It was first thought that more boys developed autism than girls because of a “flaw” in the male genes, something (unidentified) that makes the male more susceptible to autism spectrum disorders. Research has shown that it is more likely that being female “protects” girls from autism, rather than males being more susceptible. What it is about being female that “protects” them is unknown. The uncertainty surrounding the reasons for the disparity between the sexes in regards to developing the disorder has led to looking at other possible causes.
Girls Don’t Have Asperger’s Syndrome
Asperger’s Syndrome was first identified in 1944 by Hans Asperger, an Australian psychiatrist. Dr. Asperger identified a group of children that showed “autistic-like” traits, but possessed a higher than average I.Q. and had remarkable special talents. These children struggled with communication, and social interactions. Years of research and study identified this syndrome, named after Dr. Asperger, as part of the autism spectrum. The “traits” or “symptoms” described by Dr. Asperger are still used today to identify children with autism spectrum disorders. However, these traits are more likely to be displayed by boys on the spectrum. Why? The group of children that Dr. Asperger’s identified, and studied in the 1940’s were all boys. Even the physician responsible for identifying Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism, did not have any experience identifying or studying Asperger’s in girls. This led to the belief that girls did not have Asperger’s or Autism, and possibly may be one of the reasons that girls are under-diagnosed. Hans Asperger’s himself initially stated that girls were not affected by the disorder, but later revised this statement to acknowledge there are girls who do indeed have Asperger’s Syndrome.
Girls with Autism Present Differently
Girls are less likely to be referred for evaluation. This is thought to be because girls in general process social information, and/or are trained in social interaction differently than boys. Girls tend to “mask” their differences better than boys, and are more able to “blend” in with their peers making their differences less apparent to parents, and teachers. When a girl is missing social cues, or is deficit in social communication, it is often looked at as extreme shyness or anxiety. They are less likely, according to recent studies, to be singled out and bullied by other girls, than their male counterparts. This masking of symptoms, coupled with an assumption of shyness, and likely better “social” training can lead to girls being “missed.”
Boys are the Squeaky Wheels
Boys are not only more likely to be referred for autism evaluation and diagnosis, but they are more likely to be referred for ADHD evaluations. Boys tend to be more obvious when their social skills are in deficit. They are more likely to have fleeting eye contact, and misinterpret facial emotions than their female counterparts. They tend to present with more classical, or what appears to be more classic autism symptoms. Boys in the classroom in general tend to be more active, have more difficulty sitting still and remaining quiet. It is not uncommon to hear teachers complain of having “too many boys” in their classes, which makes the classes a little more noisy and unruly—boys being boys. Autism will tend to exacerbate this seemingly “male” behavior getting the attention of those around him. A girl is more likely to withdraw and remain quiet. Of course, this is not true for all boys and girls on the spectrum, or all boys and girls in general, but the difference may be enough for the boys with autism to be noticed more often.