Historically it’s been thought that autism is four times more common in boys than in girls. However, studies are now suggesting that the true ratio is one in two. Why the shift?The current methods for diagnosing autism are skewed toward how autism affects boys. To be diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s, girls need to display more behavioral problems or a significantly higher intellectual disability. Girls with less severe symptoms are more likely to be misdiagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anorexia.
Behavioral and preliminary neuro-imaging suggests that autism manifests differently in girls. Scientific American has a must-read article outlining some of these differences. Here are some highlights:
- Females can more easily mask, camouflage or compensate for ASD symptoms than males.
- Girls obsessively focus on reading, looking for rules for social life so they can connect and fit in.
- The difference between typical and autistic development in girls is in their intensity. They may refuse to talk about anything other than their topic of interest.
- Autistic girls exhibit less repetitive behavior than the boys do.
- The pastimes and preferences of autistic girls are more similar to those of typical girls rather than stereotypically male interests.
- Girls with autism are more likely than autistic boys to pretend play; they just don’t put themselves into the story.
- A study published in 2014 by Baron-Cohen and his colleagues found that “66 percent of adults with Asperger’s reported suicidal thoughts, a rate nearly 10 times higher than the general population. 71 percent of them were women, who made up about one third of the sample”.
Kevin Pelphrey, a leading autism researcher at Yale University’s Child Study Center says, “Everything we thought was true of autism seems to only be true for boys.” For example, his (unpublished as of yet) studies show that the brain of an autistic boy uses different regions to processes social information such as eye movements and gestures than a typical boy’s brain does.
Yet that’s not true of girls. Each girl’s brain “looks like that of a typical boy of the same age, with reduced activity in regions normally associated with socializing.” So according to the tests, these girls appear to be normal. But they’re remarkable different from typical girls of their age.
I experienced first hand many of these things when I was raising my autistic daughter. Until she was diagnosed, I was frantic. I know all too well that hopeless feeling of watching a child struggle in life and not knowing what to do.
Do you suspect that one of your female family members has undiagnosed autism? With a proper diagnosis, you can begin the process of helping her live a better life. If you live near Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA please contact my office and schedule an appointment.
You can read my story and that of others’ in my book, Out of Mind – Out of Sight: Parenting with a Partner with Asperger Syndrome (ASD). Click on the image below to download a free chapter.