Girls and Aspergers Syndrome
Asperger’s syndrome is named for Hans Aspergers, the man who initially discovered the disorder. The characteristics of Asperger’s are similar to autism, the primary difference being that they’re milder.
Like ADHD, symptoms of Asperger’s are different in girls than boys, consequently, more boys are referred for an Asperger’s assessment than girls; a ratio as high as 10:1 has been suggested. Despite that, epidemiological research suggests a ratio of 4:1 is more accurate, which means that there are potentially thousands of young girls with Asperger’s who never get diagnosed.
The primary differences between Asperger’s diagnoses in girls and boys seem to be caused by basic differences in the ways boys and girls express themselves. Aggressive behavior is more noticeable, and a child who is overly aggressive is more likely to be evaluated. Because girls have a greater ability to express their emotions, they’re less likely to act out when they’re upset, confused or overwhelmed. Without this behavioral “symptom”, the other aspects of Asperger’s are more likely to go unnoticed.
Another similarity between ADHD and Asperger’s in girls is that the symptoms are more passive in nature, which makes them more difficult to notice. Because the symptoms are milder, parents are also more reluctant to bring their daughter in for a diagnosis.
Some experts speculate that fewer girls are diagnosed because their peers are more likely to help them cope in social situations, which is where Asperger’s symptoms are most readily identifiable. Nurturing is instinctive in females, and so the friends of a young girl with Aspergers will intuitively comfort her when she’s upset, or guide her through social interactions. In contrast, boys tend to be more ‘predatory’ and therefore more likely to tease a boy with Asperger’s. Because a girl’s friends do their best to help her, her parents and/or teachers may never see symptoms – or may not see them often enough – that would warrant a clinical diagnosis.
One of the key symptoms common between boys and girls is a hyper-focused interest one particular thing or topic. For boys, the special interests are often in areas of science or transportation (trains or airplanes). In girls, the focus is often on animals or classic literature. 1 The interest in and of itself isn’t unusual, but a child with Asperger’s will have an unusually intimate knowledge of his or her topic of interest. Young girls may play with dolls and have imaginary friends, which doesn’t seem at all unusual. However, her interest in these things will continue even when she’s a teenager and they should have been outgrown.
Because social situations are stressful and awkward for girls with Asperger’s, they often learn to mimic people who have stronger social skills. They may adopt someone else’s mannerisms, facial expressions and even vocal intonations. Again, this is sometimes misinterpreted – especially in older children or adults – and may be misdiagnosed as a personality disorder.
Dr. Tony Atwood, in his paper about girls with Asperger’s2, noted that girls “are more motivated to learn and quicker to understand key concepts in comparison to boys with Asperger’s Syndrome of equivalent intellectual ability.” As such, he predicted that girls would fare better in the long run, if they’re properly diagnosed.
Parents who suspect that a daughter may have Asperger’s should seek the advice of a trained medical professional. Be sure to take note of the behaviors in question, including frequency and environment in which the behavior takes place. Because Asperger’s symptoms are so much more subtle in girls, parents should consult with someone who specializes in Asperger’s.
As with other behavioral or learning disabilities, children with Asperger’s have specific educational rights. Parents of a child who’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s should familiarize themselves with the school district’s policy about things like specialized learning plans. Often, a young girl with Asperger’s need just a little extra attention to keep her on track toward reaching both her academic and personal potential.
1 Source: http://www.aspergerfoundation.org.uk/infosheets/ta_girls.pdf
2 The Pattern of Abilities and Development of Girls with Asperger’s Syndrome, Sept. 1999