Autism and Girls – Under the radar

There are increasingly, and quite rightly, discussions about autism and girls. We are seeing greater awareness that autism in girls and women often manifests differently. Yet this isn’t new. Even the earliest researchers identified this, yet they didn’t pursue it. Instead, the focus became largely on boys. As a result, the diagnostic criteria and assessment methodologies, that form the basis of what still happens today, became skewed towards identifying autism in boys. Even many of the stereotypes that are portrayed around autism are in fact male. Interestingly autism in girls is still often identified later than in boys. So where does this leave girls and women?

Potentially one of the key gender differences is social motivation. Research by Sedgewick et al, 2016, showed that autistic girls showed similar social motivation and friendship quality to non-autistic girls, whereas boys with autism reported less motivation for social contact relative to boys without autism and girls both with and without autism. What does this mean in reality?

It could mean that because girls have greater social motivation that they, therefore, develop better social skills through exposure to more social situations. That isn’t to say that there still aren’t social and communication challenges but instead that girls learn to mimic the social behaviours of those around them in order to fit in, essentially camouflaging the underpinning challenges that they are experiencing. The key difference is that social skills are not intuitive in the way that they would be for an individual that is not autistic but instead effort, often great effort has to be exerted to develop and maintain them.

Sad to say some old-fashioned use of gender stereotyping may also mitigate against the identification of girls. Some girls with ASC may be labelled as shy which is in effect describing social difficulties or social awkwardness. They may be described as nurturing and caring if they prefer friendship bonds with those who are younger than them. These may not be seen as unusual in girls yet in boys they would be regarded in a potentially different way and might make an individual stand out and be more visible and therefore subject to closer scrutiny.

Camouflaging, whilst may solve the immediate problem of fitting in, can be hugely costly to the individual. It can create great anxiety and be exhausting in some cases leading to mental health issues. Imagine having to carefully watch and plan every social interaction, the effort involved is huge. There is also the potential for friendships or relationships that are not healthy or social naivety that would allow others to take advantage of the individual.

Many girls and women pass under the radar of identification throughout their lives. It could be argued that if they are living happy and fulfilling lives is this a problem? For some individuals maybe not, but for others certainly yes. A diagnosis can provide answers for an individual as to why perhaps they find certain situations intolerable, why change creates great anxiety and maybe why relationships have been problematic. It can also create a sense of self-understanding and peace about things that maybe the individual blames themselves for and for which they feel guilty, it can provide an explanation about why they might experience things in a different way to others.

Here at I AM we provide support to help all individuals build their social skills in a safe environment. But most importantly we create an environment where individuals don’t need to camouflage their challenges, a safe space where individuals can be themselves.

For more information about what we do contact admin@i-am-autism.org.uk or give us a call on 0161 866 8483

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