How is autism different for girls?

Stereotypically, when you think of a person with autism you tend to think of a boy obsessed with trains who may not speak. However there are many girls who have autism. Unless they have a very obvious intellectual disability or speech delay they are  often less likely to be diagnosed.  Many will struggle with school, mental health and body image issues for years without support.

Autism affects fewer girls than boys. The diagnosis ratio is 7 boys to 1 girl. Fewer girls are diagnosed because they are slipping through testing or are not being noticed. Testing and diagnosis instruments are based on autism research with male subjects.

Autism presents differently in boys and girls. Many girls with autism can mask their social difficulties better and have less aggressive and disruptive traits than boys with autism. Often the behavior of girls with autism is written off as sweet or naïve, when realistically it can indicate a lack of social skills or as an indicator of ASD.

Characteristics of girls with autism

Girls with autism are less likely to display Behaviors of concern or aggressive behaviors (perhaps not until puberty) and language delay problems.

Girls with autism do display the tell tale poor eye contact, motor clumsiness and awkwardness with physical contact but can mask it better or get away with it.

Similar to boys, girls with autism love rules, routines and display some rigidity in thinking.

Girls with autism

  • More likely to try and model the behavior of peers to fit in
  • Likely to seek peer interaction
  • May only have one close friend at a time, or have a mother hen figure around them to help them fit in.
  • May be viewed as sweet, innocent or naïve, or a know it all and also may seem shy, quiet or solitary.
  • Likely to love animals or young children – often girls with autism are obsessed with horses or cats
  • Are often excellent readers and write complicated stories.
  • Often interested in art, music, literature and are very creative.
  • May have poor handwriting and math’s skills and may struggle with colouring and drawing in a traditional way.
  • More likely to play with dolls as friends or have intense imaginary friendships or immerse themselves in fantasy worlds.
  • May not follow fashion or trends unless it relates to their intense topic of interest.
  • Tend to dress comfortably due to sensory concerns and have a plain “wash ‘n’ wear ” hairstyle.
  • Less likely to wear makeup, deodorant or perfume as they find it very irritating.
  • Less likely to care what others think of them, or be gripped by panic when thinking about what others may think of them, which can relate to anxiety disorders later in life.

Women with autism

  • More likely to be diagnosed later in life often when a secondary mood disorder or associated mental illness develops.
  • Are more likely to be in abusive relationships or taken advantage of financially, physically, sexually or emotionally.
  • More likely to suffer anxiety and depression.
  • May have extreme weight gains or losses or develop eating disorders such as anorexia.
  • Have particular intense obsessive interests or collections /hobbies.
  • May be very well educated and enjoy studying.
  • Have great difficulty with school but not seek support from teachers as not wanting to displease them or draw attention.
  • They may then have barely passing grades and suffer teasing bullying or being ousted from social context.
  • May have issues with employment, many career paths or job changes.
  • May work in psychology, healthcare, animal or teaching professions.
  • May like to be a support to others .
  • Tend to be happiest in familiar environments, rarely socialise and have few friends or one constant friend.
  • If in a relationship will take it very seriously or obsessively.
  • If sexually active will either enjoy it immensely or not enjoy it at all.
  • May engage in self-harm to escape sensory overload or emotional rejection.
  • May have pets or prefer the company of animals (depending on sensory and allergy problems)

Supporting girls with autism

Girls with autism may need very specific support in the following areas to cope with life

  • Bullying
  • Puberty, hygiene and grooming
  • Menstruation and PMS
  • Sexuality development
  • Personal safety
  • Self-perception and confidence
  • Media, fashion and “fitting in”
  • Mental health including eating disorders, anxiety and self-harm
  • Coping with the culture of gender
  • Support with school or study
  • Support with managing relationships, money and managing a family
  • Specific support with pregnancy, birth, bonding with the baby and postnatal depression.

Further reading
Asperger’s and Girls by Tony Attwood.
Aspergirls, Empowering Females With Asperger’s by Rudy Simone

List of recommended books
A non diagnostic profile of women with Aspergers.