According to the National Autistic Society the ratio of men to women using NAS adult services in 2015 was approximately 3:1. In the same year the ratio of boys and girls in NAS schools was approximately 5:1. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the diagnosis of boys outnumbers girls at 5:1.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this accurately reflects the numbers of girls with autism, more it reflects a lack of identification and diagnosis of girls on the spectrum. Neurotypical girls often act differently to neurotypical boys, so it’s logical to make the leap that the same is true for autistic boys and girls.
Autism causes difficulties around the areas of social communication and interaction. This is often a red flag when identifying children for diagnosis. Society expects girls to have good social skills and girls are more likely to be praised and encouraged to develop them.
They’re also more likely to care about fitting in with their peers. As a result, autistic girls often work very hard to develop the skills needed, such as eye contact, small talk and active listening. In some cases girls will even imitate peers, or TV and film characters in order to appear ‘normal’.
Girls often have more usual hobbies, so you would have to look harder to notice the intensity of their interests. They’re also more likely to imitate play that looks more like their contemporaries, lifting scenarios, language and play ideas from their friends.
In short, girls often become amazing little actresses in order to fit in. This is easier in the early years of school, but as they grow up and the differences between them and their friends becomes more apparent, they can struggle. This can lead to them being labelled the difficult child in school. Alternatively, they might work hard to keep it together at school and then explode once in the safety of their home, with their families.
The struggle to cope can lead to anxiety, depression and, commonly, eating disorders as girls attempt to gain some control over their world.
It’s important that the gender divide in autism diagnosis is addressed. With the proper support, from an early age, the outcome is more likely to be positive and autistic girls can find their place in the world and live happy and productive lives.