to radiate self-confidence to the outside world. Since many autistic people also react extremely sensitively to tactile stimuli, they find it unpleasant to wear tight-fitting clothing. Therefore it is especially difficult for autistic women to correspond to the dress codes in the workplace. All these factors can lead to a so-called “autistic burn-out”. The constant psychological and cognitive peak performance eventually leads to a breakdown. The fact that more autistic women suffer from the problems described does not mean, however, that their male counterparts are free from these problems – autistic women are only better at playing the nerve-wracking game of hide-and-seek.

auticon offers an autism-friendly working culture

At auticon, we make sure that the problems mentioned above do not arise at all. Nobody has to hide here, because we are even actively looking for autistic talents. We are a social enterprise that exclusively hires people with autism as IT consultants and offers them a career opportunity at industry-standard salaries. Autism is an enrichment for us because we see the many benefits it brings. These often include increased concentration, special attention to detail and an above-average ability to recognize patterns and errors. Tech leads and job coaches specially deployed for this purpose serve as contact persons for our autistic employees in the event of misunderstandings or other difficulties. Within this framework, our clients always receive a briefing on the subject of autism in order to strengthen communication and mutual understanding.

References:

Lai M-C, Lombardo MV, Pasco G, Ruigrok ANV, Wheelwright SJ, et al. (2011) A Behavioral Comparison of Male and Female Adults with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Conditions. PLoS ONE 6(6): e20835. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020835

If you are interested in working in a company with an autism-friendly working environment, please take a look at our worldwide job advertisements here.