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Many girls may not be getting the correct diagnosis for autism, which can lead to a lack of proper support and a lot of confusion. As doctors may not always be able to spot it straight away, it’s useful for parents to be aware of signs they can look out for.

For many years, autism has been seen as a male condition. The number of boys and men who are diagnosed with autism is still much higher than that of girls and women, with various studies and evidence resulting in ratios from 2:1 to 16:1. Why is this, and how can you detect if your daughter may be on the spectrum?

Under the radar

There are many official theories about the reason that more boys are diagnosed with autism than girls:

  • “Autism is an exaggeration of normal gender differences”,
  • “Autism is caused by the effects of testosterone on brain development” and
  • “Girls are less likely to inherit autism than boys because of genetic differences”

But these might be only looking at one side of things. The mis-diagnosis or under-diagnosis of girls could also be due to the fact that girls are more likely to ‘mask’ or ‘camouflage’ their autistic traits more, or that the tools that doctors use to diagnose autism are based on boys.

Autistic girls may also pick up language quicker and might be less prone to aggressive outbursts than autistic boys.

What to look out for

The way that autism ‘looks’ in boys and girls can be very different. As one autistic woman said; “what we think we know about autism from research is actually just what we know about male autism”, and so spotting autism in girls can be particularly difficult.

Here are just a few things that you can look out for which could be a sign that your daughter is on the spectrum:


1. Social situations

One of the main differences between autistic girls and autistic boys is the way that they act with friends. While boys tend to isolate themselves from their peers and avoid eye contact, girls are more likely to seek out social situations and can be more verbal and engaged.

In these social interactions, autistic girls may seem no different to their non-autistic friends. They tend to study other children and mimic them to try to fit in, which many call ‘masking’.

Spotting the signs:

  • As a parent, it’s important to be aware of your daughter acting differently in social situations than she does at home. Though she may be enjoying the company of friends and having fun, the social situation may still be confusing and unsettling for her.
  • While this can be hard to spot, another way that you could recognize this is if your daughter gets upset or has a meltdown soon after arriving home from school or being with others. This could be the result of the pent-up tension from trying to ‘fit in’ all day, which can be exhausting!


2. Obsessions

When we think of children with autism, lots of people will imagine a boy obsessed with planes, trains or automobiles.

Some autistic girls will have similar interests to these boys, but the obsessions of others may be more mainstream or ‘girly’.

Because their friends may have the same interests, autistic girls’ special interests or obsessions, such as music artists, may not be picked up on.

Spotting the signs:

  • One way to spot whether your child has a special interest linked to their autism is the narrowness of it and their persistence.
  • Collecting items linked to their interest and lining them up or organizing them obsessively may also be a sign of autism.

3. Perfectionism

Personal perfectionism is very common in girls with autism. There are two layers to this trait; the need to do things perfectly and relentless self-blame for failing to be perfect.

This can display as reluctance to answer questions and avoidance of schoolwork in case their answers/work are incorrect or imperfect. Avoidance of competitive games in case they don’t win is also common. Your child may take a long time to complete or obsessively re-draft work, obsessively re-do drawings or refuse to finish them.

Spotting the signs:

  • You should look out for your daughter being frustrated or overwhelmed during and after finishing tasks or when having to hand work in.
  • She may also be making self-critical comments, which can also be a sign of personal perfectionism.

4. Eating Disorders Issues with food

Many autistic individuals experience issues with food because of sensory sensitivities or aversion to food taste or texture. Being a ‘picky eater’ is a common sign of autism as well as when a child will only eat food of a certain texture.

This seems to be quite common with autistic girls. Research shows that around a fifth of women being treated for anorexia are also autistic.

Why is this? Some think that autistic girls may not be able to sense when they are hungry or how much they should eat. It could also be because of their need to follow strict rules or to fit in with peers.

Some autistic women have even said that eating too little or exercising too much have helped dull feelings of anxiety.

Spotting the signs:

  • If your child is underweight or has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, it may be a signal that they are autistic. Being a picky eater or getting frustrated around food may also be a sign.

More differences and traits

More traits to look out for include:

  • Being very shy
  • Having one main friend at a time
  • Being creative, imaginative and creating elaborate fantasy worlds
  • Being hypersensitive to stimuli such as light or noise
  • Having emotional reactions which may seem over the top
  • Having a very good memory
  • Saying “no” a lot

Next steps

Many of the traits listed above are found in non-autistic children, of course. The severity, intensity and co-occurrence of these traits are what may lead to a diagnosis.

Autism can come with many challenges. It’s always important to remember, however, that autistic children can be wonderful, creative and imaginative!

It’s not a bad thing to see the world differently, but getting the correct diagnosis is key. When girls are un-diagnosed or mis-diagnosed, they can feel like they aren’t ‘normal’ which can lead to problems such as anxiety and depression.

If you think that your girl may have autism, you should speak to a medical professional. If she receives a diagnosis, they will suggest the best ways to support them.

The Author

Petra Ecclestone is a Philanthropist and mother of three. She is founder and Director of the Petra Eccleston Foundation, providing services and support for young children with suspected or diagnosed autism and their families.

Copyright © 2020 The Brightest Star. Content curated by Petra Ecclestone