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Autism in women and executive functions

Autism in women

Statistics say that 1 out of 66 people live with autism and that there is one woman for every 4 men. Women take longer to be diagnosed and when they require help the need is much more evident than that required by men. The social aspect is the one that denotes this condition with or without diagnosis. The skills that make up the executive functions play a very important role in the management of fear and conflict that generally accompany a woman living with autism.

Autism, a sea of realities

The sea is blue, bright, sometimes calm and peaceful and sometimes dark, stormy and tempestuous. The same happens with autism, that is why the color blue has been associated with the condition. The female sex has long been identified with the color pink. Nowadays this social practice has faded away. In this case, it will be used in order to elaborate an idea and address an important issue by going beyond the title. The theme of inclusion will always be possible to address at another time.

The sea shines when it is calm and allows the sun to reflect. Fear, anxiety and even depression make that calmness disappear from any person, giving way to behaviors that are not only disruptive but also dangerous. Locking herself in her room, in the closet; throwing herself onto the beanbag wanting to sink until disappearing, playing with fire, biting her nails, pulling her hair, eating past being full, laughing, crying… becoming a stereotypical girl having a very bad day.

Distinctive characteristics of autism in women

Autism in women goes beyond the classic stereotype in this emotional reaction given the peculiarity that exists in the inhibitory control by the speed of stimulus processing in the cerebral amygdala where the emotions that provoke the situation and the reaction are located. Then, locking up is only the first step for the beginning of a chain of dramatic actions such as crying for hours, accumulating Kleenex or leafing through their photo album to curse the day they were born.

Autism in women makes sinking into disappearing so necessary that they don’t realize how much time they spend trying. In addition, the ability to prioritize tasks is deficient, they forget responsibilities, commitments, chores and duties.

For women with autism, “playing” with fire is not a game, they start lighting the stove burning whatever is in sight, causing a real tragedy, because their cognitive inflexibility keeps their stress level high and their tolerance to frustration low, exacerbating anguish and fear.

Autistic women bite their nails frequently, going beyond what any neurotypical girl would do, even making their fingers bleed. Pulling their hair until they pull out huge strands, pinching their arms or practicing cutting and then regretting it are clear signs of failure in decision making. In autism in women, overeating is common, obesity is a frequent and difficult subject to address in order to carry out a nutritional plan; laughing out loud and then crying their eyes out has come to be considered as a form of self-regulation due to the calmness in which they find themselves once the “crisis” has passed.


Often, fear and thoughts creep in, creating a vulnerability that contributes to imbalance. This is because an image can be created within the self, which gives rise to any negative thought or emotion being enhanced in women with autism given the mental inflexibility.

The conflict

With autism in women it seems that everything is a generator of conflict both for her and for the rest of the world with which she interacts. In the clothes she has to wear if she attends school or works in a company where the uniform is made of a certain type of fabric, the itching does not wait, having to deal with the discomfort for hours thus creating a bad mood. Sticking to social protocols can also create difficulties when they are not explicit and people look at you strangely and prefer to avoid you. Most of the time, they are not able to decipher facial, body and even oral expressions, generating a maladaptive or even null response because their processing speed is slowed down.

The community around women with autism.

Wherever we are and whoever we are, we must focus on taking responsibility for our society as a whole. Empathy goes beyond putting ourselves in their shoes, it implies knowing the condition and its peculiarities. Indeed, information reduces the barriers that limit their learning and participation. The family of a woman living with autism should not give up or sit back and wait for society to be the way we want it to be.

Being limited by roles, notions, concepts and ways of being in autism in women does not help much. Often, others want to collaborate with us or vice versa, because we see a deep part of ourselves in the mirror of their excellence.

What are executive functions?

Executive functions work like a musical orchestra, they are processes that are activated to make the person adapt effectively to the context in which they find themselves. These abilities are sometimes activated individually, depending on the situation and its demands, and sometimes they are activated in an intertwined way.

Types of executive functions

The skills that make up these functions are:

Processing speed

This has to do with metacognition, an important intellectual process that monitors and controls one’s own thoughts, which when limited or weak, as occurs in women with autism, generates confusion when establishing a methodology to perform tasks.

Working memory

This helps to retain key information and when there is a deficit as it usually exists in autism, there is a difficulty to solve novel problems since there is a lower capacity of comprehension.


This is basically the ability to stop before acting, motorically or verbally, in response to a given environmental or internal stimulus. When this ability is not enforced, women with autism are very likely to engage in risky behaviors.

Verbal memory

This has to do with the speed and precision in the search for information. In autism in females, deficits in this skill give way to limitation due to time pressure.

Dual performance

Working in parallel with two processes, even if they are different, with the ability to pay attention to both equally. Impaired ability in women with autism.

Cognitive flexibility

The ability to formulate different hypotheses to solve a problem, different criteria to catalog the world, to order things, to make predictions or anticipations. Deficits in this ability not only limit creative thinking, but also increase anxiety and fear, stress level and reduce tolerance to frustration. It generates greater difficulty in women at the moment of interacting with someone or performing some function in the social sphere.


This has to do with integrating, following and concluding steps to achieve something. Ability that presents difficulties in autism in women, generating poor management of time and space.

Branching (multitasking)

This is the ability to perform several tasks at the same time and to intersperse them; an almost impossible mission in women with autism, as well as decision making, since it is always related to emotion, making it difficult for them to establish priorities. Intuition is within this ability, as well as being able to decide an objective and the plan to carry it out.


As human beings, we cannot same as one another, the context and our abilities define us and put us in a certain place. It takes a lot of endurance and patience while strengthening executive functions completely in autism in women because it is about the breaking of a monolithic image that does not really fit.

True community is based on a bond of affection that begins with neurodivergent recognition and the respect it deserves.

By reconciling the inner conflict when someone “hurts” us while speaking and acting with sincerity as most women living with autism do, we make a real exercise in inclusion.


Carnero-Pardo, C. Thematic interview of Javier Tirapu Ustárroz: Executive functions [online]. Hippocampus Circulation, May 2020 [Accessed: August 2, 2021]. Available at (in Spanish):

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