It’s a big misconception that autism rarely occurs in women and girls. For decades, research has reported that autism occurs 4x more often in men than women. That has likely led many people to mistakenly believe that autism is rare or simply doesn’t occur in women.
New research is shedding light on the diagnostic bias that may lead many women and girls to be misdiagnosed, underdiagnosed or diagnosed later in life. It seems that autism may present differently in some women and girls, leaving some healthcare providers unable to detect the usual signs and symptoms.
Since diagnosis affects treatment, it’s crucial to understand how autism may look different in women so they can receive the proper diagnosis as soon as possible. Without early diagnosis, many women and girls are missing out on the specialist support they need during early childhood to thrive socially and academically.
Understanding Autism in Women and Girls
When it comes to diagnosing women and girls with autism, statistics show that women are often diagnosed later on in life. This may be because autism symptoms often look different between men and women, meaning that only girls with significant social impairments are being recognised and diagnosed. Girls with ‘mild’ symptoms are being missed.
The way in which autism is defined and diagnosed may also contribute to this male-to-female ratio. This is known as the diagnostic bias. New research suggests that healthcare providers may misdiagnose or underdiagnosed autism in women because they do not recognise the subtle difference in how autism presents between men and women.
Many of the most commonly used testing and diagnostic tools for autism are based on observations of how autism presents in men and boys. Since we know autism can present quite differently in women, the current male to female ratio is likely inaccurate.
It’s important to note that some researchers believe that even if this diagnostic bias is overcome, men will still be diagnosed with autism more often than women. Research presented during the 2015 International Meeting for Autism Research seemed to suggest that notwithstanding the diagnostic bias, a 3:1 ratio still exists.
Causes of Autism in Women and Girls
There is no conclusive evidence that the causes of autism differ between men and women, although some experts suggest that autism may be more common in men and women.
The exact causes of autism are not known but it is probably caused by a variety of factors including:
- Genetic factors: Strong role suggested by twin and family studies.
- Prenatal influences: Maternal infections, medications, complications, age, nutrition, and stress.
- Environmental factors: Toxins, chemicals during critical brain development periods.
- Interactions: Genetic susceptibility combined with environmental triggers.
Symptoms of Autism in Women and Girls
Most children are diagnosed with autism between the ages of 3 and 7. This is when the symptoms of autism most commonly start to appear in children, although many parents notice and express concerns about their child’s development before the age of 2.
Autism is a spectrum disorder meaning that every person experiences autism symptoms in their own unique way depending on where they find themselves along the spectrum. Some people have only mild social challenges or communication issues while others experience challenging symptoms that profoundly impact their everyday life.
Almost all people with autism experience some symptoms involving social interaction and behaviour. These include:
- Social challenges and difficulties in understanding social cues.
- Communication issues, including speech delays or repetitive language.
- Repetitive behaviours or routines.
- Sensory sensitivities or sensory-seeking behaviours.
- Difficulty with changes in routine or environment.
- Fixation on specific interests or topics.
- Challenges in making and maintaining friendships.
- Limited or atypical eye contact during conversations.
- Difficulty understanding and expressing emotions.
- Differences in motor skills and coordination.
Does Autism Present Differently in Women and Girls?
The autism symptoms women experience may not be all that different from men. However, research has indicated some nuanced distinctions that could impact diagnosis and understanding.
- Behavioural Differences: Studies have suggested that males may exhibit more visible behavioural challenges associated with autism, while females tend to internalise their symptoms. This internalisation might lead to a higher likelihood of mood issues, including anxiety and depression, in certain cases.
- Mixed Research Findings: Research findings are not entirely consistent. A comprehensive review conducted in 2020, comparing behaviours between males and females, reported that females were observed to exhibit more externalising behaviours. Conversely, another study indicated that males displayed greater externalising behaviours.
- Masking in Females: Researchers believe that females, particularly those with lower support needs, are more likely to mask their symptoms. Masking involves consciously suppressing or imitating certain behaviours to fit in socially. Common forms of masking include forcing oneself to make eye contact during conversations or mimicking the social behaviours of others.
Clear conclusions about the differences in diagnosis and behaviours between males and females require more research. As of now, experts lack definitive information about these differences, including whether they are genuine or potentially influenced by masking.
What Support is Available for Women and Girls with Autism?
In the UK, various resources are available to provide specific support for women and girls with autism:
- The Curly Hair Project: Offers resources and workshops specifically for women and girls with autism.
- Autism Women’s Network (AWN): An online community and resource hub that focuses on the experiences and needs of women with autism.
- Autistic Girls Network: Provides information, resources, and a supportive community for women and girls with autism and their families.
- Autistic UK: An organisation run by and for people with autism, focusing on advocacy, support, and community.
- Ambitious About Autism: Offers support for children and young people with autism, including resources and advice tailored to girls with autism.
Specialist Autism Services
Our mission is to enrich the lives of people with autism and enable them to live happy, fulfilling lives. We recognise the unique challenges women with autism may face. Our goal is to help women and all people with autism live independently through person-centred autism support services and community-based living.
Our community based homes are so much more than a place to live. Our dedicated staff work hard to foster safe and welcoming environments that encourage independence and living life to the full.
In these inclusive communities, people with autism live life on their own terms while knowing a helping hand is always available. We offer a range of thoughtful services and activities that promote not only self-confidence and independence but fun and joyfulness as well.
We are here to support you and your family every step of the way. If you would like to learn more about our specialist autism services, do not hesitate to contact us. We look forward to hearing from you.