According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, boys are diagnosed with autism far more often than girls every year. However, the gap between the genders may not be as stark as once believed.
Dr. Louis Kraus, a psychiatrist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago with a specialty in autism, attributes the seemingly wide gender gap to the idea that symptoms of autism are less apparent in young girls. This is because girls can blend into normal social situations better than boys, who “tend to be more isolative,” Kraus explained in an interview with NPR.org.
While autism can be more easily diagnosed in boys at an early age, girls may not be diagnosed until a later age or may even go undiagnosed because symptoms don’t manifest as distinctly early on.
NPR.org’s article ‘Social Camouflage’ May Lead To Underdiagnosis Of Autism In Girls shares the story of Los Angeles native Haley Wittenberg. The youngest of four siblings, Haley was diagnosed with autism at the age of 19. For Haley, the diagnosis provided a sense of relief since she finally had an explanation for the differences she had felt between herself and others throughout her lifetime. “I would always play sports with the boys when I was little,” Haley told NPR, “because it was easier for me and they didn’t talk as much.”
Haley’s experience is fairly common among high-functioning girls with autism whose symptoms are less noticeable. Girls with autism tend to have mastered what many call “social camouflaging,” according to Amanda Gulsrud, clinical director of the Child and Adult Neurodevelopmental Clinic at University of California, Los Angeles. A study performed by her colleagues revealed that girls with autism blended in with their peers better than boys did. Despite sticking close enough to other girls to give the impression of social connection, girls with autism were found to be engaging in very little deeper interaction. As Gulsrud puts it, “They were not having deep, meaningful conversations or exchanges.”
Psychologist Marisela Huerta, who works with the Weill Cornell Medical College, added that girls with autism have a tendency to “behave more appropriately” than boys with autism, making diagnosis more complicated.
As NPR found, several researchers are attempting to learn more about sex differences in autism. For instance, child psychologist Kevin Pelphrey performed a study on girls with autism, focusing on the significance of genes, behavior, and brain function throughout development. “You can always make up academics. That’s never a huge worry if you fall a little behind with academics,” said Pelphrey. “What is much, much harder to do is make up social development.”
This story originally appeared on npr.org and can be read, in full, here.