Autism has always interested me. My interest has been particularly peaked of late as swathes of women, who have often spent years realising that they are not neurotypical, are being diagnosed with autism late in life. Why is this happening? Autism can be difficult to identify in women and girls due to skills in masking. It is speculated that boys are biologically more likely to be autistic, which could account for why there are 4.2 boys diagnosed for every girl. However, it has also been speculated that this gap is an artifact of the way autism is defined and diagnosed. This could leave girls and women hiding in plain sight.
‘As an autistic person, we cannot rely on body language or facial expressions the way a neurotypical person would. But we are very in tune with emotions. The problem is an excess, if anything, of empathy. We feel your anger, your pain, your sadness. And then we overload, and don’t know how to handle that.’
Therefore I was particularly intrigued to read ‘How to be Autistic’ by Charlotte Amelia Poe. Poe’s memoir documents her very challenging experiences in educational institutes and her accidental diagnosis in 2010. Despite years of access to a qualified psychologist, it was only when Peo’s mother watched a documentary about autism that she recognised some similar traits in her daughter. If it were not for this chance TV-based encounter that collided with the psychologist’s visit, you have to wonder if Poe would ever have received a diagnosis and the tools to understand herself and to help the world understand her.
‘The best way to describe it is to imagine a road trip. If a neurotypical person wants to get from A to B, then they will most often find their way unobstructed, without road works or diversions. An autistic person will find that they are having to use back roads and cut across fields and explore places neurotypicals would never even imagine visiting, couldn’t imagine visiting. A trip from A to B for a neurotypical person is a trip through the entire alphabet for an autistic person, at random.’
Poe’s memoir is a painful poetry of her life’s cosmos. Poe now works as an artist and defies the old, archaic stereotype that people with autism are not creative or empathetic. She is creative, expressive and electric. All of these are traits of autism, despite public misconceptions.
What was particularly pertinent through reading Poe’s memoir was the extreme unkindness that she received from others, particularly teachers and other pupils. Where there were opportunities to make her aware of her sparking qualities, too often others chose to shun and humiliate. While the diagnosis of autism would not arrive until after a very damaging, isolating and saddening school career, it was clear that Poe struggled with anxiety and depression. Problems that were, undeniably, exacerbated by the unkind words and decisions made by others.
‘The world is built for neurotypicals; it accommodates you with its loud noises and uncertainty.’
I’d recommend Poe’s memoir to anyone who works in an educational institute, with young people, in mental health or has an interest in autism. Although attitudes towards autism are changing, the number of boys diagnosed vastly outnumbers the number of girls. While there might be legitimate factors that contribute towards this difference, we do not know with certainty what causes autism. With that in mind, we should be keeping our eyes open rather than closed in regard to supporting girls and women who might need extra support. Reading this book might help you put one step forward on the long road to finding answers and understanding those who most need help.