New Scientist, 4 Match 2015
Hannah Belcher is a PhD student in psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, UK, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 23. She is conducting an online survey to better understand possible misdiagnoses in females
What led to you being diagnosed so late, when you were 23?
I’d had a lot of isolated problems that nobody had really pieced together as I was growing up. I was in therapy when somebody finally said: “I think all these difficulties you’ve been having could actually be autism rather than mental illness.”
How did you react to that idea?
It was a massive shock. Despite studying autism in my psychology degree, I had never considered I might have a form of it. That’s also when I realised that there is a big issue with diagnosis in general.
Did things make sense to you at that point?
Definitely. At first I thought: I have friends, I socialise, it can’t possibly be that. But underneath I’m having the same problems: a lot of anxiety, especially in social situations, and problems like sensory overload. I realised I’m just masking it a lot.
So that led to your current research?
Yes, I wanted to find out how many other females are out there who are also masking their symptoms and so haven’t been discovered yet, just because what they are displaying isn’t stereotypical autism spectrum disorder (ASD) behaviour. My research involves a nationwide screening project and anybody, male or female, can take part atpsychscreen.co.uk.
How might women be masking symptoms?
Females are placed under a lot of pressure to fit in, and I think that drives us to develop coping mechanisms. I read a paper on memory that said female brains are naturally better than male ones at storing up scripts in social situations. When I was growing up, I would observe people around me, see how they were behaving, and develop a script to get myself through it...