Emma Taylor spent her whole life believing that something was wrong with her.
"I've always been called weird or a little bit strange. One of the regulars at work calls me Fruit Loop. It was just something I was used to," the 27-year-old said.
But when her six-year-old daughter Felicity was recently diagnosed with autism, Emma came to a startling realisation.
"I was reading through her autism checklist, and I thought, 'Hang on a minute, I'm checking every single box here too'. I was checking 99 per cent of these boxes, and I began to wonder whether maybe I had it as well," she said.
Shortly after Felicity's diagnosis, the Ipswich-based mum who works as a gaming attendant booked herself in to see a clinical psychologist.
Image: article supplied
Emma's childhood was marked by odd behaviours that concerned her mother, but were dismissed by the family doctor as "quirkiness".
If she had a packet of lollies, she felt compelled to divide them by colour before she could eat them.
She could not help but mimic people's accents and mannerisms.
She had lots of friends at school, but found socialising so draining she would sometimes come home, sit on the floor and stare into space.
"Everyone thought I was daydreaming, but my way of recharging was shutting down. I just needed nothingness," Emma explained.
Girls with autism flying under the radar
Like many Australians, Emma wrongly assumed autism was an exclusively male condition.
The stereotype of the boy genius who cannot make eye contact is so widespread that experts believe many women and girls with autism are going undiagnosed.
"For a few decades now, we've believed that for every girl on the autism spectrum, there are four boys," said Dr Michelle Garnett, a Brisbane clinical psychologist who specialises in autism diagnoses.
"We now think the ratio is one girl to every two boys. That's many more girls than first thought."
The main problem for clinicians is that women with autism are often the ultimate chameleons, able to observe the dynamics of any social situation, and perform what they believe is required of them.
"But even though we see that beautiful mask, often they get home, they're so exhausted, they're melting down, they can engage in self-harm from a very young age, and they start often to isolate themselves."
Professor Andrew Whitehouse from research group Autism CRC has drafted a new set of diagnostic guidelines to help clinicians identify women who may be flying under the radar.
The guidelines would alert doctors to the predominantly female markers of autism.
"The end goal is to provide every person the optimal start on their autism journey, irrespective of the background, geographic location, or indeed their sex," Professor Whitehouse said.
The guidelines have been submitted to the National Health and Medical Research Council for endorsement.
A diagnosis could be a lifesaver for women and girls with autism, according to Dr Garnett.
"They often have no idea who they are behind the mask," she said.
"That leads to enormous difficulties in depression, but also in social anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Anorexia nervosa is overrepresented by far in our girls with Asperger's syndrome and autism."
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