Autism is a neurobiological disorder, primarily affecting brain development, which continues to mystify researchers as to its exact cause or causes. Genetic research in 2010, however, uncovered some new information that may eventually reveal some breakthroughs.
In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new statistics showing that prevalence of autism has risen by approximately 23 percent, and now affects 1 in 88 children in the United States. Out of this number, 1 in 54 boys typically receive an autism diagnosis, while girls with autism usually factor in as 1 in 252 among the overall population. The CDC designated autism as “the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S.”
The Under-served Population
Because the number of boys with autism is so much greater, girls with autism often end up as being the under-served population. If you are the parent or caregiver of a teenage girl or young woman with autism, then you unfortunately know this is true. Since girls represent “only” about 20 percent of the total number of individuals with autism, much of the emphasis remains focused on boys with autism.
Even at 20 percent, however, girls with autism represent a large number of the population. The conservative figure is anywhere from 1 to 1.5 million individuals diagnosed with autism. Two of the hallmark symptoms of autism tend to be difficulties in development of 1) communication and 2) social skills, which creates a greater burden for female teens and young adults who desire to both communicate and socialize with their peers. Instead of easily socializing with peers and others, girls with autism often experience difficulty making friends and managing their feelings, and may become the objects of teasing and bullying.
Characteristics of Girls with Autism
Many girls tend to present with Asperger’s Syndrome along the autism spectrum of disorders. In some cases, they often exhibit some combination of these characteristics and behaviors:
Engage in imaginary worlds with make-believe friends.
Observe people in social situations and try to mimic behaviors.
Strive for acceptance by apologizing constantly.
Try to understand social situations, thoughts, motivations, and feelings by reading fiction and/or watching television shows, such as soap operas.
Exhibit “male” patterns of behavior, such as showing no interest in fashion, but demonstrating giftedness in maths and sciences.
Fixate intensely on special interests.
Why are Girls with Autism Under-served?
One of the reasons female teens and young adults diagnosed with autism suffer as an under-served segment of the population is that they have an interesting ability to hide their symptoms. This ability means that an autism diagnosis is often delayed until some other mood disorder strikes, requiring the attention of a clinician. For this reason, girls with autism often go undiagnosed until they are older (into their teens).
Many girls with autism do not get diagnosed because they often do not exhibit the hyperactive or physically agressive behaviors that are common with young boys. Many girls who have gone undiagnosed with autism often appear to be simply “tom boys” or in possession of “male brains” which can be displayed as uncaring and unable to understand the feelings of others, or lack of compassion.
Female teens and young women with autism who exhibit these stereotypical male traits may feel shunned and unaccepted, which is exactly the opposite of the acceptance they crave, and only serves to crumble their already delicate self-esteem. Professionals and activist groups suggest that parents, caregivers, teachers, and others need to do all they can to raise awareness among the population that girls have autism, too.
Due to more subtle signs of autism, many supporters state that more conclusive tests need to be developed and conducted sooner on girls with autism so they no longer go undiagnosed, nor suffer as an under-served population.