Understanding autism

Women and girls

Autism in women and girls

Rates of autism prevalence suggest that boys are, on average, 4 times more likely to have autism than girls.

But this figure may hide the true incidence of autism in girls and women, with some estimates ranging from 7:1 to as low as 2:1 (that is, 2 boys for every girl).
Parents with daughters on the spectrum will often share frustrating tales of how difficult it was to get a proper diagnosis for their daughters, while many autistic women did not receive diagnoses until adulthood.

Why does autism seem more common in males?

Being female does appear to protect the brain from many developmental disabilities, not just autism. There is emerging evidence that girls with autism need more extreme genetic mutations than boys to develop autism.

However, there is a growing body of work that indicates that autism just presents differently in girls and therefore often goes unrecognised, especially in verbally fluent girls with normal intelligence. Girls with autism also appear to be better at ‘camouflaging’ their symptoms in order to fit in.

With the diagnostic criteria for ASD based largely in how autism presents in males, girls can often ‘slip under the radar’ or get misdiagnosed. Girls with ASD seem to have less restricted and repetitive behaviours than boys, but it’s also possible that some of these behaviours go unrecognised — for example, an obsessive interest in collecting dolls may be misinterpreted as pretend play.

What does autism look like in girls?

Although every child with autism is different, here are some common characteristics in girls with autism:

  • A special interest in animals, music, art, and literature
  • A strong imagination (might escape into the worlds of nature or fiction)
  • A desire to arrange and organise objects
  • Not wanting to play cooperatively with female peers (for example, wanting to dictate the rules of play or preferring to play alone to maintain control)
  • A tendency to ‘mimic’ others in social situations in order to blend in
  • An ability to hold their emotions in check at school, but be prone to meltdowns or explosive behaviour at home
  • Strong sensory sensitivities, especially to sounds and touch (for example; clothing tags, socks or even deodorant).

For autistic girls to thrive, it’s important they have access to a timely and accurate diagnosis, and the informed supports that come with it. A delayed or missed diagnosis can impede their education and development, as well as their social and community participation.

While boys with autism are more likely to have outwardly challenging behaviours, (indicating underlying issues, such as anxiety) girls with autism are more vulnerable to internalising problems.

As our understanding of how autism affects females is still emerging, it is important parents and professionals alike stay updated on the best ways to specifically support girls and women on the spectrum.

Helpful resources

“We always knew our daughter was different. She has a cousin (boy) who is autistic but presents very differently”