by Melissa Summers, Support Assistant for All About Autism
In Australia, boys receive an autism diagnosis at a rate four times higher than girls. Boys are also likely to be diagnosed in early childhood, with many girls flying under the radar and not receiving a diagnosis until the late primary years, sometimes into their teens and adulthood.
Research suggests the difference in diagnosis ratios between boys and girls is attributed to a number of factors, including outdated autistic stereotypes and gender bias in diagnostic criteria.
Why is this still occurring?
Quite simply, many girls do not display outwardly “autistic traits” such as repetitive and restrictive behaviours. Rather, many girls learn early in life to adapt to social environments and mimic neurotypical behaviours in attempts to make connections.
Girls often appear compliant at school and have a desire to please and fit in.
“Unfortunately, this ability to mask and internalise their autistic traits contributes to misdiagnosis and lack of diagnosis altogether,” said Lizzie Vaughan, Director of All About Autism.
“Parents, teachers, and doctors may not recognise the extent of masking and the effort it is taking for their daughter/student to appear ‘fine’. The constant evaluation of what to do, what to say and how to act builds and builds.
“It is often not until the later primary years or even high school when the pressure and overwhelm of trying to ‘get by’ takes a toll and becomes problematic.
“Relationships at this age become more complex, so for autistic girls who may not understand the nuances of such relationships, they can find it increasingly difficult to know who to trust, who they should be and where they fit in.”
How can we, as parents and carers, help?
“Go with your gut and advocate,” said Lizzie. “If you believe accommodations need to be made for your child, then respectfully push for these to occur.”
Advocacy groups such as Yellow Ladybugs have fantastic resources for parents, young people, and teachers.
“Learn from people with lived experience. Listen to the many women who are now sharing their stories of late diagnosis in adulthood to understand the impact of stereotypes and misinformation.”
The earlier a child has access to safe and neuro-affirming support, the better their chance to develop a healthy autistic identity and learn to advocate for themselves.
“Have conversations with your children about neurodiversity and share positive stories. Autism is not something to be feared,” explained Lizzie. “And look for autistic role models. Some girls may feel more of a connection to their autistic identity if they can see this in someone they idolise (think Chloe Hayden, Greta Thunberg).
“If they see and hear stories of success and opportunity, then they will have a chance to unmask and discover their potential.”
Lizzie added the importance of looking after your own mental health and wellbeing.
“It’s not always easy being a parent on this journey. In fact, some days are really hard. Follow the advice you give to your daughter and take time for yourself to unwind and let it all out.
“Find your tribe and lean on them for support.”