What makes autistic girls unique?
How are autistic girls different to autistic boys? Or neurotypical (NT) girls? It’s important to understand what sets them apart in order to get our heads round why life can be such a struggle for them, and why diagnosis can be elusive for women and girls.
Autistic girls v autistic boys
Autistic girls are more likely to…
- Mask / mimic in social situations in order to fit in
- Suffer from depression and/or anxiety
- Control behaviour in public but have emotional outbursts / meltdowns at home vs boys’ tendency to withdraw or isolate themselves at home
- Hold it together, be a ‘good girl’ at school
- Have less obvious autistic traits, eg less likely to line things up or have repetitive behaviours
Despite quite a lot of data to the contrary, historically autism has been thought to be a ‘boys’ condition’. At present, the ratio of autism diagnosis for boys to girls is around 2:1. It is said however that autism in girls is ‘hiding in plain sight’ as girls simply present differently and their autistic traits require more investigation. Autistic girls can be chameleons, working hard to blend into whatever situation they find themselves in.
The fact is that even if we don’t parent our girls in a gender specific way, there is no escape from societal pressure for girls to behave in a certain way. Books, television, school, friends and other family members may be very influential for our girls – be nice/look nice, don’t show emotion, think of others first, etc.
Autistic girls have a tendency to become social scholars, constantly studying what others are doing and trying – not always successfully – to do things, wear clothing and behave in a way that looks ‘normal’. This is utterly exhausting, especially as it’s very hard to get right.
Autistic girls v NT girls
Autistic girls are more likely to…
- Care less about their appearance and hygiene than NT girls
- Suffer from depression and/or anxiety
- Develop an intense interest in another child (boy or girl) and may obsess about this child
- Have more intense interests in things
- Have an aversion to what is popular or trendy
- Spend a lot of time in a ‘fantasy world’
Autistic girls may care less about appearance and hygiene
- Sensory difficulties may make washing, etc. more difficult
- Sensory difficulties may make wearing ‘trendy’ clothing more difficult
- She may simply see no point in washing / brushing teeth / changing clothing
- Not washing or changing clothing may be a way of being in control
It can be actually difficult for autistic individuals – girls and boys – to wash faces, bodies, hair, etc., due to their sensory needs. Water from a shower may be painful. Fragrances of shampoos and soaps may be overwhelming.
If you have a child who requires very soft, well worn clothing in order to get through the day, they may have great difficulty in wearing what is considered fashionable by their peers. It may be the case that a girl simply doesn’t notice what others are wearing but it also may be the case that she is painfully aware of what others are wearing and that she cannot, for whatever reason, wear the same things. She may try to mimic clothing to try and fit in – in other words she may try to find more sensory safe options – but as we know with children if it’s not THE thing it’s not right.
Autistic individuals are extremely efficient! If they don’t see the point in something then they struggle to engage with it. Hygiene is one of those things that it may take a lot of time and patience to convince your child to take an interest in.
Around the age of 7 or 8, girls go from playing to socialising. For an autistic girl who struggles with social cues, nuances, inside jokes, body language etc etc this is painfully difficult. She may feel very out of control and so putting her foot down around washing or changing clothing is a way of finding some peace through being in control of SOMETHING.
More likely to suffer from depression and/or anxiety
- Sensory sensitivities may cause huge anxiety
- Generally not understanding what is going on or what is expected causes anxiety
- Not understanding why they feel so weird and different to their peers creates isolation and can lead to depression
If your child struggles with sensory sensitivities, this can cause a lot of anxiety unless they find ways to manage this. For example if you have a child that struggles with busy places and loud noises they may need help understanding this about themselves – don’t go to busy/noisy places, wear noise cancelling headphones, etc.
The main causes of anxiety for any person are not knowing what to expect and not knowing what is expected of them. We can’t always prepare our children for everything but whatever we can do to help them feel less anxious is beneficial.
It’s important to remember that autistic individuals are almost always younger in themselves than their age on paper. So if you have an 11 year old girl, in herself she may be more like an 8 year old but her body is still 11, so this in itself can cause confusion and upset.
Autistic children don’t learn in the same way as their neurotypical peers. NT children will learn naturally by watching others, picking up on what peers, siblings, parents, etc., are doing. Autistic children don’t always – or even often – have this ability. So we have to teach them everything. This requires huge patience and compassion on our part as parents. The point of this in terms of expectations is to help you remember that the social processing speed of our girls is much slower, and they will need a lot more time and explanation to help them understand the world and thus understand what is expected of them in all the various situations they find themselves in.
