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Social Communication Challenges in Women With Autism Spectrum Disorder

The unique challenges of communicating compound the problems of women on the spectrum
Women with Autism Spectrum Disorder have unique challenges that often go unrecognized.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, now considered an Autism Spectrum Disorder, is characterized by varying degrees of social and communicative impairments along with restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.

The communicative problems have to do with using language according to the needs of the listener and situation, such as taking turns in a conversation, staying on topic, rephrasing when misunderstood, providing context to make information more understandable, greeting, requesting, and other uses of language when speaking to people. People with Autism Spectrum Disorder have well-developed spoken language, with good grammar and vocabulary, but it is the way they use language socially that is problematic.

The core symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder do not differ much by gender. Men and women have the same general difficulties. However, research shows that women experience Autism Spectrum Disorder in a range of subtle and subjective ways that differ from those of men. Here is a list of those differences:

  1. Women with Autism Spectrum Disorder are more in tune with emotions than men, and because of that they tend to find the demands and disappointments of social communication more emotionally and psychologically taxing.
  2. Because communicating socially is more burdensome, women tend to become more anxious and take more time winding down from social engagements. The experience is akin to walking on eggshells, that is, being overly careful in dealing with a person or situation for fear they will get angry or offended; to try very hard not to upset someone or something.
  3. Women are more likely to focus on and learn about the communicative skills of neurotypical people then men, then copy and mimic them in their own social communication. Copying or mimicking, as it is often referred to, leads to a secondary compensation of camouflaging, wherein a woman hides her social-pragmatic difficulties. Indeed, research shows that if, among people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a preference for mimicking as a social skill was reported, that person is sixteen times more likely to be a woman.
  4. There is some evidence suggesting that women with Autism Spectrum Disorder adopt more passive roles in social communication. They have greater uncertainty about when and how to engage and what rules are of social interest, together with more trouble asserting themselves. This should not be interpreted as an indication of overall passivity, rather a greater awareness of, and sensitivity to, the likely risks of inadequate or inappropriate communication.
  1. The problem of greater uncertainty about how to communicate socially is an outcome of the fact that women are socialized to build relationships by sharing thoughts and emotions. When one is uncertain as to the proper way of communicating effectively, it’s likely she will be more cautious about communicating.
  1. Women with Autism Spectrum Disorder report that they prioritize fitting in socially above meeting their own needs. They tend to defer to others, focus on adapting to their surroundings rather than changing their social situations or withdrawing, and are less likely to be offered help in improving their social skills and build satisfying friendships.
  1. The efforts of women with Autism Spectrum Disorder to blend into their community and adapt to social conventions leads to the likelihood of being undiagnosed and thus receive the help they might need. Being unrecognized as having Autism Spectrum Disorder often compounds their internal confusion and the distress of not understanding why they are different. This itself likely contributes greatly to the level of emotional and psychological problems experienced by many women with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

You can read more about this topic here.


Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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