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Hiding in Plain Sight? – Why Autism in Girls Is Often Overlooked

For every girl diagnosed with autism, four boys will be diagnosed. Is that because autism truly occurs more often in boys? Or could it be that the symptoms of the disorder are simply overlooked in girls?

The possibility of overlooking autism in girls is actually greater than you may think. That’s because of the variations on the spectrum. Simply put, autism in girls can have very different symptoms from those occurring in boys. 

Some girls who do have autism are often functioning at a higher level on the spectrum. So, the disorder goes unnoticed and untreated—even though it’s “in plain sight.” 

But, why don’t girls necessarily fit the model that doctors use to diagnose autism? And, how can you make sure your child receives a proper diagnosis if you notice any of the potential signs? 

The Reason Autism Is Often Overlooked in Girls

When doctors are trying to diagnose autism, they’ll look at two main markers: 1) repetitive or restricted behavioral issues, and 2) difficulty with communication. 

Individuals with autism often have problems with their social skills. When these problems are highly noticeable, the disorder becomes easier to officially diagnose. 

However, when it comes to young girls, the model often doesn’t fit. There’s a simple reason for that—the model is based around the symptoms of the male brain. While some girls do have the same symptoms at the same levels as boys, many girls with autism present their symptoms in a more subtle and quiet way. 

For example, if a young girl has an extreme interest (or even an obsession) in something, it can be easy to brush it off. Imagine a girl who has an interest in princesses to the point where she is doing things like excessively talking about them, wanting to look at them, collect every doll or costume to excess, watch them on television, etc. You might consider that to be normal. 

Even if the behavior seems odd to you, it’s easy to brush it off as “girls being girls.” However, that’s less common with boys who show similar behaviors. 

Girls are also more likely to have better control over their behaviors, especially in public. Autism is often first “caught” in school or by caretakers of children. Girls on the spectrum can end up being overlooked because they’re better at quieting their symptoms around people. 

The Problem with Misdiagnosis

Not only are girls with autism often overlooked, but they’re also often misdiagnosed. Unfortunately, a lot of girls are diagnosed with other things like ADHD or anxiety because their symptoms aren’t “strong” enough to receive an autism diagnosis. 

The big problem with misdiagnosis is that it can lead to other mental health problems. This includes depression and anxiety. Autistic girls can often “pass” the assessment of signs and symptoms doctors are looking for to give a diagnosis. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling. 

A young girl with autism who doesn’t receive treatment can later become a teenager who has a very hard time interacting with her peers, meeting new people, or even acting her age. 

Autism in girls might not reach its full peak until they are in junior high or older. By then, they have lived with their symptoms on the spectrum for so long that treatment can be more difficult for everyone involved. It can lead to severe social phobia, withdrawal, depression, and poor self-esteem. Higher rates of eating disorders are also observed in girls on the spectrum.

Researcher’s understanding of the autism spectrum is changing and growing. It’s important that as a culture, we start growing and changing the stereotypes that go along with autism too. That way, more girls can be properly diagnosed and get the help they need. 

 

If you’re worried about your daughter exhibiting some unusual behaviors, it’s never too early to ask for a diagnosis. Even if you don’t fully understand the signs and symptoms of autism, it’s important for every young woman with any of the possible signs to get a proper diagnosis so that she can receive the help she needs to function at a higher level her entire life. Please, feel free to contact us for more information.

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