Autistic children know they are different. They will begin to understand this from around the age of 7 – as I mentioned earlier this is when the activity between children goes from play to socalising, and this happens earlier with girls. An autistic girl will be painfully aware of the fact that she does not fit in and that she often misses social cues or says the wrong thing.
May develop intense feelings for one other child
- May misunderstand general friendliness as something more, eg ‘I like your shoes’ may be taken as ‘I really like you’
- May believe their feelings for another child are very mutual
- May intensely dislike another child for reasons that others can’t understand
Some autistic girls have a tendency to latch on to other children and overestimate the other child’s feelings for them. It is very difficult for autistic individuals to understand social cues. It is sadly also often the case that autistic children don’t have many friendships so they may latch on to another child who is simply being friendly.
Autistic individuals can sometimes struggle to understand that other people don’t think like them. This is to do with something called ‘theory of mind’ which is our ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, see the perspective of another person, etc. This is something that takes real practice for autistic people and something
that is generally developed later in life. This can cause huge problems as an autistic child may decide another child is their BFF when the other child has no interest in being this. Or, if the two children are friends, the autistic girl may be possessive and obsessive about the other child, not wanting or allowing them to play with others, etc. It may be extremely traumatic for the autistic girl if the other child moves away or is moved to a different class.
Just as a child may have intense positive feelings for another child, she may equally have intense negative feelings as well. This may cause huge anxiety especially if the disliked child is someone they have to see regularly, eg a classmate.
Unfortunately, the only thing for this is time and experience and us as parents supporting them through these situations when they occur.
May have a more intense interest in things
- Autistic girls are keen collectors
- Intense vs passing interest in a popular toy series
- The interest may last far longer than for a typical girl
- Intense, all-consuming interest in a particular topic
Where a typical girl may have a passing interest in a particular type of toy, an autistic girl may immerse herself in this type of toy for a long period of time. Autistic girls are more likely to obsessively collect all of the toys in a series and may enjoy spending a great deal of time organising and reorganising their collection (by colour, and then by size, etc). They may also enjoy the facts and figures aspect of the toys – names, back stories, etc. They may be interested in this type of toy far longer than their neurotypical counterparts.
Autistic individuals may have an intense interest in a particular topic – a famous person, the environment, animals, etc. This interest may be intense and at the expense of other things and may become somewhat ‘life limiting’ due to its all-consuming nature.
Greta Thunberg is a good example of this. She has an all-consuming interest in climate change which has been life changing for her and her family.
Might have an aversion to what is popular or trendy
- Might have an intense need to be individual
- May have an intelligence beyond their biological age
- Efficiency and practicality may win out over stylishness
Whilst some autistic children desperately want to fit in, they also may have an intense need to be different and unique. Sometimes, this need to be extremely different stems from the fact that they know they cannot get it right in terms of fashion or other social expectations, so they veer off to an extreme instead.
Also, an autistic children without intellectual disability may have a higher IQ than their typical peers. This may lead them to find mainstream things boring and unengaging, and they may seek out far more intellectual or complex books, films, ideas, etc.
There can be a conflicting and often uncomfortable inner dilemma of wanting to be more like their typical peers but fundamentally being very different to those children.
Autistic individuals are not only highly efficient but also very pragmatic. This comes to clothing as well. For example, there may be a clothing trend that is about wearing cute suede boots for all occasions. The autistic girl knows these boots will get ruined in the mud or rain and so they will be wearing their practical wellies or clunky hiking boots instead of going for this trend. Comfort over style often wins!
May spend a lot of time in a fantasy world
Might feel safer or more comfortable:
- in a costume
- while ‘in character’
- talking about their fantasy world
Autistic individuals have a very difficult time working out who they are and what they like. They are so busy working out how to fit in with everyone else that they may forget that they are an individual person with their own likes, dislikes and needs.
In order to counter feelings of not fitting in, an autistic child may retreat into a fantasy world. This may be a world they have learned about from a book or favourite film or television series, or it may be a world they have invented on their own. In this world they are in charge and call the shots. This child may want to live in costume. They may believe they are a cat or another animal and may want to wear a costume or other items that help them to feel ‘in character’ – for example a onesie with bunny ears and a tail.
You may see this especially if you have a child with avoidant traits as of course a cat doesn’t go to school and a horse can’t wear trousers, etc.