Mothers of autistic kids: can we talk? Many of you have wondered aloud about your spouse. You say things like this: My husband can’t multi-task, has awkward social skills, and retreats to the computer or other special interest at every opportunity. He doesn’t know to help when there is lots to do (10 people are coming for dinner in an hour, the house is an awful mess and he is waxing the desk in the basement office). He is too tough on the kids, or He is way too lenient with the kids. What you’ve been wondering is, “Could my sweetheart be autistic?” Well, here’s something to really get you thinking — would it surprise you to know that your spouse may harbor the same suspicion about you? While autistic women may raise kids and run households, corporations, or marathons, female autistic behaviors may affect many areas of functioning. Autistic women may be smart, well-spoken, and can be highly-educated. They have lots of gifts and can be tons of fun! Still, there are a few things that can be a tad… trying… for a partner unless they understand where the issues are coming from. As we say, “change understanding — change actions.” These anecdotal issues can certainly impact family functioning as well as relationships with your co-workers or extended family. Here is my lay-person, non-scientific, nowhere-near-complete list of autistic female characteristics, tendencies and traits. It goes without saying that there are many more things we could add, and that you don’t need all of these to (potentially) be autistic — and you don’t need to demonstrate them all the time. On that note, recognize anyone? Autistic women may have a strong aversion to scary movies, scary music, psychological thrillers — anything that triggers the anxiety response. Alternately, they may love scary movies — nothing like a good terror flick on date night. Crying jags are common, especially when tired or hungry. Meltdowns and tantrums that were common in childhood can continue into her adult life — especially with sensory overload or too many expectations at once. Super, duper ticklish… someone could get hurt! Autistic women can have significant sensory differences. If I hear someone chewing and slurping, it’s not good. Let’s leave it at that! Hugs? Meh — sometimes, from some people — and those who are not “some people” need to back off. Crows? Forget it. Chaotic environments? Never. Executive dysfunction can be a huge issue for autistic women. The ability to prioritize, get started, manage time, and stay organized can be an ongoing and exhausting undertaking. Can be very resilient, as in able to reinvent herself or bounce back from personal setbacks or major life challenges. Autistic women commonly have lots of anxiety, and may be diagnosed with depression. She can be quite empathetic and intuitive. She may be very tuned to the emotions of others; if someone is not happy or is hurting, she can almost feel it. It really affects her mood. She may have a hard time keeping her emotions in check, resulting in socially inappropriate responses. Can have a hard time communicating how she feels, especially if stressed out. Can be unable to speak if overwhelmed with emotion. Can have a real problem asking anyone to do anything for her. Finds it really difficult to ask for help. May be blunt — too blunt, and then be surprised if people tell her she was hurtful or rude. She gives so much detail when she talks that she bores people and buries the main point. Writes lengthy, detail-laden emails that can overwhelm the recipient. Has a hard time figuring out what is important and what is less so. Non-autistics are often exasperated by this. Autistic women may expect immediate responses to emails; a late response is often a source of anxiety as she imagines the most negative reasons for the supposedly “late” reply. She cannot tolerate injustice — has a finely tuned sense of right and wrong. She makes a great advocate. She will not let an issue go until she feels fully understood. She might point out the mistakes of others, though she feels terrible if she is corrected herself. She can be highly artistic and creative. Talents in music and language are common. Unless appearance is a special interest, she will prefer a low-maintenance hairstyle. Often has really long hair. May have no fashion sense unless fashion is a special interest. May really need to control the routines in the household. May be happier in the home because she can control what happens there. Can be fidgety — twirling or chewing hair is common; may rock when sitting or standing. Sensory preferences can continue into adulthood. Intimacy can have sensory aspects that are really challenging (for example, “spooning” in the afterglow can feel like torture of 1,000 needles when combined with body heat and a partner’s chest hair). Autistic women may have sensory and digestive differences. They may be very picky eaters who don’t really know when they are hungry (or full) or thirsty until they are very hungry or thirsty. At this point, they may have very little patience. This is when we might see crying, meltdowns, or low mood. She often prefers to have one close relationship (often a spouse); may not have a close girlfriend, though she can have many acquaintances; prefers the company of her family. Dislikes work lunches and social functions. Grew up copying others to try and fit in. Never really liked the gossipy small talk girls engage in. Her best friend may have been a boy. May love fantasy books, movies, art — and may have had an active imaginary world as a child. Animation and anime art are a favorite area of expertise. Can have anxiety from being misunderstood all her life. Her words, tone and expression are often misinterpreted, and because she can misinterpret the nonverbal cues of others, she may misinterpret their intentions as anger or disappointment directed at her. If an autistic woman has to be overly social for a period of time, it can take her days to get over this. It’s a “social hangover.” Loves to spend time with her special interest. This can be reading, movies, art, crafts, couponing, social issues — or something entirely different. Interests can change quickly or be lifelong. Can be great at presenting to groups but unable to attend a party because of social anxiety. Can take things too literally and miss jokes, but have a great sense of humor herself. Can be highly disorganized and messy — or extraordinarily organized and tidy. She can be both: she may have an immaculate house and a very messy car. Has a difficult time juggling both home and work responsibilities — she may do a good job, but is highly anxious in achieving it. It takes a great deal of effort to keep up. Has a pervasive sense of dread that she is going to forget something very important and people will figure out that she finds her roles difficult. Can be highly expressive and emotional or withdrawn and unable to share feelings. Is sometimes accused of being cold and unfeeling. She’s not! Autistic women tend to be independent, determined, focused, talented, creative and empathetic. Can quickly become self-taught “experts” when they set their mind to a topic of interest. Autistic women have a higher risk of eating disorders — studies are suggesting nearly 30 percent of women with eating disorders are autistic or have autistic traits. Autistic women usually feel terrible if they feel they have done something wrong. If they are told they’ve done something incorrectly, they have a really hard time letting go of the reprimand. Autistic women avoid conflict like the plague — unless someone is threatening their cubs! Moms on the spectrum will often step way outside of their comfort zones in order to get their children what they need. Though autistic women avoid confrontation, they will often step up to protect the rights of others if they perceive something is unfair. They are finely tuned to social injustice and often want to save the whole world. That’s just a tiny glimpse into the world of autism and women from my lay perspective. What do you think? Did the apples stay close to your family tree?