Symptoms of Autism in Girls

Autism in Girls May Look Different From Autism in Boys

Could your daughter, or another young girl in your life, have autism? The answer may not be as obvious as it would be if you had a son. That's because signs of autism in girls and women are not the same as those in boys and men. They can be easy to miss, particularly in cases of high-functioning autism.

This article offers a chance to look at some of the signs and symptoms that may suggest autism is, or was, a reality in a girl's life. It also explains why these signs may be missed, and what to do next.

autism in girls
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Why Girls May Be Underdiagnosed

Some girls with autism have clear symptoms like self-stimulating behaviors (stims), or extreme speech and language trouble. Their problems with social communication or cognitive challenges are obvious, and they are usually referred for help and diagnosed at a young age.

But autism in girls whose symptoms are subtle, or whose intelligence allows them to mask symptoms, may only be found when they are pre-teens or teens. Our culture may be to blame in part, because many girls are expected to behave in quieter and less assertive ways than boys.

This means a girl who seems shy and withdrawn may be seen as "feminine," while a boy who has the same behaviors is noticed as different in a way that gets addressed. Similarly, a girl who seems "spacey" and unengaged is often called a "dreamer" in a positive way, but the same behaviors lead to autism help for boys.

Recap

Girls are diagnosed with autism too, but it may be harder to see the signs than it is in boys. One reason may be the difference in what society expects from them. When a girl seems shy, or gets emotional about things she can't deal with, it seems like "typical" behavior for girls. The patterns may instead point to autism.

Signs That May Suggest Autism in Girls

No single symptom is enough to suggest autism. Further, while some symptoms become clear to you as a girl gets older, you may look back and realize they have been true since her toddler years.

Remember that symptoms of autism should be severe enough to limit daily function. In other words, if a girl has one or two of the symptoms of autism but is well-adjusted and successful in other ways, it's unlikely that she's autistic. Here are some signs of autism in girls.

  • She relies on other children (usually girls) to guide and speak for her during the school day.
  • She has passionate but limited interests. They are very narrow and restricted. For example, a girl with autism may talk endlessly about TV show characters, locations, props, or actors, but know little or nothing about the show itself.
  • She is unusually sensitive to sensory challenges such as loud noise, bright lights, or strong smells. This symptom is as common among boys as it is among girls.
  • Her conversation is limited to her topics of interest. She may share her focus on a specific interest with you but cares little for another person's response. This may interfere with her ability to join groups or make friends.
  • She has a low frustration level and finds it hard to manage feelings when she is frustrated. She may have inappropriate "meltdowns" for her age. This may be disruptive at school, or lead to detentions or even suspension, when teachers and other adults set limits.
  • She has a high degree of depression, anxiety, or moodiness. These are not symptoms that are unique to autism, but it is linked with both mood disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

There are other symptoms that may seem rooted in a girl's personality, or in how she connects with others. These, too, may be subtle but missed signs of autism in girls. They include:

  • She has a hard time making or keeping friends. She may seem clueless when it comes to nonverbal social cues. She also may have a hard time "fitting in" with everything from how girls around her behave, to their hair and fashion choices.
  • She is called "quiet" or "shy" in school and other social situations. That's not autism in all cases. But language issues can make it hard to jump into talks with friends, to raise your hand in class, or to respond quickly in social settings.
  • She is unusually passive. Some people with autism are quite assertive. Still, passive behaviors are rewarded for how well they work at school but they just don't work at all times. They can be a sign she is unsure what to do or say, and has taken the safer route of doing or saying as little as possible.
  • She seems to be developing fairly typically as a young girl but finds social communication to be increasingly difficult as she enters her teen years. Girls with high functioning autism may find ways to mask and cope with it early on. But once social expectations become more complex in the early teenage years, the problem is clear.
  • She has epileptic seizures. Epilepsy has been found, in one study, to be more common among girls with autism than among boys.

If you see a few of these issues, and they persist across time, they may interfere with a girl's ability to thrive. You may wish to have her screened or evaluated by a professional team of autism experts.

Summary

There are similarities, but autism in girls and autism in boys do not always look like the same thing. It may not get noticed in girls until later teen or pre-teen years, when it becomes harder for a child to "cover up" their autism-related issues.

If these symptoms are emerging, or they start to add up in a girl's life and you decide to seek help, be sure to find health professionals who have experience working with girls on the autism spectrum.

A Word From Verywell

If you care for a girl that has autism, it's important to know there are a wide range of treatments available. Depending on her needs and challenges, you may need to make decisions about school.

Tailored special-needs plans can help at many public schools. You may also decide to consider private or charter options, because autistic girls often do better in smaller settings.

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Article Sources
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  2. Green RM, Travers AM, Howe Y, Mcdougle CJ. Women and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Diagnosis and Implications for Treatment of Adolescents and Adults. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2019;21(4):22. doi:10.1007/s11920-019-1006-3

  3. Navot N, Jorgenson AG, Webb SJ. Maternal experience raising girls with autism spectrum disorder: a qualitative study. Child Care Health Dev. 2017;43(4):536-545. doi:10.1111/cch.12470

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