According to statistics, there are more boys who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, compared to that of girls. In fact, according to the latest autism prevalence report by the CDC, one in 34 boys is diagnosed with autism while for girls it’s only one in 144. This is not surprising since several cases of autism in girls are only diagnosed at a later stage.
Although the diagnosis criteria for autism does not recognize gender, studies suggest that ASD may look differently in girls – different to the extent that it’s unrecognizable and can be difficult to diagnose.
Interestingly, some researchers who have studied ASD in girls found that there is not much divergence between boys and girls who are diagnosed with autism. However, one article argues that it could just be because girls whose behaviors are similar to that of boys with ASD, are the ones that are usually diagnosed and are therefore the ones included in most studies about gender disparities in the context of autism.
It is not uncommon that girls are misdiagnosed or remain undiagnosed because their symptoms often manifest in ways that can be perceived as acceptable behavior or what’s expected of them.
Girls who have ASD can be withdrawn, uninterested, and passive just as much as boys with ASD do. They can also be fixated in a specific field of interest but unlike boys, they may shy away from the typical areas of math and science. For today’s blog, let’s find out more about what sets females apart from males with autism.
In the autism community, this moniker refers to ASD girls who are misdiagnosed, undiagnosed, or have a late diagnosis. They are often overlooked and since they remain undiagnosed until at a later stage, they experience a greater challenge in coping with their mental health.
Additionally, these lost girls are not able to receive early intervention, proper support, education and reinforcements. This takes away the opportunity for them to have a quality life, reach their full potential and grow up to become functional adults that can contribute to society.
Female Autism May Not Just Fit The “Mold”
In general, autism is characterized by a deficit in social skills, challenges in communication, repetitive behaviors, and at times, difficulty in sensory processing. As each child is different, the severity of these characteristics varies, regardless of gender. Yet, clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Susan F. Epstein connotes that the present model in diagnosing classical autism has been a male-centric after all. However, she does mention that it’s’ not necessary to think that girls do not exactly fit in the model. Females are likely to have a more subdued presentation, as well as having a broader area of interest and play compared to boys.
Furthermore, girls often exhibit more socially-acceptable interests and less repetitive behaviors than those of boys. Compared to males, females have the tendency to hide their autism often by pushing themselves to stop exhibiting symptoms that the people around them find socially unacceptable. Their ability to mask their autism often leaves them evading a diagnosis – this is especially true for females who have high-functioning autism.
An Emerging Autism Profile
Through years of accumulated research and survey, psychologists are only just beginning to build the autism profile for women. According to a 2015 research that discusses the differences in women with autism compared to their male counterparts, women exhibit behaviors that are viewed as positive, such as better communication and social imitation skills as well as creativity.
Autistic women are also less withdrawn and often have a strong desire to directly engage with their peers. Additionally, they possess better imagination and a keen interest in humans and animals, compared to males who can be fixated in inanimate objects. These characteristics are the reason why females are misdiagnosed, diagnosed late or even miss a diagnosis. It is critical to be able to look out for all possible symptoms for a girl to receive the proper diagnosis.
Researchers continue to get closer to understanding how autism truly is for females. What we do know are the differences in autism presentation between men and women. While the emerging autism profile for women is progressive and promising, there are still challenges to overcome when it comes to female autism. Awareness is key for people to recognize how unique autism can be for the female population. This helps in a proper diagnosis so girls can receive early intervention such as occupational therapy and ABA therapy.