Say What? You Have Autism?

Say What? You Have Autism?

Hi, my name is Shannon Hilscher. Author. Instructional designer. And self-proclaimed introvert.

I spent the first 50 years of my life wondering, “Why is life so hard?”

How does one go from being described as shy, quiet, sweet, and kind….

…to anxious, stressed, nervous, and angry?

Well, believe it or not, that path is not uncommon for undiagnosed autistic women.

So, what is autism anyway? Well, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave.

In other words, autism makes a person feel like they don’t fit in because their brain processes information differently than, quote, “normal” people—otherwise known as neurotypical people.

Women often go undiagnosed as children because they are so good at masking—a fancy term for ‘covering up to fit in.’

In fact, females tend to have masking superpowers. They are so desperate to fit in, that they mimic ‘acceptable’ behavior…like forcing eye contact, repressing their natural body language to match the norm, faking facial expressions, and planned scripting for upcoming conversations (you know, just in case).

Imagine the decision fatigue: which “mask” to wear?

And I’m not even talking about COVID masks, it’s the other kind…

Oh, gosh. I cannot forget to wear a mask every time I leave the house. But, how will I know if I put on the right one? Or, heaven forbid, I wear my ‘family gathering’ mask to work. What will I do? Step away and switch masks? Or, what if I wear the right mask to the grocery store, butoh, crapI see someone I know, and I don’t have the ‘right’ mask on? I’ll probably just avoid them.

You get the idea.

The sad truth is, the cognitive load associated with constantly attempting to fit in, or blend in, takes its toll. Experts correlate long-term masking with exhaustion…depression…anxiety…and low self-esteem. After a while, the mask doesn’t fit. It gets stretched out. It tears.

Sometimes, the person wearing the mask collapses. This is called ‘autistic burnout.’

Oftentimes this burnout event is the catalyst for exploring a more accurate diagnosis—that is, a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder or ASD. Unfortunately, the trauma related to the many years of psychological exhaustion, depression, and anxiety has already left its mark, leaving behind remnants.

Would you believe a study in the UK found a 787% increase in ASD diagnoses between 1998 and 2018? Yes, you heard me correctly. 787%. With adult females accounting for the bulk of those increases.

So, why the uptick? That is a valid question.

Let me tell you. It is not because ‘everyone is autistic.’ These newly diagnosed women have always been there but were overlooked because of their masking superpowers. One study from 2020 refers to these undiagnosed women as the “lost generation,” a dispiriting label.

But now there is hope. There is global evidence of progress in how we define neurodiversity and promote awareness. And more research is in the works on this relatively new demographic.

These are exciting times!

As a self-diagnosed neurodivergent and autistic person, I am passionate about what the future holds. So much so, that I founded the company, Confetti Dream Publishing, when I published my first book, The Unexpected Adventure That Changed My World. This allegorical tale uses segregated color worlds to explore diversity, equity, and inclusion. After meeting someone from another color world and finding trace elements of other colors, the protagonist starts to dream in colors—magical confetti dreams that ultimately inspire him to persevere and find all of the color worlds.

When I started exploring my mental health and the possibility of being autistic, I thought of myself as a confetti dreamer because I live in color. Now I use the term ‘confetti dreamers’ to describe a tribe of autistic women who are choosing to live authentically.

To raise awareness and promote camaraderie, I created a knowledge/resource hub with topics selected by confetti dreamers for self-help and self-expression, along with shareable resources to help others in their lives acclimate to this new, colorful life.

In the meantime, please follow me on Facebook to learn more about women with autism.

I would love to share more about my passion with you. Disclaimer: I’ll probably wear a mask.