Recognizing the Signs of Autism in Girls and Young Women

Have you ever known a young woman, a classmate, a student or a friend, who was painfully “out of step” with the rest of the social group or just uncomfortably “quirky”? There is a chance that the young woman has autism.

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In the past, we might have thought of her as a free or independent spirit. Today we are more aware of the increased prevalence of autism, as well as the benefits of interventions and supports.

 

 

The term autism can be applied to a spectrum of neurological disorders characterized by challenges in social interactions, difficulty communicating and repetitive behaviors. Individuals with autism may also have intellectual disabilities, motor skill and attention deficits or other health-related challenges. The Center for Disease Control reports that the current prevalence rate of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) is 1 in 88 children. Boys are five times more likely than girls to be identified as having an autistic disorder (2012).

Parents, teachers, research scientists, advocates and others have come to question the screening process for ASDs. Why do experienced teachers and clinicians usually spot a young boy who has autism with a fair degree of accuracy- but not girls? What are their “gut feelings” telling them about the boys that are not picking up on for the girls?

As a parent of a child who has autism, a teacher and research scientist, I have come to join some of my colleagues in suspecting that the 5:1 male to female ratio for individuals with autism is skewed and that some girls who have ASDs are not getting diagnosed. I believe we are hampered from recognizing girls who have ASDs by two problems: one is the inability of families, educators and other face-to-face service providers to recognize autism in females because it presents somewhat differently than in boys. The second problem is the diagnostic tools that are currently available are not working to correctly identify females who are referred for screening.

Why does this matter?

Intervention is so important! The earlier a child receives the intervention and support services they need, the greater the gains they will make in the long run. Naturally, the process of screening children and providing the appropriate supports and services can be quite challenging. However, I believe it is worth the effort. Children with autism experience significant social challenges and often suffer years of social isolation, peer rejection, depression, anxiety or other mental health challenges and are at an increased risk for a variety of poor academic outcomes (Wilkinson, 2008).  Developing social skills is quite similar to developing a large vocabulary. The more opportunities children have to learn and practice the needed skills, the better they tend to be at them.

Why is it so hard to recognize the warning signs of autism in females?

Poor social skills are one of the defining features of autism. While the debate is still open if girls are born more social than boys or if our society conditions girls to be more social then boys, most of us would still agree that, for the most part, girls are more social than boys. In addition, we seem to be more tolerant of girls who are shy, less aggressive and more physically awkward than boys. For whatever reason, as a society, we are less concerned when girls do not keep up with their age-level peers than boys. The real question then becomes…

What’s the harm in letting girls progress “at their own pace”?

If you think about it, there are so many benefits that we derive from having strong social skills. From infancy onward: (a) others interact with you more often, increasing your opportunity to practice and learn more things, (b) increased friendships reduces your vulnerability to bullying, (c) you can accomplish more tasks because others enjoy playing/working with you, (d) others advocate for your inclusion, etc. In short, when you have strong social skills, you are more likely to be a positive person with a strong sense of self-worth and the supports necessary to succeed academically and in life. After all, it takes two to play on the teeter-totter, to play catch, to receive feedback on a speech, to be hired, to sell a product, to build a relationship with, and to support each other.

What can you do about it?

You are the first, best chance that all of the women in your life will receive the supports and services they need to be successful. Be a good advocate by following these few simple guidelines:

  1. Know the signs of autism.
  2. When evaluating your impressions, compare the person to other females their age not males.

Brief Checklist for Some of the Signs of Autism

  1. Challenges in social interactions
  2. Unusual or challenges in communication
  3. Perseveration including intense or ritualized behavior (Perseveration is response repetition in inappropriate situations)
  4. Sensory challenges

This list is not extensive. If you suspect that a child may be exhibiting symptoms of autism, the best course of action is to have the child screened by a pediatrician or autism specialist. Early diagnosis leads to early intervention and better outcomes.

Do you have an insight on or experience with autism in girls? Please leave a comment.

Haidee Copeland, Ph.D.

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Associate Research Scientist / Adjunct Special Education Professor / Parent of a Child with Autism

This entry was posted in K-12 School Climate and tagged , , , on by .

About Haidee Copeland

I have over eighteen years of experience working with individuals with disabilities, their families, and the people who support them. My career in Special Education spans the age and ability range from primary to post secondary, and from accelerated (gifted) to significantly impaired. Like many within the field, my connection is both personal and professional. I am the proud parent of a child with a disability, and an adjunct professor/supervisor/research scientist with the field of Special Education. It is a pleasure to share my experiences with the irisEd blog readers.

3 thoughts on “Recognizing the Signs of Autism in Girls and Young Women

  1. Colette Hamner

    Thank You !

    I was struggling today after reading a report on a child that states her language is delayed and perhaps ADHD. These things may be a part of what is happening for this little girl, but not the whole picture. She is one of three girls I work with – all of whom their issues are not being dealt with effectively -

    I am glad there is starting to be recognition that girls and boys may present differently and need different markers. Just as a few years ago it was thought that girls did not have fragile X – they were carriers. Now it is recognized that females do have fragile X, but presentation is completely different.

    Do you have any suggestions for supporting these girls and their families. They have all had visits with different pediatric specialist – but none of them have been recognized as experiencing life through the autistic spectrum lens.

    Reply
    1. Haidee Copeland

      Dear Colette,

      You are most welcome! There are a variety of books on supporting girls and young women with autism. Shana Nichols and Tony Attwood both write books, which focus more specifically on girls with Asperger’s. However, many families and/or young women with autism struggle less with general questions about autism, and are seeking help on a particular crisis situation.

      If someone you know is seeking support, and not getting the help they need from the various pediatric specialists they have seen it is vitally important that they keep asking their doctor/support provider until they receive the help they need.

      The families may also wish to contact a nationally recognized support network. Two well-respected referral networks are:
      1. OASIS http://www.aspergersyndrome.org/
      2. http://www.autismspeaks.org/

      With the rapidly increasing numbers of individuals whose lives are impacted by autism, it is important that we continue to work together to find solutions!

      Best regards,
      Haidee

      Reply

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