The National Autistic Society has published a survey highlighting clear gender differences in the diagnosis of high functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome with only one in five females being diagnosed before they were 11 compared to 50% of males.
According to the report, women are also more likely to be misdiagnosed and receive less support than their male counterparts well into adulthood.
Autism is often considered more apparent in males, with a ratio of four autistic boys to every one autistic girl. In higher functioning autism and Asperger's the difference is more prolific, with 10 males with the condition to every female. There are several proposed reasons for this, the main one being Baron-Cohen's “extreme male brain theory” which views autism as an exaggeration of traits already apparent in the average male brain.
Many people with autism have an ability to systematise (observe patterns and predict results in rule bound non-human systems) but find empathising challenging as the rules of social interaction are fraught with inconsistencies.
There is also the observation that families with an autistic member have more males than females which is assumed to be due to overexposure of testosterone in the foetus. With these facts and theories featuring heavily in medical training it goes some way to explaining the doctor's bias in their diagnosis, particularly as much of the research in this area focuses on males.
Research shows that autistic girls tend not to act on their impulses as much as boys, meaning the problematic behavioural aspects of the condition are often not evident to medical experts. This could be to do with the gender differences in socialisation in which girls are more heavily taught to do as they are told and be quiet. Their social awkwardness may be interpreted as shyness and reservation, qualities that are not so encouraged in boys.
Girls also tend to be more advanced in terms of language and social skills in general, which may further inhibit their diagnosis. Anecdotal evidence suggests girls with autism have a stronger desire to be social and present different variations on the more classic symptoms. For example, many girls with autism have a wider range of obsessive interests which tend to be considered more appropriate, such as an extensive interest in horses, leading them to be dismissed as quirky or eccentric.
It is clear that further information and evidence is required to help females get the right diagnosis and support. With that in mind, The National Autistic Society are already embarking on new research into autistic females across Europe to look at them specifically in terms of their diagnosis, possible vulnerabilities, and social skills. Hopefully this will expose the crucial gender differences that exist in autism and promote better awareness of the female traits important for correct and prompt diagnosis.
If you have autism and want to find out more about The National Autistic Society go to http://www.autism.org.uk/
Written by Jasmine Kluge
The National Autistic Society, http://www.autism.org.uk/news-and-events/news-from-the-nas/girls-and-wom...
The Daily Beast, "More than just quirky", http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/11/12/more-than-just-quirky.html
Interactive Autism Network, http://www.iancommunity.org/cs/understanding_research/extreme_male_brain