Autism isn’t an easy condition to diagnose. There is no standard medical test, so doctors tend to look at the child’s behavior and development with behavior rating scales and confer with parents and school staff to make a diagnosis. People with high-functioning autism (HFA), previously referred to as asperger’s syndrome, have average or above average IQs and are often referred to as “quirky”. Their disorder is not as obvious as someone in a wheelchair, but upon closer inspection, their differences become more apparent.
Studies show one out of 59 children has an autism diagnosis, with boys being four times more likely to be on the spectrum. Although autism is more common in males, that does not mean girls cannot be diagnosed. However, an autism diagnosis may look very different in females because they are better at camouflaging their symptoms (Sissons, 2019).
Girls can be more adept at ‘masking’ their autism
Repetitive behaviors and restricted interests are a big component of autism and that appears to be more obvious in boys than girls. Girls may have restrictive interests, but their interests appear to be more socially and culturally acceptable, such as a favorite band or book, while a boy on the spectrum may spend hours looking at rocks. A female with autism might spend her free time studying makeup tutorials on the internet in order to fit in with female peers. Essentially, girls may realize they are different, so they strive to fit in as best as they can, while boys often do not realize they have any social deficits.
Girls on the spectrum also tend to be quieter and more withdrawn. They may struggle more with social anxiety and trying to fit in with certain peer groups. This can be troubling because girls with autism may be more likely to exhibit extreme behaviors due to peer pressure, while males on the spectrum tend to be more inclined to follow the rules. A female with autism may appear to be engaging with a group of girls, but upon closer inspection you might see it is a ruse. She may not actually be connecting with the group in the same way neurotypical females would. Girls, in general, are better at forming and maintaining friendships with their peers. They have more self-awareness and may be able to pick up and interpret social cues faster than the opposite sex (Sissons, 2019). Girls are better able to copy and imitate others.
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Mental health issues can occur alongside autism, such as anxiety, depression, and even personality disorders. This can make it harder to pinpoint and diagnose autism. Autism can certainly cause stress to those who struggle with it, which also manifests differently between genders. Typically, males handle stress through aggression and acting out, while girls may withdraw and engage in self-harm to alleviate it (Sissons, 2019). Eating disorders often manifest in females who feel out of control in their life and unable to cope. This does not mean every girl with a poor body image has autism, but it is definitely a red flag and further investigation should occur.
Autism is a complex disorder. People often say: “If you meet one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism.” This is because autism looks different for all who struggle with it; however, there are a few areas that separate males and females with autism. It is important to be aware of this because girls with autism also need strategies and assistance to help them become more successful in life. It may be harder to find girls with autism, but they are out there!
Sissons, C. (2019). Symptoms of autism in girls. Medical News Today. Retrieved from: www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325574#symptoms-in-girls
This article was featured in Issue 113 – Transitioning to Adulthood