Let's Talk About Girls on the Spectrum
The statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) give the impression that boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls... but we know better. As Autism Awareness Australia explains "parents with daughters on the spectrum will often share frustrating tales of how difficult it was to get a proper diagnosis for their daughters, while many autistic women did not receive diagnoses until adulthood."
So why is there a gender gap in ASD diagnosis?
- Autism in women and girls is often ‘overshadowed’ by a mental health (mis)diagnosis (e.g. anxiety, depression, eating disorders).
- Quietness or shyness in a girl is considered ‘normal’ due to stereotypical social expectations of females
- Females on the autism spectrum are more socially motivated to engage with peers and are better able to camouflage or mask their challenges through social imitation which results in them not receiving a diagnosis
Why does autism look different in girls?
- Females might show more interest in social relations due to social expectations
- Females might be better at demonstrating complex emotions, might be less likely to show externalising behaviours (impulsivity or hyperactivity), and may be more likely to internalise (anxiety or depression)
- Girls might show more flexibility in their behaviours or have special interests that more closely align with ‘mainstream’ interests of girls; the difference might be the intensity of their interest
What are the life experiences of girls on the spectrum?
- The reaction to feeling ‘different’ may be learning to look like you fit in socially
- Having alone time may be especially important to re-charge from the exhaustion of masking
- Feeling a sense of injustice if they're receiving the support needed
- Feeling a tension between being their true self and their perceived pressure to conform societal expectations.
- Often diagnosed later in life and feel isolated or that they're not being believed when sharing their diagnosis of autism with others
- Difficulty understanding female neurotypical peers due to a lack of straightforwardness
- Stress and anxiety from camouflaging, masking and the sense of being forced to be something you're not
- High self-awareness and a very active ‘inside world’
How can we support girls on the spectrum?
- Provide support and education, especially regarding safety and acknowledging strengths
- Create a space where you can talk openly
- Provide structure and routine, and work together on strategies to help them to cope with life
- Recognise and openly discuss the challenges of being female on the autism spectrum
- Consider seeking professional support for distress, mindfulness or cognitive behaviour therapy
Finally, we LOVE this Ted Talk by Carrie Beckwith-Fellows on Invisible Diversity: A Story Of Undiagnosed Autism
For more information about girls and ASD check out this fact sheet by autismspectrum.org