Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has been traditionally thought to be a ‘male’ disorder, with a gender ratio of 4:1. This ratio is thought to be inaccurate because the data from early autism research studies originated almost entirely from studies with male participants.
Nonetheless, this means that females with less severe functioning impairment are less likely to receive early, correct diagnoses because the diagnostic criteria are based on male presentation and traits. The term “lost girls” was coined to describe females on the spectrum, who have flown under the radar without receiving support for their difficulties.
Up until recent years, when we are slowly gaining a better understanding of the female presentation of autism, many do not recognise that autism is manifested differently amongst females. Let’s unpack some of these tendencies that many females on the spectrum present with.
Many females on the spectrum put in a lot of effort to mask, or to hide, their difficulties or autistic characteristics because they know that would draw unwanted attention to them.
They might suppress repetitive behaviours (i.e., stimming) or replace them with less overt/invisible stims, such as curling and uncurling their toes, clenching their teeth, or pushing their tongues against their teeth. They might refrain from talking about special interests, unless they meet someone with the same interests.
They might pretend to follow a conversation or joke and laugh when others do. For those with difficulties with eye contact, they might look at the space between someone’s eyes or their nose to give the impression of displaying eye contact.
Being a social chameleon
Girls on the spectrum may mimic many different types of personalities, especially those whom they perceive to be socially successful. As a result, some of them might not have a strong sense of identity and can be very ‘chameleon’ like.
They might have an intense interest in the careful study of other people, observing social situations and dynamics, rehearsing social scripts and scenarios when they are alone, before applying what they have learnt in real-life social situations.
They might study the characters and relationships from books and films to gain more social insight. Of course, this can potentially be problematic because many Hollywood and Disney movies (entertaining as they are) may not have the most realistic representations of human relationships.
What does it all mean?
Unidentified neurodivergent individuals are at a much higher risk of burnout, anxiety and depression.
Consistent, tremendous amount of effort and careful considerations about every action is often required to maintain the mask. Many girls would hold it together throughout the day and let go of their masks and go into a meltdown at the end of the day when they are home – their safe place.
To the outside world, their social challenges and other symptoms may not be obvious until social expectations and demands exceed their capacities, usually during developmental transitions.
For example, an autistic girl , who might feel like she finally getting a hold of how to make friends and play with them, might feel confused when her peers are no longer interested in playing games but in chatting, gossiping and talking about boys and make-up instead.
I hope this article has given you a glimpse of how it can be like to be a female on the spectrum. It is not meant to be a generalisation of everyone’s experience. After all, it is important for us to remember that each individual on the spectrum is unique.
If this resonates with your, or a loved one’s, experience and you would like to further explore this, a psychologist who understands the non-stereotypical presentations of autism and ADHD can be a good place to start. Please feel free to email me to book in for session by clicking on the Contact Us page above.
© Jasmine Loo Psychology 2019