Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is typically characterized by social and behavioral challenges experienced by an individual, likely due to things like genetics and differences in brain function. While Autism can look different from person to person, it is often identified by symptoms such as avoiding eye contact, difficulty understanding and responding to emotions, difficulty participating in pretend play, lack of interest in relationships with other people, and sensitivity to sensations like light, sound, and touch. While Autism awareness has increased in recent years, many people still lack a more nuanced understanding of the disorder. For many, knowledge of Autism may not extend beyond media representations, most of which portray autistic men with savant-like abilities. While this is a possible presentation of Autism, it only represents a small portion of the Autistic community.
Thankfully, society’s understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder has come a long way in recent years, leading to an increase in diagnoses. In 2002, the CDC reported that only about 1 in 150 children were diagnosed with Autism. By 2018, that number increased to 1 in 44 children. Despite this growing awareness, Autism is still diagnosed four times as frequently in males than in females. While it is probable that Autism is simply more prevalent in men than in women, it is also likely that women are being underdiagnosed. In fact, Autistic women are typically diagnosed at later ages than men and even tend to have more delayed diagnoses after their initial evaluations.
One reason for this may be that women with Autism more frequently report partaking in masking, which is a term for describing the learning and imitating what would typically be considered “normal” behavior. This masking behavior is often a sign of high levels of social motivation, meaning the social difficulties that usually characterize Autism are perhaps different or less prevalent for women. In one study, it was observed that girls with Autism are often perceived as simply being shy and typically have a greater understanding and desire for social interaction than boys with Autism. They were also observed to have special interests that involved other people or animals rather than objects or things, making their interests more socially acceptable and less indicative of stereotypical, male-centric Autism traits as well.
While research on the differences between men and women with Autism is limited, it is becoming increasingly clear that the differences are there and could very well be partly to blame for the lack of female Autism diagnoses. Whether it be increased use of masking or symptoms simply presenting differently in women, identifying and understanding these differences could be the key to giving proper diagnoses to so many women and girls struggling with feeling different without understanding why. Autism awareness has come a long way, but there is still so much to be understood about the disorder as a whole, and understanding the differences in how Autism Spectrum Disorder presents in different people plays a crucial role in that overall understanding.
For more information about autism, check out researchautism.org.
This article has been republished from Renewed Awareness Magazine.