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Successful Career Women In Loving Relationships- With Asperger’s Syndrome

August 15, 2012

When it comes to making a lasting impression on a first date, there are few women who could top Sarah Hewitt. As husband Chris now recalls: ‘Sarah invited me to her flat and we were sitting on the sofa, sharing a bottle of wine and chatting.

‘It was all very pleasant and at one point during the conversation I leaned over and touched Sarah on the leg. She punched me in the face, right between the eyes.’

He could have been forgiven for taking this as a clear signal to run a mile. But Chris, 56, a builder and property developer — now married to 34-year-old Sarah — was undeterred.

‘I realise that most men would have been put off by what happened, but I’d known Sarah as a friend for years and I’ve always been drawn to her because she’s different.

‘Although she can be serious and professional, she has a rather child-like outlook on life which is so refreshing. She’d punched me because I’d taken her by surprise. She simply wasn’t expecting my touch.’

 But that wasn’t the only reason. Sarah, a senior consultant for a firm which helps telecommunications businesses, is one of a number of  high-achieving women in Britain who have Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism sometimes referred to as a ‘hidden disability’ because the symptoms of it are not immediately apparent.

It means she has problems with social interaction and communication — often misreading signals and saying or doing what many people would regard as inappropriate.

One in 100 people in the UK are thought to be on the autistic spectrum, but there are no accurate figures for how many women are on it because so many of them go undiagnosed.

‘Women are much better at masking their symptoms than men, so it’s far harder to say how many of them have it,’ says Dr Judith Gould, of the National Autistic Society.

‘As girls, they are very good at copying other people’s behaviour, so they often get through junior school and adolescence without anyone noticing. It’s only as they get older that they often suffer other mental problems such as eating disorders or nervous breakdowns. That’s when Asperger’s may finally be diagnosed.’

Understanding social nuance doesn’t come easily to people with the condition and punching Chris, whom she married five years ago, is not the first time Sarah has misread signals.

‘I’ve upset plenty of people,’ she admits. ‘I upset Mum all the time because I’m always checking best-before dates on her food and the ingredients of meals she’s made. I inspect every glass before I drink out of it, and even though Mum knows I only do it because I have Asperger’s, she takes it as personal criticism.’

 Sarah has also got herself into trouble at work several times by repeating other people’s jokes and comments without understanding that they were inappropriate.

‘For example, I’ve gone up to people in the office and said things like: “You must be ‘Octopus Mike’ or ‘Orange John” — the secret nicknames people have given them.

‘But, the way I see it, I didn’t come up with those names, I’m just repeating what other people have said.’

Sarah’s mother suspected she might have autism when she was still a baby, since she failed to make eye contact and resisted any physical contact — both classic traits of autistic children.

‘She didn’t bond with me, so Mum took me to the doctors. He said I’d grow out of it, but of course I didn’t,’ she says.

Sarah did well at her studies, leaving private boarding school with ten GCSEs and three  A-levels, but there were periods of teenage rebellion where, she says, she went on drinking binges and ‘off the rails’. ‘I always found it difficult to get on with groups of people, so I suffered from a low-level bullying,’ says Sarah.

‘I was quite studious, but I struggled with the academic side of things — not necessarily the level of work, but with organisational things like doing the wrong homework, or taking the wrong books to the wrong lesson.’

Sarah realised she was different to other girls when she was in her teens, but it wasn’t until she was 26 that she was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. As a result of the disorder, she feels she has never coped well with looking after herself.

‘When I lived on my own after university, I never had any clothes to wear because I’d end up wearing something once, throwing it to one side and never bothering to wash it. I just went out and bought something else instead.’

Typically, autism and Asperger’s are often thought of as masculine disorders thanks to the lack of emotion and empathy sufferers display.

Sarah can relate to this. She feels much more comfortable navigating reams of data and figures than dealing with people. And a simple trip to  the supermarket can be a nightmare for her.

‘Asda and Sainsbury’s are particularly difficult for me because of the way the stores are laid out,’ she says. ‘I can’t block out external stimuli, so the lighting and the noises from the fridges can be distressing.

‘When I’m with Chris I stay in the car and let him do the shopping. I can only describe it as my brain being like a computer which can only work for so long running a certain number of programmes before it crashes.’

At home, Chris takes care of chores such as cooking and cleaning. ‘Sarah’s absolutely useless at all that,’ he says. ‘So she looks after the more technical side of things — setting up the television or reading through instruction manuals.

‘If we’re buying a sofa, Sarah will read through all the small print before we sign, which can be frustrating, but at least we know she won’t have missed a trick.’

 This is behaviour that Emily Woodhams-Beazeley, a financial analyst for a water company, understands only too well.

Intelligent, successful and highly motivated, she has an IQ of 140, which puts her in the genius category, and she was recently awarded the highest-possible performance rating by her employer.

