Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is just that — a spectrum of developmental symptoms that range from mild to severe, creating diagnostic challenges. On top of these challenges is the fact that girls and boys exhibit different symptoms. The real difficulty in identifying ASD in girls, however, is how often these symptoms are misinterpreted.
The team of speech therapists and pathologists here at Celebrations Speech Group has extensive experience in diagnosing and treating ASD in both girls and boys and we understand the nuances between the two genders — both in the exhibition of behaviors and their interpretation.
Here’s a closer look at why it may be more difficult to diagnose ASD in girls than in boys.
Autism spectrum disorder by the numbers
At its core, ASD is a developmental issue that can impact behaviors, socialization, communication, and intelligence (not necessarily negatively). Approximately 1 in 54 children in the United States is diagnosed with ASD with boys outpacing girls by 4 to 1. More specifically, 1 in 34 boys is identified with ASD compared with 1 in 144 girls.
While there are clear gender differences when it comes to ASD, the condition can affect children in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
Most children are diagnosed after the age of four, despite the fact that ASD can be reliably identified by the age of two.
Autism in girls versus boys
The diagnostic criteria for ASD is the same for both boys and girls, despite mounting research that points toward different symptomatology. For example, one study of 800 children with ASD found, “strong evidence for gender differences in autism.”
This study, plus others, have identified several key differences between boys and girls with ASD, including:
- Girls display less repetitive behaviors
- Boys display more restrictive behaviors
- Girls are more receptive to non-verbal communication (pointing, etc.)
- Girls are generally more passive while boys can be aggressive
- Girls tend to focus better and are less likely to be distracted
One of the reasons behind these discrepancies lies in a difference in brain structures, namely in the motor cortex, but brain structure is only part of the equation. Perhaps more significant are the differences between how girls and boys manage their challenges and how the world perceives their behaviors.
Why ASD is more misunderstood in girls
Aside from some of the communication and behavioral differences between boys and girls with ASD, girls also appear to be better able to adapt and hide their difficulties. For example, while a boy with ASD may become hyper focused on statistics or schedules — obsessions that stand out — girls tend to choose more acceptable objects of focus, such as makeup or music).
Another issue is that young girls tend to be more compassionate with one another, which means that a girl with ASD is accepted into the fold far more easily than boys. This acceptance does tend to fall apart when girls become adolescents, which is why many girls aren’t diagnosed until much later.
The final problem is one of perception and culture — a reserved and shy girl is expected, if not preferred, so if a girl withdraws, it’s not as noticeable as a boy, who’s supposed to be, by cultural standards, rambunctious.
Recognizing ASD in your child
If you suspect that your child is having difficulty and meets some of the symptoms we outline here, early intervention for ASD can make all the difference moving forward. In fact, many of these signs can be identified even before your child reaches their first or second birthdays.
Whatever the age (or gender) of your child, if you’re noticing developmental problems with communication, socialization, and behavior, we urge you to make an appointment at our office in Brentwood, California.