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What does success mean for an autistic woman?

Five autistic women spoke at the National Autistic Society Women and Girls conference in a panel discussion exploring the question - 'What does success look like for an autistic woman?' We asked these five women to briefly share their thoughts on this topic with us in this fascinating article. Common themes throughout each of their responses are equating success with self-acceptance and feeling valued and accepted by others. 

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Authors: Sarah Hendrickx, Dr Catriona Stewart, Victoria Honeybourne, Robyn Steward, Cathy

What does success mean for an autistic women?​

Sarah Hendrickx

Sarah is an independent specialist consultant, trainer and coach in autism.

For me, success for an autistic woman means living in a way that is true to herself, as often as is reasonably possible. It involves being able to accept herself as being perfectly fine just as she is, and not feeling the need to be someone she is not. She has people around her who, although they may not fully understand her, allow her to be herself and love her for it. She feels like she belongs somewhere.

A successful autistic woman understands that she may need to define her own model for success which may not fit the expectations of society, and lives according to that in order to find her own fulfilment and peace of mind. She embraces her unique mind and lives as unconventionally as that requires. She laughs, learns and takes good care of herself above all else. Success for an autistic woman means just feeling okay.

Dr Catriona Stewart

Catriona co-founded Scottish Women's Autism Network, SWAN, in 2012 after a doctoral research study focussed on girls with Asperger's syndrome and anxiety.

What success means for an autistic woman…

…will depend on the woman. For me it means living an authentic life, finding your own voice.

Many autistic women achieve much that looks like ‘success’; degrees, career, marriage, children. And some don’t. The cost is often great in either case with loss of identity, low self-esteem and exhaustion.

Pressures and barriers are created by gender as well as autism stereotyping. The analogy of the swan is apt - women and girls may appear to be gliding along the surface of life while desperately paddling under the surface just to stay afloat. Women with ability, commitment, humour, creativity and determination may ‘fail’ at work, have broken relationships and mental health issues. 

Success is being the best ‘yourself’ possible; included in society; accepted in the community; valued and supported in all your flawed, quirky, talented, individual, loving, human self. And most of all, finding self-knowledge and self-acceptance. That would be my definition of success.

Victoria Honeybourne

Victoria is a special needs teacher and writer. Her particular interest in females on the autism spectrum has grown out of her personal as well as professional experiences.

What does success mean to an autistic woman?

My answer to this would be that success to an autistic woman means exactly the same as to any other woman (or man!). Success is being happy in your own skin; success is enjoying living a life which resonates with values that are important to you as an individual. (Depending on your conceptual viewpoint, this could also be termed spiritual enlightenment, mindfulness, or self-actualisation).

Too often success is defined in monetary or material terms: financial stability, home, job title, career promotion, lifestyle, fame, recognition, or physical appearance.  You can have all of these things, however, and still not experience happiness.

Current conceptualisations of success for women is she who has it all – education, career, partner, children, perfect house, perfect appearance, busy lifestyle, great social life, oh and who fits in a daily mindfulness practice and so emanates a serene calmness through it all.  Sound like anybody you know? Thought not!  Such ideals reflected in the media and culture around us are deliberately unattainable. We are told that we 'should' do certain things and that this will make us successful.

For autistic women success can all too often be measured by neurotypical values. If a person manages to ‘fit in’, live independently or have a full-time job for example, then they are deemed by professionals (and often by their family and friends and society in general) to be ‘successful’. However I do not consider myself to be successful because I have a job and manage to pass as neurotypical for 95% of the time, but because I no longer worry about conforming to other people’s values. I consider myself successful because I have gained self-acceptance, self-confidence and am living a life meaningful to me.

So success for a woman, autistic or not, is simply whatever she chooses it to be. Success is about not letting a label (of autism, gender or any other label) limit your definition of success.

Robyn Steward

Robyn is a trainer and consultant, working with a wide range of services for both adults and children across the autism spectrum.

What does success mean for an autistic woman?

The short answer is that it depends on the person.

Often when people talk about success and autism they hold up people like myself as examples of what success looks like. This however can mean that people don't appreciate the level of achievement another person feels when overcoming challenges that may seem small to others.

When I first flew alone on an airplane it was a huge challenge for me, and I felt great success in achieving it in the same way that stepping outside their house may be a great challenge for others. 

Everyone starts from a different place and has different measures of success, for example most people would not consider a PhD in Mathematics an essential component to a successful life but most people would consider a person with that level of qualification to be successful.

So success in terms of autistic women must surely mean something different for each person.

Cathy

Cathy is a retired biomedical scientist and researcher. She was diagnosed with high functioning autism as an adult subsequent to spending many years receiving help for a restrictive eating disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression.

I would suggest that this is very individual and depends upon many factors, including life experiences, chronological age, age at diagnosis, co-morbid mental illness – and how your autism uniquely affects you.

I was diagnosed with autism in my 40s after many years of being in the mental health system with anxiety, depression, OCD and an eating disorder. Although my late diagnosis was helpful, I had spent many years trying to understand myself and had become very confused, frustrated and self-critical.

Now in my early 50s, ‘success’ to me equates to being happy and content with who I am. I am at my happiest when absorbed in my special interests, which instil me with a sense of purpose and an identity - they provide an escape from continuous anxiety. Since my diagnosis I now have better relationships, which also boosts my mood and helps me to feel included in the world.

Date added: 7 November 2016