Like many children with autism, girls with ASD may have sensory issues, emotional regulation difficulties, trouble interpreting social cues, and other common characteristics found among children with disorders on the spectrum. But did you know that most research on autism comes from the study of boys? Girls are significantly less likely to have ASD diagnoses than boys. In fact, boys are four times as likely to be diagnosed. Why is this? The answer is not entirely clear, however it seems that girls with autism may be “hiding in plain sight.”(1)
Autism in Girls: Under-diagnosed or Less Prevalent?
SPARK, an autism research project, suggests one possible explanation for lower autism prevalence in girls is that they may be better at masking their challenges. Their symptoms might also be less severe than symptoms of their male counterparts.(1) While this may seem like a good thing, it can have negative consequences. Receiving timely and effective intervention is difficult for people who are misdiagnosed or not diagnosed. As with any other condition, intervention is critical to well-being and healthy development. The earlier the better.
Other research points out that girls on the spectrum who are high functioning demonstrate social skills on par with “most neurotypical boys, but at a lower level than most neurotypical girls”.(2) Researchers also find that girls do not show repetitive and restricted behaviors as much, or show them differently than boys. Social skill and repetitive behavior indicators are commonly found on tools used to diagnose ASD. Tools based off research that predominantly studied males.
How does ASD Look Different in Girls Compared to Boys?
Autism in girls appears to look somewhat different than in boys. When researchers took a deeper look at autism in girls without intellectual disabilities, they found that girls tend to mimic others more often. This behavior helps them “fit in.” On the other hand, they found that boys with ASD seem to have a greater tendency to self-isolate than girls do.(2)
Girls with ASD also tend to have more melt-downs, irritability, and lethargy.(1) However, they tend to do better than boys at holding it together in public, then blowing off steam at home. One study found that girls with ASD between 4 and 20 years old experienced emotional reactivity more often than boys. They also scored higher on measures of depressed mood.(3)
The Future of Autism in Girls
Perhaps autism does occur more often in males. But maybe it’s not as dramatic a difference as current figures suggest. Either way, it is becoming more evident that autism in girls looks a little different. While the core profile of autism doesn’t vary much between genders, girls with ASD face unique qualities and challenges. While some things remain uncertain, one thing is clear- we must work to better understand ASD in girls so that it is more easily recognized. Gender-specific research would help ensure this group does not continue to be overlooked.
- Sarris, Marina. “Are Girls With Autism Hiding in Plain Sight?” SPARK. sparkforautism.org/discover_article/are-girls-with-autism-hiding-in-plain-sight/
- Bennie,Maureen. “High Functioning Girls With Autism Often Go Undiagnosed.” Autism Awareness Centre Inc. autismawarenesscentre.com/girls-harder-diagnose-autism-boys/
- Hess, Peter. “Autistic girls may experience more emotional challenges than autistic boys do.” SPECTRUM. www.spectrumnews.org/news/autistic-girls-may-experience-more-emotional-challenges-than-autistic-boys-do/