Autism and Gender

It used to be that the general thought was that Autism was a boy-only disorder.  In fact, because of the primary symptoms, the disorder was originally thought to be related to schizophrenia.  Before that, people with mutism and stimming were often put into asylums because they could not relate to “normal” society and obviously had difficulty with communication.  How incredibly unfortunate!

As research grew, the broad spectrum of identified symptoms also grew.  The idea that girls could exhibit features of autism was not entirely ignored, but it often appeared that the obvious social behaviors were more severe in boys.

Verbal delays.  Stimming.  Repetitive behavior. Restricted interests.

Girls were often given a different diagnosis because they didn’t exhibit these noticeable behaviors, even though they had very mild symptoms of autism.

One of the female pioneers of understanding autism is Temple Grandin, sometimes called “the most famous person with autism.” Many years ago when I was still taking courses online for Psychology, I watched a 20/20 video as part of my lesson.  It was an interview with Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.  She discussed some of her symptoms – how her mother refused to give up when doctors told her to – and how she learned to deal with her own differently-able issues.  The thing that stands out to me was when she went under her desk, and put herself into a modified cow-chute.  She worked with cows and saw that when they were under stress, but moved into a confined chute, they became calm – so she adopted that for herself.  It was confined, dark, quiet – and it allowed her to center herself emotionally and mentally so that she could function again in the “normal” world.

She has provided incredible research opportunities, shares her own story with logic and reason, and opened up discussion and understanding of autism in a way that was really needed.  (This article about autism and adhd totally thrills this mama’s heart because I know someone who is JUST like this!!! )

Differences due to Gender

In general, girls are better able to mask their symptoms because they can mimic social norms.  Girls have different expectations, generally speaking, in society and are subjected to more social opportunities, where they can watch and learn how to behave.

THIS has been one of Curly’s greatest strengths, and why it took so long for her to be diagnosed.  She often appears to be engaged right in the middle of a gaggle of girls – but if you ask her what was going on, she doesn’t always understand the implications or interactions of the girls around her, doesn’t understand “mean” behavior even when it happens to her, and has little to no filter when communicating with others.

The statement in this article absolutely, spot-on describes my  girl:  The fact that girls with undiagnosed autism are painstakingly copying some behaviour tends not to be picked up and therefore any social and communication problems they may be having are also overlooked. This mimicking, and the repressing of their autistic behaviour, is exhausting, perhaps resulting in the high statistics of women with mental health problems (Dale Yaull-Smith, 2008).

School exhausts my girl.  The thing that helps her learn social skills is also the thing that wears her out.  It is why the transition to and from school is so challenging for her.  She has to gear herself up to go and it takes quite some time to recover from the energy she has had to spend just being there.  Smaller classrooms, more breaks, extensions on assignments and deadlines – all of these things help her manage school better.  It is why her IEP is so crucial for her success.

Understanding that autism is different in each child, and differs between boys and girls – is really important.  Awareness and Understanding go hand in hand with this disorder.  From the boy I met in high school who exhibited some of the very recognizable behaviors of autism, to the girl I am trying to raise well – awareness and understanding goes a long way to support research, build support systems and grow compassion in the world in which they live.