According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism is 4.5 times more common in boys than it is in girls. But some doctors think that the number of autistic boys and girls might not be so different, rather traits just go undetected in girls because they don’t line up with traditional definitions of autism.
The phenomenon, which is defined as “social camouflaging” in a new NPR story, is that girls’ autistic traits are less obvious than boys’ autistic traits. For example, while autistic boys tend to be isolated from social groups, girls appear to be more socially connected because they tend to be a part of groups more often. Autistic girls are also usually quieter and when they exhibit obsessive behavior (like collecting things for example) that is seen as “endearing and culturally acceptable” according to one psychiatrist.
A 2015 study of 800 children from the Stanford University School of Medicine found that girls and boys don’t really differ much in terms of social behavior and communication skills but girls do tend to exhibit less “repetitive behavior.” But the kind of interests used to diagnose children with severe autism, like a fixation on train timetables or numbers, often works for boys but less so for girls who can be just as obsessive about something like Disney movies. And ultimately an obsession with Barbie, for example, doesn’t ring alarm bells for parents or doctors.
Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how autism affects children differently depending on gender. But even though boys now do seem to be more vulnerable to autism than girls, there may be some gender bias in terms of how the disorder is studied and diagnosed.
Listen to the whole NPR story here.