Updated: Nov 3
Autism in Girls: Often A Hidden Challenge
Autism is a condition that affects how people communicate, interact, and behave. Current diagnosis rates reflect that it is more common in boys than in girls, but many experts believe that the actual difference in prevalence is smaller than what these statistics suggest.
Many girls with autism are not diagnosed or are diagnosed later in life because they have different ways of coping and masking their symptoms than boys. This can lead to missed opportunities for support and intervention, as well as increased risks of mental health problems and social isolation.
In this article, I will explore some of the reasons why girls on the spectrum are often missed or misunderstood and what can be done to improve the recognition and understanding of autism in girls.
Autism in Girls: The Criteria for Diagnosis
The diagnosis of autism is currently based on two main criteria: social communication and interaction difficulties, and restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests. However, these criteria are derived from studies that mostly focused on boys with autism and may not capture the full spectrum of autism in girls.
For example, some girls with autism may have more social motivation than boys but struggle to maintain friendships and resolve conflicts. Others may have less interest in socializing but appear more polite and compliant than boys.
Similarly, some autistic girls may have less obvious or more socially acceptable repetitive behaviors and interests than boys, such as collecting dolls or stickers or reading books. Others may have more intense or unusual interests but hide them from others or express them in more subtle ways.
Girls with autism may also have sensory issues that affect their comfort and well-being, but they may be less vocal about them than boys. In general, girls with autism tend to have a more subtle presentation of symptoms than boys, which can make them harder to identify and diagnose.
Understanding Autism in Girls: The Influence of Social Adaptation and Expectations
Another factor that contributes to the underdiagnosis of autism in girls is their ability and tendency to adapt to social situations and expectations. Many girls on the spectrum are especially good at mimicking the behaviors and expressions of others or highly capable of suppressing their differences to fit in and avoid negative attention.
Girls may experience more social pressure and criticism from their peers, families, and society as a whole, which can increase their desire to mask. Girls are often expected to be more empathetic, cooperative, and expressive than boys, which can make them more aware of their differences and more motivated to hide them.
However, this social adaptation comes at a cost. It can be exhausting and stressful for girls with autism to constantly monitor and adjust their behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. It can also prevent them from developing their own identity and self-esteem or from seeking help when they need it.
Furthermore, new and complicated circumstances like puberty, dating, or the workplace can make this social adaptation difficult. Girls with autism may find it harder to cope with these changes and demands than boys, especially if they lack the appropriate skills and support. This can lead to increased anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.
Advocating for Increased Research and Awareness of Autism in Girls
One of the reasons why autism in girls is still poorly understood is the lack of research on this topic. Most studies from the 80s, 90s, and earlier twenty-first century were conducted on boys, and girls are still often underrepresented in research studies. As a result, the unique characteristics and needs of autistic girls may go unseen and unaccounted for.
Thankfully, this is starting to change. Some researchers are now focusing on studying autism in girls specifically, or ensuring that their samples include more girls than before. This can help us gain more insight into the causes, manifestations, and outcomes of autism in girls.
However, research alone is not enough. We also need more awareness and education among parents, teachers, health professionals, and the general public about autism in girls. We need to challenge the stereotypes and assumptions that prevent many girls on the spectrum from being recognized and supported.
We also need to celebrate the diversity and strengths of autistic girls and empower them to embrace their differences and pursue their goals. We need to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for these girls where they can thrive and flourish.
Autism in girls is often missed or misunderstood because of the differences in symptoms, coping strategies, and social expectations between girls and boys. This can have negative consequences for the well-being and development of girls with autism.
We need more research and awareness on autism in girls, as well as more tailored interventions and support for them. We also need to respect and appreciate the uniqueness of each girl on the spectrum and help them achieve their full potential.
Autism in girls is not a problem to be solved but a challenge to be met, and it's a challenge we can meet by working together.