Today, I came across this article about a woman in India who was institutionalized twice against her will after an unofficial bipolar diagnoses and still struggles stigma. Her husband left her, took their children with him, she hasn’t been able to find work due to prejudice, and even her family holds it over her head.
I know it’s tempting for those of us in the west to dismiss her experience as distant or unimportant, but we’re not exempt from the damage done by stigma and false diagnosis.
Although we have gotten away from forced institutionalization for the most part, having any label of mental illness or disability can make getting work, forming relationships, schooling and even getting adequate medical care difficult. This is true for both men and women.
The unique problem girls and women face, though, is that we’re still too often misdiagnosed as having mood disorders instead of neurological makeups like autism, or ASD.
ASD is still very much seen as a male thing, and more boys are indeed identified as ASD than girls. However, that doesn’t mean that girls can’t be a part of that spectrum, and the symptoms, like hyper-focus on certain things and interpersonal communication problems, aren’t present.
They’re often just written off as “typical girl behavior”. Think about what the stereotypical little girl is: very shy, interested in a narrow range of things (ponies and unicorns and glitter, oh my!) She’s also quiet, until you get her with her friends.
|Glitter isn’t only for girls any more than autism is only for boys.|
Autistic girls may have problems communicating with others, which may translate into the misconception of shyness, and when they have a pinpoint interest, especially if it’s ‘feminine’ in any way, that also fits the stereotype. Maybe she’s not quiet at first, but eventually her anxiety over social situations often results in a very silent child. Then, there’s the added pressure to make friends, which could result in an overly chatty child when with her peers. As time passes, the need to be “normal” mounts, and she begins to suffer in other ways, such as developing panic attacks or eating disorders.
Of course, treatments don’t work, because, surprise, surprise! They’re treating her for something she doesn’t have! Worse yet, with any medication comes the risk of very unpleasant, potentially deadly side effects.
On top of all of that, that original misdiagnosis could be grounds for more medical mishaps. I’ve known way too many people with bipolar disorder, clinical depression and other mental illnesses who have had very real symptoms written off as a part of a past diagnosis.
Even without any sort of mental health diagnosis, I’ve had that happen to me simply because I’m a woman. Yes, I left those doctors in my dust. Why waste time and money on them? But I digress…
If you’re lucky enough to get that misdiagnosis removed from your official medical records, you’re still stuck with the stigma that comes with it, as in Deepali’s case. Your friends and family may not be able to easily forget their misconceptions about mental illness, which only makes it an even more forbidden topic for those who do cope with it every day.
Can you imagine how much suffering could be avoided if these girls were diagnosed correctly in the first place? How much better would their lives be if they were given early therapy for their sensory problems? How much more healthy would their relationships be if they were taught communication methods in a way they can understand?
I’m constantly amazed at how gender can so strongly color how we’re treated by everyone from random guys on the street to medical professionals. It’s devastating to think it will continue to happen, too, unless some big changes are made in how we’re viewed by cultures all around the world.
Here are a few more articles about autism misdiagnosis in girls for your perusal:
Diagnosis eludes many girls with autism, study finds
Not Just a Boy Thing: how doctors are letting down girls with autism
The Misdiagnosis of Women on the Autism Spectrum: A Shared Story Go ahead and break the “don’t read the comments” rule for this one. There are quite a few readers whose stories mimic the author’s.