Girls and Women on the Autism Spectrum
We are finally beginning to look at the gender gap in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in order to better understand girls. Researchers, practitioners, and women on the spectrum have begun to share information on girls with ASD to help us all better understand this segment of the autism population. Some of the information we have learned about girls includes:
- Fewer girls than boys may have ASD because it takes more autism risk genes to move girls’ brain development onto the autism spectrum than it does for boys
- Girls with milder characteristics of ASD are generally diagnosed two years after their male counterparts
- Girls on the spectrum often show different and less severe communication and social challenges than do their male counterparts.
- Girls tend to obsess over friendships and can develop close and likeminded allies
- Girls with ASD who are cognitively able often have fewer repetitive behaviors and special interests than boys on the spectrum. Girls' special interests may go unnoticed because they are often considered more socially acceptable (i.e., dolls, books, people, animals). It is not the type of interest that is significant. It is the intensity of the interest.
- It is not uncommon for autism to go unnoticed in girls and women because other symptoms such as depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders are so prominent that the underlying characteristics of autism do not become the focus of attention.
- Girls have a high need for routine and sameness
- They are better at masking or camouflaging their social skills challenges, more easily mimicking the social behavior of typically developing girls
- Girls with ASD tend to be more social than boys – with an increased desire to interact with others, more highly developed social imitation skills, and better verbal skills
- They often observe and try to understand a situation before they make the first step and may mimic or even try to take on all the characteristics of someone they are trying to emulate; in fact, girls may be so successful at "faking it" that they only come to the attention of a clinician when a secondary mood disorder emerges.
- Girls with ASD have better imaginations than their male peers
- While the frequency of suicide is greater among individuals with ASD than it is for their neurotypical peers, there is more of a risk for girls and women on the spectrum. (Kirby et al., 2019)
We are in the beginning stages of understanding girls on the spectrum. These differences may lead to the development of new tools for identifying girls. From that, hopefully, interventions will be identified that are effective for this perhaps-unique population of individuals on the spectrum.