By Maha Khan
Reading time 5 minutes ⏰
Autism is a complex developmental condition, defined by a certain set of behaviours, that usually appears during early childhood and affects an individual’s social and communication skills, relationships, behaviour, and self-regulation. The experience is different for everyone, especially girls and young women, impacting people in different ways and to varying degrees.
Autism in girls and young women can create challenges in social interactions such as at home, at school, and at work. A common misconception is that Autism makes people display “antisocial” tendencies. For the most part, this is false. Social interactions may seem overwhelming for some individuals with Autism; however, this is usually a result of constantly trying to read social cues along with some difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication. Constantly trying to gauge moods and read the environment can take a lot of time and energy, and while most people usually don’t have to think twice about these things, people with Autism can become overwhelmed, or even exhausted, during social situations.
Since girls and women are held to different standards in society than boys and men, coupled with different presentations of Autism in both sexes, it becomes clear why the age of diagnosis in females is much older than males. One recent study on gender differences in Autism revealed an increased desire to connect socially with others in females, as well as a higher attempt to “camouflage” their symptoms. The study also focuses on language used by boys and girls between the ages of 6-15 with similar levels of autism. According to the results, girls used far more social words, referring to friends and family, than boys did— especially when talking about friends. Another interesting link observed in this study is that between social words and social impairment. In boys, those who used fewer social words were more socially impaired, however in girls, this link does not exist to the same point as the use of social words was relatively consistent throughout different levels of social difficulty (Cola et al. 2022). This suggests the need for diagnostic criteria for females to be different than that of males, as well as the need for more awareness among parents, teachers, and physicians.
Another study done by a team of researchers at Cambridge University observes the compensation strategies of people with Autism with consideration of gender differences. As mentioned previously, people with Autism often find it difficult to interpret social situations “correctly”. In some cases, there is a complete inability to recognize facial expressions, which the researchers refer to as “facial blindness” (Lai et al. 2011). Therefore, to not attract attention, many people with Autism develop certain mechanisms to conceal any difficulty. Continuous observation and imitation of peers requires high levels of cognitive stamina, which can result in mental health distress. Given this context, researchers concluded that Autistic young women have a higher frequency to adapt to these mechanisms, such as practicing words and phrases to say in certain social settings or imitating non-verbal expressions of other women, and are better at concealing their inner experiences than male counterparts. Additionally, this may explain why co-occurring mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are more common in Autistic girls and young women than in men.
This is closely related to the traditional female role model, according to which girls are taught from a young age to put other people at ease by being sociable and nice. This ultimately results in Autistic girls picking up adaptive behaviours in their early years and why the current diagnostic criteria doesn’t cater to the needs and symptoms of Autistic girls and young women. At school, Autistic girls may seem more sociable than boys. In many instances, parents who request evaluations for their daughters through their schools are told that they’re not necessary since their child is behaving well socially. A study done by the CDC found that the ratio of boys to girls receiving an autism diagnosis (which is usually 4:1) was shown to be influenced by the diagnostic services offered within a district or school; schools with better special education services had more thorough examinations and earlier diagnoses for girls (Christensen et al. 2016). Stronger awareness of the different experiences of Autism between genders is crucial to correcting the gender gap.
Young Autistic young women in the workplace have similar struggles to younger Autistic girls in school. Small talk and handshakes can be stressful. It is not the socializing itself, but the surroundings, the continuous profiling of social cues, and self-expression that can be challenging. Autistic Women are also under the pressure to adhere to prevalent gender stereotypes. Young women in the workplace are expected to be outgoing, understanding, and courteous as well as wear form-fitting clothing and uncomfortable shoes. To master small talk, many Autistic young women learn sentences and phrases that can be recalled in certain situations. Additionally, practicing stances or facial expressions of colleagues can be used to radiate confidence and mask any discomfort. Since some Autistic young women are cautious of tactile stimuli, it can be unpleasant to wear form fitting clothing, thus it can be hard to correspond to dress code in the workplace while being uncomfortable. All these factors can result in something called, “autistic burnout”. The continuous psychological and cognitive effort used to camouflage their inner experiences can eventually lead to a breakdown in Autistic young women.
It is evident that many challenges that girls and young Autistic young women face are a product of societal standards. While it is important to give voice to the struggles of those with Autism, it is just as—if not, more— important to actively work towards diminishing these barriers as a whole. To do this, the strengths of Autistic girls and young women cannot be overlooked. Autistic girls and young women are proven to have increased concentration, pay strong attention to detail, and have stronger ability, than those without Autism, to recognize patterns and errors. Working to remove the limitations placed by society and communities will increase inclusivity, accessibility, and provide more opportunities for Autistic girls and young women.
Christensen, Deborah L., Jon Baio, Kim Van Braun, Deborah Bilder, Jane Charles, John N. Constantino, Julie Daniels, et al. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder among Children Aged 8 Years — Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2012.” MMWR. Surveillance Summaries 65, no. 3 (April 1, 2016): 1–23. https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss6503a1 .
Cola, Meredith, Lisa D. Yankowitz, Kimberly Tena, Alison Russell, Leila Bateman, Azia Knox, Samantha Plate, et al. “Friend Matters: Sex Differences in Social Language during Autism Diagnostic Interviews.” Molecular Autism 13, no. 1 (January 10, 2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-021-00483-1 .
Lai, Meng-Chuan, Michael V. Lombardo, Greg Pasco, Amber N. Ruigrok, Sally J. Wheelwright, Susan A. Sadek, Bhismadev Chakrabarti, and Simon Baron-Cohen. “A Behavioral Comparison of Male and Female Adults with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Conditions.” PLoS ONE 6, no. 6 (June 13, 2011). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0020835 .
Rudy, Lisa Jo. “Symptoms of Autism in Girls: Autism in Girls May Look Different From Autism in Boys.” Edited by Lyndsey Garbi. Verywell Health. Dotdash Media, Inc., November 2, 2021. https://www.verywellhealth.com/signs-of-autism-in-girls-260304 .