Diagnosing Autism in Women — and Thriving Afterward

Most depictions of autism in the media show young boys and men struggling with the diagnosis. In well-known movies like “Rain Man” and “P.S. I Love You” as well as shows like “Parenthood,” “House,” “Boston Legal” and even “Arthur,” autists featured are exclusively male. While it is a major victory to see real and fictional autists in the media, it is disappointing that the diagnosis is seen almost entirely through a masculine lens.

In truth, autism manifests differently in girls and women. It is important to spread awareness of these differences, so parents, children and educators can work with an autism diagnosis effectively. Here are a few signs of autism unique to girls and women, why many doctors fail to diagnose females appropriately and how women can continue to thrive with an autism diagnosis.

9 Signs of Autism in Girls

Let’s start with perhaps the most important information in this article: the signs of autism in girls and women.

The most obvious nine symptoms include:

* Difficulty with social communication. Sometimes, female autists rely on others to communicate for them. Often, girls with autism function competently in social situations except at home, where they melt down. Also, girls with autism tend to lose social skills as they age.

* Difficulty making and keeping friends. Because female autists tend to be good at mimicking their peers, some can attract acquaintances easily, but their misunderstanding of verbal and non-verbal cues can turn off people before friendship blooms.

* Epileptic seizures. This, along with other symptoms, is a major indication of the presence of autism, especially amongst girls.

* Depression, anxiety, moodiness. Like with epilepsy, mood disorders are commonly associated with autism.

* Difficulty moderating feelings when frustrated. Female autists might respond violently or forcefully with negative emotion.

* Sensitivity to sensory challenges. Loud noises, bright lights, strong smells and other sensations tend to cause significant reactions in girls with autism.

* Restricted and specific passions. These passions often align with neurotypical peers, but go deeper or have greater focus than average.

* Quiet and shy. This could be a sign that a girl has difficulty expressing or interpreting language and emotion in others and thus remains reserved herself.

* Passivity. This can be difficult to detect in girls, who are taught to be passive rather than assertive.

The Cause of Under-diagnosis

In truth, many of these signs overlap significantly with well-known symptoms of autism diagnosed in boys — but because of the way society understands femininity and treats young girls, these signs are often overlooked. For instance, quiet, shyness and passivity are often valued in girls because women have long been expected to be subordinate to men. Though we often believe our society has advanced beyond these unfair expectations for women, gender roles still exist — and they are harming neurotypical and autistic girls alike.

Though girls with extreme symptoms receive diagnosis and treatment relatively early, but subtle symptoms of autism often go overlooked until well into adolescence or even adulthood. Doctors, teachers and parents should be on the lookout for these behaviors and tendencies in their girls, so young female autists can receive the help they might need.

Ways to Help Female Autists Thrive

It’s important to remember that autism isn’t a disease; it is merely a different way of thinking and behaving. In some cases, autism can inhibit a high quality of life — such as when autism prevents verbal communication or comes with dangerous (and treatable) diagnoses like epilepsy, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, in most cases, female autists find a place for themselves by leaning on certain individuals for support and training.

Thriving starts from a young age, when young girls are taught by special educators to socialize properly and gain skills that complement their natural tendencies. For provide this to young girls, special educators might pursue autism certification online, which will teach them how to best promote important skills and behaviors in the classroom.

When determining their career, female autists should consider their passions, strengths and weaknesses — just like any neurotypical job seeker would. It is important that people with autism disclose their diagnosis to their employer, if not immediately then relatively early in employment, so employers understand behavior patterns and can make adjustments to work schedules or styles to accommodate autists’ needs.

Women with autism shouldn’t strive to hide their diagnoses; the more women who are upfront about their autism diagnosis, the more representation they will find in the media, and the more parents and teachers will be able to recognize signs of autism in their young girls.

Thanks to Jackie Roberson

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