As a rule, autism spectrum disorder has been found more frequently in boys than in girls – with stereotypes so prevalent in male and female behavior, it’s made it tougher for parents to consider autism in their daughters when symptoms arise.
Let’s consider, for example, how so many think that girls just tend to be quieter than boys. It’s “normal” for girls to want to play alone, away from noise, away from their peers. They don’t say much, and they like what they like.
But all those things – speaking less, preferring to be alone, being particular and focused on very specific interests – those aren’t necessary “girl” things. They can be symptoms of autism.
Certain symptoms have been, certainly, found to be more common in males than females, like repetitive behavior and challenges with impulse control. Because those things are so much easier to see, those are typically what drive parents to professionals’ offices for a potential autism diagnosis. The other symptoms, those to do with communication and socialization, aren’t typically the symptoms that start to get parents thinking; because those are usually what present in autistic girls, they can be overlooked, or simply dismissed as personality traits.
Emily, 19, was diagnosed with autism at 14 years old. “I feel like I’ve spent my whole life trying to hide my autism,” she shares. “I was very aware of how different I was, but I tried so hard to become like everyone else, doing things I didn’t understand.” She explains how she discovered, through her brother Matthew, that separating her food on a plate wasn’t a typical behavior, so she isolated herself from friends during lunch hour at school, or went hungry, just so they wouldn’t see how she ate. It’s important to note that Emily had quite a few friends in high school, another atypical thing for autistic boys – girls do tend to make friends easier than their male counterparts.
In some circumstances, like in Emily’s, the disorder is confused for a mental health issue. “My parents thought I had a mild personality disorder, which wasn’t a bad thing in my family,” she shares. “They thought, ‘Well, everyone’s going through something. We’ll get through this together. We don’t need a professional. We’ll just take care of each other.’
“That’s why it took so long for me to get diagnosed.”
Even before adolescence and the teenage years, girls tend to have more self-awareness than boys, and the desire to fit in can hide autism symptoms quite well. When stressed, boys’ reactions are often outward and noticeable – they may misbehave, lash out, get angry, or get violent toward others. Girls, on the other hand, when stressed go inward. They might get down on themselves and use negative self-talk. In more serious cases, they may perform self-harm, causing injury on parts of their bodies no one would ever see.
All of this makes autism so easy to miss in girls.
If you’re a parent of a girl who you believe may be autistic, some of the things to assess include certain milestone events (like smiling for the first time or making sounds by a specific age), speech, learning and behavior (such as avoiding eye contact or extreme attachment to routine). Autism may be less common in girls, but still exists nonetheless, and the symptoms are similar for both genders. Because girls can display so differently from their male peers, girls also often get diagnosed later in life.