But, once or twice a week, 30-year-old Emily will find the hubbub of her large, open-plan office too much to bear. Stressed, overwhelmed and anxious, she is forced to flee the building and work on her laptop from the sanctuary of her car until she has calmed down.

‘Working in an open-plan office is a challenge for me sometimes,’ says Emily, who lives in Reading, Berkshire, with her husband Steve, 56, an engineer, and five-month-old  daughter Poppy.

‘I’m very sensitive to light and noise, so with 200 people all working in one room, it can feel like fireworks going off in front of my eyes — and as if people are banging saucepans in my ears. I often have to escape for half an hour, count to ten, and get my thoughts in order before I can go back.’

Emily was in her 20s when she finally found an explanation for the problems that had plagued her all her life.

‘At school I was always terrified that I was in trouble and I’d get tearful in most lessons,’ she explains.

‘I thought the teachers were angry because they were shouting. It was only when I was doing my A-levels, and someone pointed out to me that the teachers only spoke loudly because they wanted the whole class to hear them, that I realised it wasn’t just me they were yelling at.

‘As a child, I’d always found making friends very difficult. My first instinct when I’m upset is to burst into tears, which in the adult world isn’t acceptable. People said I’d grow out of it, but I didn’t.’

Emily was studying at Loughborough University and had suffered a nervous breakdown by the time she finally got help. She explains: ‘I’d been very depressed and anxious, and wouldn’t leave the house. I was crying all the time.’

She was referred to a support centre that helps people with disabilities, and it was there that one of the doctors suggested she may have Asperger’s, which tests subsequently confirmed.

‘It was such a relief when I realised I wasn’t on my own,’ she says. ‘Being a woman with Asperger’s is difficult, and even now I don’t meet many women with it. I’m in a social group for people with the condition, and the majority of them are men.’

So how does Emily cope in the area where empathy and human communication skills are considered to be crucial — mothering?

It’s not a problem, she insists.  ‘People might suspect it hinders things, but actually I’ve found it helps. Babies and young children like routine and so do people with Asperger’s, so the two go hand in hand.’

The condition has also helped Emily’s career. Indeed, there are female university lecturers, military strategists, writers and artists who all have Asperger’s, and whose particular talents include exceptional memories, logic and research skills.

Emily adds: ‘My husband calls me a cross between a computer and an encyclopedia. I’ve been very lucky because I’ve used Asperger’s to my advantage in my job. As a financial analyst, I spot patterns in figures which other people have missed.

‘I can work out what things mean from thousands of numbers. I have no concept of getting bored, whereas some people find working out lots of data incredibly dull.’

Like Sarah, when Emily is shopping at the supermarket she too can be easily overwhelmed by the noise and lights, and if one thing on her shopping list is unavailable, she is thrown into confusion.

‘People with Asperger’s like to have things done in a certain order, so if something messes that up, it’s quite stressful,’ she explains.

‘It takes me at least two hours in the morning to prepare for work. I lay all my clothes out the night before and have a set routine, but if my husband moves something and it isn’t where I expect it to be, that can add an hour to my day.’

Another successful woman with Asperger’s Syndrome is Dr Becky Heaver, 33, a psychology research assistant at the University of Brighton, who describes coping with the condition as ‘going through life in a little boat while everyone else is on a cruise liner’.

And Becky can only cope with one person at a time in her boat, she says.

‘I much prefer spending time one-to-one, so working in academia is perfect for me, and I was probably drawn to psychology because I wanted to understand people better.

‘My work involves lots of spreadsheets, and I’m able to see patterns and solve problems other people can’t see so clearly. But the thought of giving a lecture or presentation scares the life out of me, so I try to steer clear of anything like that.’

Becky had long suspected she had the condition but was only given a formal diagnosis two years ago, when she paid to have a private assessment.

‘It was a massive relief to be told I had it because it took away the feelings of guilt I’d had for so long.

‘For years I’d been so hard on myself, telling myself I needed to try harder to fit in, and that I needed to make more of an effort socially.’

In fact, Becky has few friends, preferring to have just one at each stage of her life because that is all she can cope with.

She lives with her boyfriend of three-and-a-half years, Alex, 31, who’s a builder.

He understands the syndrome because he believes that he too is on the autistic spectrum — although he has not had a  formal diagnosis.

‘My condition has affected my past relationships,’ says Becky. ‘Some boyfriends have thought it odd that I have a lot of routines in my day, but that’s what makes me feel safe.

‘In the morning, for example, I like to do things in the same order, but Alex understands that.’

As for having children, Becky says she has trouble envisaging her future. ‘I don’t like change,’ she says. ‘So it’s difficult to see what the future will bring. I’m not sure if I want a family.

‘I’m perfectly happy, and even if  I could change having Asperger’s, I wouldn’t.

‘If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be able to do the job I do so well. It’s a part of who I am.’

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