Welcome to day 23 in the A to Z Challenge on autism. Today, I discuss autism as it maniffests itself differently depending on the autistic person’s gender. I particularly focus on women and girls with autism. IN tomorrow’s post, I will discuss autism as extreme male behavior.
It used to be thought that autism, and Asperger’s Syndrome in particular, is far more common in males than in females. Four to even eight times as many boys were thought to have Asperger’s than girls. In recent years however, there has been more attention paid to the ways in which autism spectrum disorders manifest themselves differently in girls and women.
There is little scientific research focused specificaly on females with autism. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that females with autism display the following characteristics, which differ from males with autism:
- Better social imitation skills.
- A desire to interact directly with people.
- Shyness or passivity as opposed to being active but odd.
- Better imagination.
- Better language development.
- (Special) interests focused on animals or people rather than objects.
Stereotypes about what is considered typical male or female behavior commonly hinder the diagnosis of females with autism. For example, characteristics such as shyness and oversensitivity are often seen as typical female characteristics rather than signs of an autism spectrum disorder. Another example is a girl who plays with dolls and is hence thought to display appropriate pretend play. On closer observation though, it is found that she plays with the dolls stereotypically.
Girls and women with autism usually also develop inventive strategies to hide their autistic tendencies. This often leads them to burn out or get depressed, which is then seen as the reason for their inability to cope rather than a consequence. There is finally also a bias towards diagnosing certain disorders in certain genders. As a result, many women with autism or ADHD end up with a diagnosis of for example borderline personality disorder because of their hypersensitivity.
Fortunately, authors like Rudy Simone (author of AsperGirls) internationally and Henny Struik in the Netherlands have raised increasing awareness of the fact that women too can be autistic and that their behavioral characteristics often differ from those in men with autism. I was honored to have been quoted (only a few lines) in Henny Struik’s book and I love AsperGirls. I hope that books like these will reach health professionals and researchers so that diagnostic tests for autism are adapted to meet the specific challenges of diagnosing females.