Women with autism

I heard an interview this week with broadcaster and voice coach, Carrie Grant, talking about her autism diagnosis at the age of 58. Interviewed by Cathy Newman on Times Radio’s Drive show, Grant spoke about some of the issues women with autism face.

Grant is the mother of four neurodivergent children and has campaigned on behalf of young people with autism for fifteen years. She was prompted to get an assessment after observing her own children and realising she had some of the same autistic traits. She felt it was not so easy for women to get a diagnosis however, because a lot of the criteria for assessment fitted around a stereotypical male. Women with autism are sometimes ‘under the radar’ in terms of assessment Grant explained, because they can appear to be highly sociable and don’t necessarily have the same traits as men.

Women with autism can be extremely empathetic, they can ‘almost climb into the skin of other people’ and to a greater extent can feel other people’s feelings. Speaking about her own neurodivergency, Grant believed she shared the same heightened sensory perceptions as many other people with autism, especially around hearing. Even though this brings some difficulties (‘when I’m tired the fridge sounds super-loud!’), she also says there’s a positive benefit given the work she does. ‘When I’m listening to two hundred singers, I can point out the one that’s singing out of tune’.

Neurodivergence and the workplace

Grant goes on to discuss some of the challenges facing people with autism when it comes to employment, ‘The reason I announced my diagnosis on Auticon (a company promoting neurodiversity to employers) was they are all about the workplace and the assets that we have as autistic people’. Only 29% of autistic people are in work however, and many of those people do jobs that are ‘way below the gifts and skills they have within them. I want to be able to open those doors and say let’s have a discussion about this’. Throwing a challenge to employers, Grant suggests autistic people might need some adjustments in the workplace because everything is ‘geared towards what you’re calling normal, give us those adjustments and we can thrive’. There are clear benefits to employers where not everybody thinks the same way or processes things in the same way, not least in the disciplines of problem-solving and creative thinking. These benefits will only be realised by employers who make more space at the table for neurodivergent employees, however.

Autism and childhood trauma

Grant has been open in talking about the abuse she suffered in childhood, and about how this might have contributed to her autism going undetected. ‘One of the issues when you’re just trying to work it out for yourself is that childhood trauma can also bring some of the same traits. It can make us more sensitive; it can make our senses more sensitive’. She states how important it is to get an assessment, as this will enable a professional to strip back what might be presenting from past trauma. They can then identify the difference between trauma and autism.

Getting a diagnosis later in life

Why did Grant wait until her fifties to seek a diagnosis? One of the biggest issues around getting a diagnosis was that ‘for a very long while there wasn’t really a great assessment tool for women’, adding that some of the two-hundred families she works with via a support group would have waited seven years for an assessment. Getting a diagnosis privately used to cost between £3500 and £5000, and like most people she admits she wouldn’t have been able to afford it. Thankfully now it’s hundreds rather than thousands of pounds, with the process taking a few weeks. In the end, Grant felt ‘like this was the right time to do it’ adding, ‘women in their 40s and 50s are one of the biggest group of people who are being diagnosed as autistic.’ It’s not always a positive experience of course, because ‘for many of those women it will be a really grieving time.’ It might lead them to reflect on their childhood and think, ‘oh my goodness my entire life I didn’t understand myself’ or look back on past events with severe regret.

Being labelled as autistic

Asked if being labelled as autistic has held her back, Grant suggests ‘a label is only a problem if you have a problem with the label’. Clearly, she does not, proclaiming ‘I think I’m fabulously autistic and I think my kids are fabulously autistic, and I think autistic people are fabulously autistic!’

Carrie Grant is co-author of ‘A Very Modern Family: Stories and Guidance to Nurture Your Relationships’, published by Piatkus.