Ninety percent of Asperger diagnoses are for boys. Not because girls don’t have Asperger’s, but because it’s so much harder to identify in girls that they go largely undiagnosed. I didn’t know I have Asperger’s until my son was diagnosed.
Asperger’s is a developmental disorder–often associated with Silicon Valley as the “Geek Syndrome“–that’s almost impossible to self-identify because central to the dysfunction is very poor social skills. But poor social skills means that you are missing social cues which means that you don’t know you’re missing social cues. Everyone in the room wants you to shut up and you don’t know it.
More importantly, people with Asperger’s often never gain the soft skills so important for workplace success. Aspergers comes with a high risk of depression, homeslessness and suicide. So identifying it in girls is important.
People can identify boys with Asperger’s because it’s a stereotype: Albert Einstein, the guy on The Big Bang Theory, the crazy genius who looks like a dork.
Asperger’s is much harder to identify in girls because girls with terrible social skills are still better than most men. So tons of women at work are walking around undiagnosed, and it’s holding them back from getting help.
1. You are out of step socially in terms of grooming or sex
A telltale sign of female Asperger’s is hair that’s always a mess. It seems too complicated to comb hair. Of course there are girls who don’t have Asperger’s who have messy hair. Or, if their hair isn’t a mess then they might have absolutely no idea what to do with guys. Girls with Asperger’s are late developers socially, and I found myself making sexual mistakes a fifteen-year-old would make when I was as old as twenty-nine. In the workplace, women with Asperger’s will have no sense of how to dress or how to present themselves to look like other women. And they will have no sense of why this would matter.
2. You are disorganized in surprising ways
A diagnosis of Asperger’s in girls often focuses on executive function. Executive function is the ability to stay organized, to know that all details are not of equal importance and ignore unimportant details.
For example, there is five minutes at any given time when your bank balance might not perfectly reflect your expenditures. There might be lag time. Most people ignore this, and keep track of their finances. Someone with Asperger’s would declare that keeping track of their bank account is impossible because the reporting system is so unorganized. If you argued with the person with Asperger’s, that person would think you are a moron for not understanding the shortcomings of banking technology.
In work, a woman with Asperger’s would seem reasonable every time she asks for clarification, but if you add up all the times she asks for clarification it would be way way more than any of her peers. She would think this is because she is precise and people around her are lazy thinkers. In fact, she is not able to figure out the details that people leave out because they don’t matter.
3. You are unpredictably detail oriented
Another person with Asperger’s would be amazing at balancing a checkbook because they like the rules, but they would have no understanding about why someone would spend their last dime to buy clothes for a job interview.
The pattern is not a particular thing that is off-key, it’s that the person is always off-key and indignant that other people think she’s off-key.
Poor executive function for a young person is maybe not remembering what you are doing second to second. Not bringing the right books home from school. Forgetting to brush teeth. (I didn’t brush my teeth consistently until I was 22. That’s when I figured out how to remember on a daily basis.)
I have very poor executive function. Sometimes I have complete disasters, like I can’t get my driver’s license after twenty tries at the DMV, or I can’t remember my own age and I fill out a form wrong and people think I’m intentionally lying. But mostly, I have a lot of people around me–paid and unpaid–to help me. Also, I have therapists who help my son who has Asperger’s and, if I watch closely enough, they help me, too.
4. Moving from one thing to another is difficult
A lot of executive function is about transitions. For example, there are two things you like to do, but moving between them is hard, so you don’t. You just never change. This looks like procrastination, or laziness, or irresponsibility in kids.
The relative strong social skills of girls makes it too easy to mask poor executive function. It’s a huge disservice to girls, who will go through life with off-putting social skills and not realize it and have no idea why success is so elusive. So much of what we put up with in quirky kids is completely unacceptable in the adult world–especially for women.
Also, poor executive function is genetic, which makes it even harder for parents to recognize it in a daughter (they are used to it in their family). And the genetic component makes it more likely that parents don’t notice–for example people with poor executive function have so much trouble with transitions that they unintentionally avoid them at home. People with Asperger’s are also attracted to people with Asperger’s, so it’s hard to recognize that you are out of step with the general population you when your friends are also like you.
So take a good look at yourself. If you are scatter-brained, with no follow though, if you are a little weird socially, with no attention to typical girl concerns (like appearance), then you might have Asperger’s. So many girls go undiagnosed. I was one of them. And I see all the help the boys are getting as kids. I would have liked some of that.
The best thing I did as an adult was to surround myself with people who understand my limitations and can function as a guide for me. My co-worker, Ryan, for example, helped me sift through the world of dating. And other co-workers help me get through meetings by knowing when I am likely to say something inappropriate and stifling it. If you think you might have Asperger’s, have yourself evaluated by someone who does that for a living. You can find them on your insurance plan, or you can use one of hundreds of tests online. And once you know, start trusting people who give you advice. The people with Asperger’s who are the most successful are people who understand their weaknesses and ask for help. Of course this is a great skill to everyone to learn, but especially people with Asperger’s.