A CHARITY founder and researcher has been recognised with an OBE for advocating the rights and needs of autistic women.

Dr Catriona Stewart, who co-founded the Scottish Women's Autism Network (SWAN) and is on a three-year secondment from Alloa-based Scottish Autism, was named in the Queen's New Year's Honours list.

She launched the charity after completing her PhD on the experiences of anxiety for girls with Asperger's Syndrome and her organisation now provides support to females across Scotland.

A lifelong feminist, Dr Stewart became interested in the field when she was undertaking her masters degree and her later work focused on gaining more insight into the experiences of women with the lifelong developmental difference.

She explained that when she started her PhD, it was understood autistic people had higher levels of mental health problems.

Dr Stewart said: "But we didn't know why and what I realised was that it was because people were not actually asking autistic people why they were anxious.

"I was really committed to facilitate the voices of autistic girls themselves because I really wanted to know what their experiences were, not what other people thought about their experiences."

Before her PhD and the eventual founding of SWAN in 2012, people with an autism diagnosis were largely male.

Dr Stewart said: "Yet, it was really obvious that the autistic people who were writing books and talking about their lives were actually women.

"I thought: They obviously exist, so why are they being ignored?"

Whether autism spectrum disorders affect men and women in the same proportions is still a question, but the ratio among those diagnosed has started moving closer to 1:1.

With many older women now receiving an autism diagnosis, Dr Stewart suspects the numbers are about equal.

The best current evidence, however, still suggests males are the larger proportion.

Autistic girls can face unique challenges, whether that is society's expectations or the way they are bullied at school.

Also, Dr Stewart says they are better at hiding their problems and "masquerading" in a bid to fit in.

SWAN is a fitting acronym then, as she explained the analogy is that the bird can "appear to be gliding on the surface of life really smoothly, but is actually desperately paddling underneath just to keep afloat".

Dr Stewart had been an expert advisor to the National Autism Project and helped develop numerous resources, including SWAN's Under Our Wing peer mentoring project.

Ultimately, she would like to see a society where autistic people are fully integrated and argues that having a team member who sees the world in a different way and thinks outside the box is a must have for any company.

She felt "honoured" receiving the OBE, which she felt was for everyone involved with SWAN.

The charity is run almost entirely by volunteer autistic women for others like them and the co-founder added: "It's a fantastic validation for them, for the work and for all our allies and supporters too.

"It feels very much like a collective honour."