Like ADHD, symptoms of autism spectrum disorder are different in girls than boys. As a result, more boys are referred for an autism spectrum disorder assessment than girls; a ratio as high as 10 to 1. Despite that, epidemiological research suggests for every four boys, one girl is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This means potentially thousands of young girls with autism spectrum disorder never get diagnosed.
Why Girls are less likely to be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder
The primary difference between autism spectrum disorder diagnoses in girls and boys may be caused by the ways boys and girls express themselves. Aggressive behavior is more noticeable and likely to be evaluated. Because girls typically have a greater ability to express their emotions, they’re less likely to act out when upset, confused, or overwhelmed. This is true of ASD children as well. Without this behavioral “symptom”, the other aspects of autism spectrum disorder may go unnoticed.
Another similarity between ADHD and autism spectrum disorder in girls is the symptoms are more passive in nature making them more difficult to notice. With milder symptoms, parents are reluctant to bring their daughter to an evaluation. The fear of the ASD diagnosis can outweigh the potential benefit of proper assessment and treatment.
Some experts speculate fewer girls are diagnosed because their peers are more likely to help them cope in social situations, which is where autism spectrum disorder symptoms are most readily identifiable. Nurturing is instinctive in females, so friends of a young girl with ASD will intuitively comfort her when she’s upset or guide her through social interactions.
In contrast, boys tend to be more ‘predatory’ and likely to tease a boy with autism. Because a girl’s friends do their best to help her, her parents and/or teachers may rarely or never to would warrant a clinical diagnosis.
Because social situations are stressful and awkward for girls with autism spectrum disorder, 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.
One of the key symptoms common between boys and girls is a hyper-focused interest on 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. The interest alone isn’t unusual, but a child with autism spectrum disorder will have an unusually intimate knowledge of his or her topic of interest. For example, 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.
Dr. Tony Atwood, in his paper about girls with autism spectrum disorder, noted girls “are more motivated to learn and quicker to understand key concepts in comparison to boys with autism spectrum disorder of equivalent intellectual ability.” As such, he predicted that girls would fare better in the long run, if they’re properly diagnosed.
Getting Professional Guidance
Parents who suspect their daughter may have autism spectrum disorder should seek the advice of a trained medical professional. Because autism spectrum disorder symptoms are so much subtler in girls, parents should consult with someone who specializes in autism spectrum disorder.
As with other behavioral or learning disabilities, children with autism spectrum disorder have specific educational rights. Parents of a child who’s been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder should familiarize themselves with the school district’s policy about specialized learning plans and individualized therapy. Often, a young girl with autism needs extra attention and support to help reach her academic and personal potential.
2 The Pattern of Abilities and Development of Girls with autism spectrum disorder Syndrome, Sept. 1999