Young Girls and Autism
Written by Dr. Richard O. Wiliams
Ask anyone who knows a little about autism who is more likely to be autistic, boy or girls, and most will say boys. Current diagnostic statistics seem to bear this out, as the present ratio of boys to girls diagnosed with autism is 4 to 1.
The truth, however, is different.
“So why then do many autistic girls go undiagnosed, or are misdiagnosed?”
Many feel that the actual ratio of autistic boys to girls is probably much closer to 1 to 1, especially given that autism is a genetic condition, and genetic conditions generally do not discriminate between the sexes.
So why then do many autistic girls go undiagnosed, or are misdiagnosed?
First, autism typically manifests itself differently in girls and young women than it does in boys and young men. For instance, autistic young girls rarely act out with disruptive behavior like boys. Many are often are model students, hiding their differences from teachers and parents. Girls on the spectrum also tend to be more social, while boys on the spectrum enjoy playing on their own. In the case of autism, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (sometimes referred to as the Bible of psychiatry), describes the traits of the condition that are most frequently found in boys. So, when mental health professionals assess children for autism, these professionals often fail to diagnose as autistic girls who don’t display many of those traits.
An autistic girl’s peers can also unwittingly help them mask their syndrome. Some neurotypical girls naturally defend and stand up for autistic girls, which further helps the autistic girl fit in and remain undiagnosed.
As a result, some autistic girls who go through elementary school and high school without presenting traditional autistic symptoms are only diagnosed when they become adults, which can happen as late as middle-age. When young girls are diagnosed with autism, it is usually because they display many of the symptoms found in boys. (In general, if girls show similar symptoms to boys their condition is more severe than the many girls who go undiagnosed.)
This lack of diagnosis, however, often has serious consequences.
As they enter adolescence, girls on the spectrum have learned to use socially acceptable behavior to hide their true selves. Their skills at social mimicking and imitation become incredibly well-developed, but the disconnect between their outward appearance and inward reality can create serious anxiety and often depression. This can then exacerbated when some of the autistic girl’s peers who once helped her now ostracize and even bully her when she fails to fit in. These combined stresses often produce extreme anxiety and can result in unrelated psychological disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
How can you as a parent help better manage your daughters—or sons—transition through these years?
In the coming months, we at AllWaysAutistic will give you some useful tips in future blogs and videos. In the meantime, recognizing the changing face of autism—especially for girls—is an important first step in helping your daughter or son navigate the challenges of life on the spectrum.