March 8, 2017 was International Women’s Day and the American Autism Association would like to honor every unique woman in the autism community. Women have made great strides, yet continue to be left behind when it comes to being diagnosed and treated for autism.
Boys outnumbers girls diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with boys four times as likely to be diagnosed than girls, according to Time.com. A biological reason for the huge difference in diagnoses is still unclear to scientists, but some believe society has played a role in the discrepancy.
On average, girls who have mild symptoms of autism are diagnosed two years later than boys. Since boys are more likely to have autism, the majority of research studies include only boys. Spectrum News reports that when a young girl shows an obsession with a doll or a book, those interests are more socially acceptable and don’t raise a red flag as quickly. Girls with an intense interest are even applauded for being quiet, polite, lady-like, and all the other gender-based labels which society assigns to girls before they’re even born.
Girls presenting mild symptoms of autism, especially those without intellectual disability, may be hiding in plain sight with less severe symptoms than boys. This isn’t necessarily a good thing though. Girls that are diagnosed later, or not ever diagnosed, don’t have access to early intervention – which is the leading most effective route for helping an individual on the spectrum. Through their teenage years, girls with autism have high rates of depression and anxiety, about 34% and 36% respectively. Girls are more keenly aware than boys when it comes to being excluded by their peers, which also applies to girls on the spectrum.
When a girl is diagnosed, most interventions and behavioral therapies are shaped with boys in mind. Girls and boys develop differently and face a variety of physical and psychological challenges that aren’t taken into account. Spectrum News reports, “There are no guidebooks for these girls or their families about how to deal with puberty and menstruation, how to navigate the dizzying array of rules in female friendships, how to talk about romance and sexuality or even just stay safe from sexual predators.”
Teenage boys are more likely to be a part of a “loosely organized group” based on a sport or video game which does not require as much socialization as groups teenage girls are found in. “For girls, socialization is all about communication, all about social-emotional relationships — discussions about friendship, who likes who and who doesn’t like who and who is feuding with who. Girls on the spectrum don’t get it.” says Kathy Koenig, associate research scientist at the Yale Child Study Center. Adolescence isn’t the easiest time for any girl, especially a girl with autism
Fortunately more money is being invested in studying the influence of gender on autism and how symptoms of autism differ in boys and girls. There are also great, up and coming programs like the Yale program or Girls’ Night Out that strive to offer girls on the spectrum true companionship by fostering friendships through activities like watching movies, making jewelry, shopping, or even visiting a coffee shop.
Women of all abilities deserve the right to realize their potential and by being conscientious of the challenges girls on the spectrum may face, we can open those doors to better opportunities.