According to the available data, boys with autism significantly outnumber girls diagnosed with the disorder. It was earlier thought that this was due to the lower incidence of autism in girls. However, studies in recent times have suggested that the disorder may go undetected because symptoms of autism in girls may not be so apparent.
This is problematic because it deprives girls of the opportunity to benefit from early intervention and support from autism therapy methods. Even worse is the fact that girls can often get misdiagnosed with other conditions. Hence they could be subject to therapy protocols that may just not work for them, leading to great frustration for the child as well as caregivers.
Why can Autism Symptoms be Missed in Girls?
There are primarily three reasons why parents and doctors fail to notice symptoms in girls, which are:
- Looking for telltale signs of autism by using the same diagnostic criteria as boys. However, the symptoms may present themselves differently in boys and girls.
- Girls are brought up to be better at masking their difficulties. They can go about their lives showing little indication of their struggles in socializing.
Societal expectations of male and female behaviour are different. When judged by the same social and behavioural yardsticks as boys, girls can appear to have fewer problems than their male peers.
What are the Possible Symptoms of Autism in Girls?
There is no definitive list of symptoms that can qualify for an autism diagnosis. Some girls can exhibit typical symptoms, but with less severity. If the symptoms do not substantially affect the quality of a girl’s life, chances are that she might not have autism. It is therefore wise to carefully consider all aspects of development before making an assumption. It is always better to get an expert evaluation if you have concerns.
Some of the obvious symptoms girls can exhibit include:
- Substantial speech and language difficulties.
- Self-stimulating behaviours such as hand flapping, repetitive behaviours, spinning, rocking etc.
- Lack of adequate social communication skills.
- Severe cognitive challenges.
Some of the more subtle signs include:
- Obsession over a particular subject and interests limited to a few topics.
- Atypical sensory responses to stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, and certain textures. Keep in mind that sensory challenges can also be a sign of other disorders.
- Unusual passivity. Girls with autism can refrain from expressing their opinions because they are uncertain about the right thing to say. While passivity may be one of the symptoms of autism, it must be noted that there are people with autism who are quite assertive.
- Being withdrawn and unusually quiet. Many girls can be inherently shy because it is a part of their personality. Therefore, it is important to consider the extent of the child’s shyness and how much it impacts her social life.
Researchers have found that while many autism symptoms are common between both genders, the key difference may lie in how they manifest in boys and girls. There are also certain fundamental differences in how girls carry their impairments that make them difficult to detect. Some of these are:
- Girls can be better at responding to non-verbal cues and gaze following.
- Girls can be capable of focussing more and are less likely to be distracted
- Boys can struggle with social communication from a very early age. Girls, on the other hand, tend to be more adept at dealing with social challenges during childhood. They might find it tougher to tackle social obstacles as they enter their teens.
- Both girls and boys with autism can have obsessive tendencies. The extent of the repetitive and restricted behaviours may be lower in female children than their male counterparts. That said, the topics of interest in the case of girls may not stand out as much as they do among boys.
- Girls tend to display less aggressive behaviour than boys. In fact, girls with autism can be very passive. However, since society considers passivity an acceptable trait for girls, such symptoms might go unnoticed.
Why is it Important to Diagnose Early?
According to clinical neuropsychologist to Dr. Susan F. Epstein, girls with autism can suffer from poor self-esteem, depression and can become vulnerable to bullying because they may feel like they feel different than their peers. Read more about how early diagnosis can help and about therapies for autism in this article by Autism Parenting Magazine.
Early diagnosis helps girls learn the skills and coping mechanisms required to lead a fulfilling life. It also gives them the emotional support and understanding necessary from family members and friends. Getting diagnosed as a teen or adult can put them at a disadvantage because they may have to make up for the lost time. However, it may be heartening to know that several young women diagnosed later in their lives have been able to successfully deal with their social challenges by consulting experts and undergoing recommended therapies.
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