If I were to ask you what the traits and behaviours of autism are, you are likely to list off things like: plays on their own, likes to order things, rocks or flaps their hands and shows an intense interest in topics like Thomas the Tank Engine or Lego. What you may not know, though, is that these are traits most commonly demonstrated in boys. So what about the girls with autism? What behaviours and traits do we commonly see in them? Would you be surprised to learn that girls with autism commonly want to be playing with their peers, have similar interests to their peers and without close examination, appear the same as their peers? And did you know that this knowledge of the female presentation of autism is fairly new? So much so that diagnostic tests have only come to reflect these gender differences in the last seven years. Once you know this, it is no surprise to learn that many girls with autism are going undiagnosed or misdiagnosed and have been ever since autism was first discovered.
It was once believed that autism was the ‘boys disorder’ and until recently it was believed the ratio of boys to girls with autism was as high as 10:1, or 10 boys to every 1 girl, when in fact latest research suggests that ratio may be as low as 2:1. If this is the case, it is fair to say there are many girls and women out there that are autistic and don’t know it. This is concerning as many of the struggles these girls and women are likely to be going through can be addressed through appropriate supports and understanding.
Since scientific research and diagnostic tools have begun to reflect gender differences in autism, women in their 30’s, 40’s 50’s and even 60’s are being diagnosed for the first time. However, this knowledge is still relatively new in the community and even within education circles. This leads to the question: “Are girls with autism going undiagnosed and unsupported in our schools?”
Girls with autism generally present really well at school. They often do well academically and don’t tend to stand out from their peers. But this isn’t because their school experience is the same as their peers, in fact it is far from it. School for an autistic child, if you are a boy or a girl, can be a very challenging place. Children with autism often have limited social skills and can find the school environment overwhelming on a sensory and cognitive level. Managing and understanding emotions can also be very difficult. What is unique to girls with autism is they are keen to blend in with their peers and don’t want anybody to know that their experience is different.
Girls, much more so than boys, desperately want to fit in and be just like everyone else. So many girls with autism watch their peers carefully and even though they may not understand what is happening around them socially, they copy and pretend. As a result, many girls with autism become excellent actresses, ‘playing the part’ all day long. This pretending is known as ‘masking’ and for the autistic girl, it is exhausting. Once you add in the sensory and cognitive overload of the schooling environment and resulting issues such as anxiety, what is a normal school day for many is a very taxing and draining day for the autistic girl. It takes a lot of energy to hide these differences all day long, and as a result, many autistic children (girls and boys alike) experience overwhelm once they get home.
With the knowledge we now have on gender differences, it’s important that families and schools work together to successfully identify these ‘unseen’ girls and give them the support and understanding they need. If you would like to learn more about autism in girls, you may find the following websites helpful.
Mrs Karen Buchanan
Middle School Learning Support Coordinator