Does Autism Affect Girls’ Behaviour More Than Boys’?
Takeaway: Autism affects both boys and girls, but since girls are better at hiding their differences, their challenges often go unnoticed. And this means they’re more at risk for academic, social, and emotional damage from all their unmet needs. The solution? Consult a specialist as early as possible to create a support plan for your child.
Autism is a developmental difference that gives children distinct personality and behaviour traits.
Children with autism have ‘atypical’ brain wiring – i.e., their brains develop and function differently from most other children. And these brain differences lead to behaviour differences you’ll begin to notice in two- and three-year-olds. For instance, most children with autism find it hard to socialise and communicate. They’ll likely shy away from playing with classmates, struggle to notice and interpret body language, and misunderstand colloquialisms or figures of speech. Further, they’ll tend to have restricted interests and repetitive behaviour. So, they’ll get absorbed in niche subjects that may not interest other children or use the same play routines every day. Additionally, children with autism often have other traits like struggling to learn language, being physically uncoordinated, or being hyperactive/inattentive. (Learn more about autism spectrum disorder.)
Historically, we’ve assumed that these behavioural differences affect boys more than girls. But new data suggests otherwise.
Statistics have traditionally shown that more boys than girls have autism. For instance, a 1993 study of Asperger’s syndrome in Sweden showed a boy-girl ratio of 4:1. But that gap has narrowed over the years, with a 2017 study showing a ratio of 3:1, and more recent studies lowering that ratio further. So, what’s changing? Is it that we’re conducting better studies and getting more precise results? Or is it that we’ve misunderstood autism’s gender differences?
It turns out that gender stereotypes distract us from recognising autism in girls.
Boys and girls have the same root autistic traits, but these traits lead to different types of behaviour, causing parents and teachers to miss autism in girls. Take the ‘narrow range of interests’ trait as an example. It might cause boys to develop an obsession with trains, for example, which might not interest their other friends. But girls might channel their obsessive traits into exploring fashion trends or health fads – i.e., ‘expected’ behaviour for young girls that most adults would ignore. It’s the same root tendency, expressed more subtly.
Also, girls actively mask their differences more than boys.
This subtlety in expressing their traits means that girls with autism ‘blend in’ easier than boys. For instance, playground studies show that boys with autism are usually physically separated from their classmates, standing on the playground’s perimeter. However, girls with autism find ways of joining groups, even if they aren’t connecting socially. They often earn their place in the group by faking a laidback and fun persona – perhaps rehearsing (beforehand) jokes/anecdotes to share and forcing themselves to mimic their friends’ mannerisms and speaking styles. In contrast, boys rarely bother with this type of social camouflage, making their behavioural differences much more apparent.
However, there are brain differences between boys and girls with autism.
Researchers have started studying the genetic and brain differences in girls/boys with autism, and gender does seem to play a role. For instance, brain imaging reveals that girls’ brains are more active than boys’ in the area that processes social information – meaning they might be better equipped to understand social interactions, even if they struggle to participate in them. More importantly, the difference between girls with and without autism is more pronounced than between boys with and without it. So, autism likely gives girls more demanding challenges to overcome than boys.
Here’s where we need to develop a female-centred autism model.
The antidote to a male-centred autism model is for us to learn how autism presents in girls. And this means noticing nuances in their behaviour. For instance, your daughter might seem like she can hold a conversation. But if you look closer, is it that she keeps the conversation going or that she’s articulate enough to express herself? There’s a difference here because one is a social skill, and the other is a technical, language-related skill. Similarly, when she’s playing with her toys – is she using her imagination and creating new stories, or is she re-enacting the same routines over and over? Again, it’s not the behaviour but the intention that matters. Finally, the biggest giveaway is that girls with autism often play the ‘perfect child’ at school and vent their frustrations on returning home (in what some parents call the 4 o’clock explosion).
The takeaway is that autism might actually be more damaging to girls than boys.
Boys with autism tend to act out, so it’s easy to see they need help. But girls use their social camouflage to stay undetected, which can be more damaging. By spending all that energy trying to blend in, they set themselves up for anxiety, depression, and frayed nerves. Plus, all that pretending makes it harder to develop a stable, grounded identity. After all, who are you if you’re always playing a character?
That’s why, as parents, it’s worth taking action even at the slightest signs of autism.
Autism can affect your child’s academic life, but that’s relatively easy to fix. More damaging is its impact on her social life. So, if you’ve spotted autistic traits in your child, don’t hesitate to consult a specialist. Remember, there are many ways to tackle your child’s challenges, including social skills training, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and more. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- Email: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
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