Special Needs

Females are Better at Masking Autism Symptoms

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can result in challenges with social interaction, communication, information processing, and behavior. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it’s estimated that 1 out of 36 children are affected by this disorder. Since autism is a “spectrum” disorder, there is a wide variation in the symptoms that those with the disorder may experience–ranging from high-functioning to low-functioning.

Each autistic person has a certain subtype, followed by specific strengths and challenges. While people of all genders may be affected by autism, boys are most likely to be diagnosed with this disorder. However, new research suggests that this isn’t due to the prevalence of the disorder, but the ability for girls to camouflage.

Autism in girls may look different than in boys. Although we know a lot more about the experiences of autistic women and girls now, society’s limited understanding, stigma, and incorrect assumptions about the disorder have made it difficult for autistic women and girls to get diagnosed. Girls with autism:

Can be better at responding to non-verbal communication and gaze-following.
May struggle with social communication later in life.
May find it difficult to adapt.
May have lower levels of verbal cognitive ability.
May struggle to understand sarcasm.
May obsess over more socially acceptable interests, such as TV shows.
May find conversation difficult.
May have a hard time keeping or making friends.
May struggle with unusual sensory difficulties.
May show interest in creativity or STEM.
May struggle with directions or understanding maps.
May have poor posture.
May enjoy excessively collecting items of their specific interests.
Can be perfectionists.

Some girls show classic markers of autism, such as speech or language difficulty and self-stimulating behaviors. However, many go under the radar through subtle signs of autism that are hidden through masking. A conscious or subconscious suppression of autistic behaviors and difficulties in social interaction by autistic people with the goal of being perceived as displaying the “right” behavior by neurotypicals.

Moreover, girls and women are expected to align themselves with society’s expectations of how a young girl or woman should act. For example, through society’s lens, girls and women are expected to behave in a way that is “ladylike,” and exudes femininity. Women and girls are expected to be passive, quiet, and easygoing. Since some signs of autism mirror this behavior, it’s easy to gloss over.

In addition to camouflaging, autistic girls and women are more likely to partake in the following:

Females with autism are more likely to copy or mimic other people’s mannerisms, speech patterns, and personalities.

While empathy is a normal human trait, people with autism are more likely to experience a heightened level of empathy, known as hyper-empathy. This type of empathy can cause mild emotional situations to be devastating or overwhelming.

When girls and women with autism share their true selves, they may be shamed or invalidated. This lack of support can cause girls and women affected by autism to hide pieces of themselves and submit to people-pleasing behaviors.

Girls with autism may be more likely to come across as blunt when interacting with other people due to their more direct communication style. While they mean no ill intentions, blunt language can come across to others as harsh or abrasive, and cause issues. Thus, leaving girls with autism feeling rejected, and even isolated.

Young girls with autism may present as the “quiet” child in school, or even be prone to emotional outbursts in the classroom. In addition, girls with autism may show disinterest in school sports, feel anxious during P.E. classes, and struggle with teachers who may raise their voices. Transitions from classroom to classroom may present an additional challenge.

In friendships, a girl with autism may struggle to fit into friendship groups or feel like they’re always left out. If a conflict were to arise, a girl with autism may get overwhelmed and instead choose solo playtime, versus playtime with a group.

Many girls go a long time, sometimes well into adulthood, before getting diagnosed with autism. For some, this diagnosis could lead to a sense of relief, understanding, and self-acceptance. For others, a diagnosis could lead to other avenues of self-discovery, such as awareness of mental illnesses, or learning disabilities. Whether you suspect high or low-functioning autism, getting your child diagnosed as soon as possible can help improve their quality of life and give them the support they need to thrive.

This article was originally published in April 2024.

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