1 in 189: How Autism Effects Girls Differently
by Olivia Gauthier
With the number of diagnoses increasing each year, Autism has moved more and more into the public eye as medical professionals and scientific researchers struggle to determine what causes this neurodevelopmental disorder. In an unexplained phenomenon, boys are approximately nine times more likely to have the disorder compared to girls with 1 in 42 boys being diagnosed compared to 1 in 189 girls. However, recent studies show that more girls have Autism than is believed – they are just able to mask their symptoms well into adulthood. Why is this? Why does Autism manifest differently in boys than it does in girls?
Autism is a general terms for a number of complex brain development disorders. The term “Autism” was coined by psychologist Eugen Bleuler in 1908. As he meant it, Autism meant “morbid self-admiration and withdrawal within self.” The leading trailblazers in Autism research were Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger. Kanner focused on more acute cases where as Asperger focused on more able children (thus, leading to the name “Asperger Syndrome” to describe high-functioning Autism). While we know that autism is hereditary, little progress has been made on its underlying cause. Theories range from chemical imbalances and triggered genes to poor mothering and vaccinations. A solid cause has yet to be determined.
Recognizing signs of Autism is difficult because all cases are different, girls socialize differently than boys, and most importantly, autism screening and diagnostic tools were created based on behaviors displayed by boys. Because of this, researchers are unaware of what symptoms to look into for girls. In the past, Autism research in girls was limited in scope to girls with more severe cases and lower intelligent quotients. As a result, girls with high functioning Autism and higher IQ’s were overlooked.
The symptoms of Autism vary widely across three core areas: characterized social-interaction difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors. Researchers believe that girls with Autism are able to mask their symptoms better than their male counterparts. In a study conducted by psychologist Rachel Hiller, it was found that girls were more likely to mimic those around them in social situations when compared to boys. Girls also showed more of a desire to "fit-in" with their peers. In a school setting, girls control their emotions more and teachers are less likely to focus on their behaviors compared to boys.
So why does Autism express itself differently between the sexes? Researchers have yet to figure this out. Figuring out the reason could lead to insight on the cause of Autism and vice versa. At the moment, though, many girls are at a disadvantage due to late diagnoses or no diagnoses at all. While they may be able to “fake-it,” there is still that disconnect from those around them which could possibly lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental issues. For the time being, researchers and medical professionals need to tweak the criteria for an autism diagnosis to account for the girls that seem to fly under the radar.