Meet Valerie P.

Valerie Paradiz, PhD.

Vice President of Services and Supports at Autism Speaks

I was diagnosed with autism later in life, when I was 40 years old.

Valerie Paradiz, PhD. is the Vice President of Services and Supports at Autism Speaks. She has dedicated her professional life to initiatives and organizations that educate and provide support and training to the autism community, raised a son with autism spectrum disorder and at 40 years of age, discovered she was on the spectrum herself. This is her story.

autism in adult women: Valerie Paradiz

When you first meet me

When you first meet me, you might not know a few things about me. You might not know that I live in Colorado. You might not know that I like gardening and hiking and don’t like crowded places. You might not know that I work at Autism Speaks and have a 29-year-old son with autism. You might have to get to know me to learn these things about me.

When you first meet me, you might not know that I have autism. I’m smart and fun and easy to talk to. It’s not uncommon for people around me—even friends and coworkers—to be surprised to learn about my diagnosis. How can this be? Maybe because I’m not just someone with autism. It may be because I’m a woman with autism.

Autism by the numbers

Boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 1 in 37 boys is diagnosed with autism in the U.S. each year compared to 1 in 151 girls. Researchers are discovering that these numbers for girls may not reflect an accurate count. They’re revealing a long-standing male bias in studies that has significantly affected diagnosis and understanding of autism in girls and women.

Thankfully I had specialists who looked beyond the numbers. Without them I would have continued bumbling along in life, moving from therapist to therapist and being treated for depression, yet never really getting to the heart of the matter: my autism.

For women with autism, accessing support and effective treatment can be as much of a challenge as being believed when we tell others about our condition. And I’m painfully aware of the number of women and girls out there who are overlooked or misdiagnosed and go without support they need.

Being diagnosed

I was diagnosed with autism later in life, when I was 40 years old.

Before my diagnosis, I was good at camouflaging my condition. Growing up, I watched my three sisters curl their hair and put on makeup while they talked about boys. I learned how to mimic what they said and did. I took long walks alone after school and reviewed my social interactions from the day. I repeated aloud the words I said to others and what they’d said to me. This was how I’d try to figure out if I had made any social mistakes that day. I still do it now when I’m nervous or trying to understand confusing situations with co-workers or close relationships.

At college, I stayed away from parties and studied all the time. I was a straight A student and a perfectionist. I kept rigid routines that helped me cope, but they also made me anxious. I often studied longer than I needed to in hopes of avoiding people. I didn’t know how to interact and worried constantly about saying the wrong thing.

Like me, lots of girls and women with autism are good at camouflaging. We’re good at imitating others to mask our deficiencies so we appear normal. We’re good at not being noticed. This is why misdiagnosis or even missed diagnosis is common for girls and women and why early evaluation and diagnosis are so important.

Living with autism

If you meet me now, you might not know that I have autism. But I do. My experience as an autistic individual has shaped every aspect of my life, both personally and professionally. Since my diagnosis, I’ve learned how to better manage and enjoy relationships. And I’ve gained confidence to do new things, meet new people and open new doors.

I’m inspired by my son. He was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and immediately began early intervention services. He worked hard to gain more speech and to participate in the world around him. I raised him as a single mom. Even though we had some tough times together, we never took the good times for granted. This year, he began living independently. And he travels far and wide doing standup comedy! It’s amazing to watch him make people laugh and to bring them joy after the long journey he’s had.

I’ve dedicated my professional life to initiatives and organizations that educate and provide support and training to the autism community. In March, I joined Autism Speaks as Vice President of Supports and Services. In this role I lead the team that ensures that individuals with autism have effective interventions, services and supports throughout their lifetime. Through various education, housing, transportation and employment initiatives, we support and serve people with autism and their families in real-time every day. I’m excited about our work and how we really do make a difference in people’s lives.

I am thankful for ongoing research and discovery about autism, especially for affected women and girls. I’m hopeful that in the future girls won’t have to rely on camouflaging and late diagnosis to help them live more fully. And I'm hopeful that when you meet a girl or a woman (or anyone!) with autism, you get to know all about her and embrace all of who she is.

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