Autism was first described as a form of childhood schizophrenia in 1943 by psychiatrist Leo Kanner. Since then, its definition, diagnosis, and classification have undergone several changes, from a psychiatric condition to a group of connected developmental disorders to, finally, a spectrum condition with broad levels of impairment.
Research about ASD has come a long way. But, there is still much to learn, particularly regarding autism and gender and its differences in males and females.
Autism Diagnosis In Men vs. Women
Multiple studies have shown that men are diagnosed more often with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than women. Current estimates state that 75% of those diagnosed with autism are men. In fact, in 1944, Hans Asperger believed females could not be autistic, an idea he later recanted.
The significant difference between the number of autistic males to females raises many questions and just as many concerns. Are men truly more likely to be autistic, or do societal factors contribute to an underdiagnosis of autistic females?
The National Autistic Society of the UK has several theories that could explain why ASD is diagnosed more frequently in males.
First of all, the “female autism phenotype” contains traits that don’t match the typical characterization used to diagnose males. Since diagnostic tests and tools center around male characteristics, it can be difficult to detect signs of autism in females and contribute to an underdiagnosis. It’s crucial to modify assessment tools suitably when determining if a girl or woman is on the spectrum. Secondly, ASD tends to exaggerate the differences between males and females. For example, the theory of the extreme male brain, which hypothesizes that those with ASD view the world through a “male” lens.
It’s not unheard of for a disorder or condition to be more prevalent in one gender over the other, and numerous biological factors could explain an increase in autism among males. From a social standpoint, females may be better at hiding their struggles, especially in school. This camouflaging results in underreporting by teachers.
What Autism Looks Like In Males
Since males are diagnosed more frequently with ASD, the characteristics, or symptoms, of ASD are generally based on those seen in boys and men.
Each age manifests new traits associated with this disorder. Doctors or physicians may be inclined to say that a child who is developmentally behind will “catch up,” but that may not always happen. It is crucial for parents concerned about their children’s development to consider seeing a specialist and receive more timely assistance. Autism Speaks describes ASD’s core symptoms as challenges with social communication and restricted, repetitive behaviors. These may start in childhood and carry on as the child ages. Even if the symptoms go unrecognized, they often make daily life more difficult and can affect the quality of life. Since autism is a spectrum, different people may experience it differently. There is a wide range of behaviors and challenges, and some may be more extreme than others. Those who are high-functioning may go their whole lives without receiving a diagnosis or misdiagnose with OCD, ADHD, or something else. What Autism Looks Like In Females While males and females with ASD share many symptoms and traits, girls show fewer restricted and repetitive behaviors. They are also more at risk for internalizing issues, including anxiety and depression. The first signs in females (especially young girls) are easy to be misinterpreted or go unrecognized. Here are some of the more common signs of ASD in females, according to Autism Awareness Australia:
- Strong interests in animals, music, art, and literature.
- A vivid imagination or an inclination to “escape” into nature or fiction.
- An inclination to arrange and organize items.
- Unwillingness or hesitation in playing together with other females, e.g., Wanting to be in charge, or playing alone to keep control.
- “Mimicking” people to assimilate in social situations.
- Being able to stay in control of emotions during school or work, but experiencing “meltdowns” at home.
- Feeling an acute sensitivity to sensory sensations, particularly sounds and touch, e.g., certain fabrics, zippers, buttons, etc.
Greater knowledge regarding autism and gender is crucial to refining assessment and general practices regarding females.
Autism And Gender Identity
A growing amount of research connecting autism and gender dysphoria shows that those with ASD are more likely also to have gender dysphoria. However, more evidence is needed to support this theory entirely.
These studies show that, while the study of autism spectrum disorder has come a long way, there is still much to be learned. Hopefully, increased researchers will bring more answers and more refined methods for assessment and treatment for both females and males alike.