What to Know About Autism in Girls

teen girl in therapy

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What Is Autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects how people with the disorder behave and interact with the world. An autistic person will often experience social, behavioral, and communication challenges.

Autism is an umbrella term sometimes used to refer to other developmental disabilities, which is why the condition is also known as autism spectrum disorders(ASD).

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. This causes the condition to be often overlooked in girls. The condition can develop as early as in the first year of your life and last the course of a person’s lifetime.

Causes of Autism 

The exact cause of autism is still unknown. However, researchers have made groundbreaking strides in understanding the disorder.

Some of that research suggests that a combination of environmental and genetic factors could be responsible for the development of the condition. Certain risk factors also make some people more susceptible to developing the condition. They include: 

  • Being born prematurely 
  • Having a history of genetic disorders such as Fragile X Syndrome
  • Being born to older parents
  • Having a sibling who had already been diagnosed with the condition 

Symptoms of Autism 

Everyone experiences autism differently. Symptoms of the condition don’t always look the same in two people. In that regard, boys and girls also exhibit varying symptoms of the disorder. 

Autism consists of a wide range of social, communication, and behavioral symptoms. Here’s a breakdown of some of them.

Social and Communication Challenges 

Examples of some social and communication challenges an autistic person might exhibit include: 

  • Difficulty initiating and maintaining a conversation 
  • Difficulty maintaining eye contact when communicating with another person 
  • Being unresponsive when their name is called 
  • Difficulty making appropriate facial expressions during a social interaction 
  • Speaking in an unusual tone of voice 
  • Difficulty making friends or interacting with their peers 
  • Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings 

Behavioral Challenges

An autistic person will often exhibit repetitive and restrictive behaviors. Some common examples include: 

  • Having a strict daily routine and becoming upset when that routine is disrupted
  • Repeating certain words and phrases several times 
  • Easily experiencing sensory overload 
  • Becoming fixated on specific objects or subject matters 
  • Repeatedly making certain gestures, for instance, spinning around in a circle several times 

Other symptoms that fall into the above categories an autistic person might exhibit include: 

  • Having seizures
  • Having unusual eating habits 
  • Experiencing a delay in the development of their motor skills 
  • Experiencing a delay in the development of their language skills 
  • Being easily irritated
  • Difficulty learning new skills 

How Is Autism Diagnosed?

There’s no particular test used to diagnose autism. For an accurate diagnosis of autism, your doctor will take a deep dive into your medical and family history. They’ll ask a series of questions to understand the symptoms you’ve been exhibiting and determine if they fit into the diagnostic criteria for autism.

The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) provides specific criteria for diagnosing autism spectrum disorders. It includes:

  • Having difficulty interacting and communicating with people 
  • Exhibiting repetitive behaviors 
  • Having symptoms so severe that it affects your ability to function 
  • Symptoms must have been present in early childhood 
  • Symptoms exhibited can’t be attributed to conditions such as intellectual developmental disorder or global developmental delay

It’s crucial for autism to be diagnosed as early as possible for efficient treatment. The earlier a diagnosis is made, the sooner a person with the condition can get the treatment they need and experience an improvement in their symptoms. 

Autism Treatment 

As soon as an accurate diagnosis of autism is made, your doctor will start you or your child on an effective treatment plan. Unfortunately, there’s currently no cure for the condition. However, treatment plans focus on reducing the severity of an autistic person’s symptoms and helping them live a functional life. Treatment typically consists of a combination of medication and psychotherapy

Medication 

In treating autism, a doctor will typically prescribe different medications to treat various symptoms. One of the peskiest symptoms of autism is severe irritability. For this, the FDA has approved Risperdal (risperidone) and Abilify (aripiprazole). Other medications sometimes prescribed for the treatment of autism include: 

  • AntipsychoticsTypical antipsychotic medications like Haldol (haloperidol) have proven to be effective for treating symptoms of hyperactivity and aggression. 
  • Antidepressants: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac (fluoxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline) have been observed to possibly help treat symptoms of restrictive and repetitive behaviors. However, research into its effectiveness has mixed results. Some show improvement in these symptoms and others show no improvement alongside severe side effects. 

Psychotherapy 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common form of psychotherapy used to treat autism. CBT focuses on equipping autistic people with tools to improve how they communicate and express themselves. It also helps autistic people live fuller functioning lives. 

Is Autism Different in Girls?

Autism affects girls in the same way it affects boys. However, they exhibit signs of the condition in different ways. This often leads to the condition being underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed in girls.  

While current research shows that the disorder seems to affect more boys than girls, those numbers are skewed by the high percentage of misdiagnosed girls.

“There is not a medical test for autism. It is classified by and diagnosed by observable behaviors. While there may be subtle differences in presentation, the primary behavioral characteristics must be similar to meet diagnostic criteria,” says Alton Bozeman, PsyD, assistant professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Services at Baylor College of Medicine.

Another key difference between autism in girls and boys is that there may be some increased social motivation and drive in autistic girls.

“While girls with autism may have deficits in social functioning, they may be less likely to socially isolate and may be more motivated to attempt to adapt their behavior in social situations,” says Bozeman. “However, there still must be actual deficits in social functioning given these attempts to qualify for the diagnosis.”

In a 2022 study on the gender differences in the brains of people with autism, researchers found that the brains of boys and girls are organized differently. The researchers also emphasized the need for the development of gender-specific diagnostic criteria and treatments for autism in girls and women. This study helps to understand why there's a difference in autism symptoms in boys and girls.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can autism be cured?

    There’s currently no cure for autism. However, there are several treatments and therapies that have been proven to be effective in managing symptoms of the condition and helping an autistic person live a more functional life. Treatment for autism looks different from one autistic person to another. Your doctor will be the one to make the call on what is the most effective treatment for you. 

  • Can autism be passed down to my children or grandchildren?

    While genetics play some part in the inheritance of autism, it’s not quite as straightforward as an autistic person being able to give their children or grandchildren autism. Researchers recognize that autism tends to run in families but remain unsure of the inheritance pattern. 

  • Are girls more likely to have autism than boys?

    Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. However, studies reveal a gender bias in diagnosing autism in girls. Girls typically exhibit symptoms of autism in vastly different ways from boys. This causes the condition to go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed in girls. A 2017 study found that, unlike previously thought, boys are about three times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls and that girls are at a disproportionate risk of not getting an accurate diagnosis.

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10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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