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Why it's Harder to Detect Autism in Girls

Why it's Harder to Detect Autism in Girls

Boys are nearly 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism. Why is this and why are leading psychologists saying that many girls with autism are being neglected? The answers lie in different symptoms between the genders and systemic failings in the way we approach autism research.

Autism Studies are Focused Almost Entirely on Males

Concepts of autism are based primarily on males. As significantly more boys are diagnosed than girls, research is based mainly on male test subjects. Research into the female autism condition is a relatively unexplored area and the psychological community is very underdeveloped in this regard. With little knowledge about how to detect autism in girls, very few girls end up being diagnosed. It will come as no surprise then that the Childhood Autism Spectrum Test (CAST) is based on decades of male-centric research. As leading autism psychologist Tania Marshal states, “If Autism is defined by the male autism stereotype, we will not find the girls.”

We Tend to Think Only Boys Have Autism

The perception remains that autism is a “boy thing”. When research into autism in the 1970s gathered pace, it was believed that autism simply didn’t affect females. That misconception is still fuelled by cultural stereotypes today. For example, many of us associate Asperger’s with men who are introverted, socially awkward, aloof and often highly intelligent. Examples in pop culture include Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman and Sheldon Cooper from the TV show The Big Bang Theory. The diagnosis rate for Asperger’s is 10 times higher for males than it is for females and cultural stereotypes are likely to contribute to this disparity. Girls with autism are often overlooked as simply “odd”, with no explanation for their different behaviour and autism rarely suggested as a potential reason.

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Why Boys’ Autism is More Obvious

  • Girls generally do not have physical symptoms like flapping
  • Boys react angrily and loudly when upset whilst girls internalise
  • Girls are better at “fitting in” and copying normal behaviour
  • Girls’ hobbies and interests are often more “normal” than boys’ (though the intensity is the same)
  • Girls use intellect to learn and adapt whilst boys tend to not conform
  • Girls can mask their social difficulties whilst boys can’t

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Girls with Autism are overlooked

Boys with autism tend me be more disruptive than girls. Their behaviour draws the attention of parents and teachers and are more easily identified as having some learning or behavioural issue. Girls with autism, however, tend be more introverted and quieter and thus avoid the same attention as boys. After all, a child who screams and shouts and habitually disobeys authority figures is much more visible than a child who is shy and introverted.

Limiting Definitions of Female and Male Behaviour

There are broad understandings of how males and females present their autistic traits. There are certainly trends in how males and females display their symptoms differently and this aids diagnosis. But many children on the autism spectrum will be the exceptions that make the rule. Some girls will present as boys, and will contradict standard diagnostic techniques.

Diagnosing your Daughter with Autism

If you are concerned about potential autism in your daughter, check out these resources for help and guidance.

Autism.org

Ian Community

SEN

The Centre for Child Mental Health

Tania a. Marshall, Autism Psychologist and Author

NHS Autism Diagnosis Services

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