Each year, the identification of autism is becoming more prevalent among children of all ages and races. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated that 1 in 44 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in 2021, while 1 in 150 was diagnosed with ASD in 2000. ASD is a developmental disability that affects the brain (via CDC).
The exact cause of autism is unknown, however, several theories involve genetics and environmental and biological factors. It may be difficult to identify a person with ASD in a crowd because their physical characteristics develop normally. However, the way that individuals with autism behave, socialize, and learn may be much different than others. The characteristics of autism look different from one person to the next. While some are nonverbal, others have advanced communication skills. Not only do the signs and traits vary from person to person, but they can look different depending on gender.
Females with autism are often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed
There is a noticeable difference between the rate of ASD diagnoses among boys and girls. The data show that boys are diagnosed with ASD four times more than girls (via CDC). Is this simply because ASD is more common in boys? According to the Child Mind Institute, girls are commonly misdiagnosed with other disorders or overlooked because they don’t fit into the typical signs that define ASD.
Autism is marked by delays or deficits in communication and social interactions, and restricted or repetitive behaviors and interests. This can present in a variety of ways like repeating phrases or words, having difficulty understanding humor or body language, or preferring to be alone to pursue one’s own interests (via Verywell Health).
Per Child Mind Institute, clinical neuropsychologist Susan F. Epstein notes that “The model that we have for a classic autism diagnosis has really turned out to be a male model. That’s not to say that girls don’t ever fit it, but girls tend to have a quieter presentation, with not necessarily as much of the repetitive and restricted behavior, or it shows up in a different way.”
Signs of autism may be more subtle in females
Since female signs of autism may fly under the radar, how might a female with ASD present? According to Healthline, females are more likely to camouflage the signs of ASD by forcing themselves to make eye contact, imitating and mimicking social behaviors and facial expressions, or by preparing jokes or phrases for conversations ahead of time. Additionally, females with ASD often have problems with executive functions, obsessions that may include people or objects, and high rates of anxiety and depression (via Psychology Today).
Some, like Dr. Wendy Nash, a child and adolescent psychologist, believe that girls are more likely to hide signs of autism when they are in the public. Dr. Nash explains (via Child Mind Institute), “A lot of autistic girls get ruled out because they may share a smile or may have a bit better eye contact or they’re more socially motivated. It can be a more subtle presentation.”
According to Psychology Today, women who have ASD and don’t have a diagnosis may judge themselves more harshly, while women that receive the diagnosis are more confident and have higher self-esteem. If you or your daughter shows signs that you think could be ASD, it is important to receive an evaluation.