International Women’s 2017: Women and Girls on the Autistic spectrum

On International Women's Day 2017 we are highlighting the efforts addressing the gender imbalances in autism.

08 March 2017

Through our partnership with Ambitious about Autism and CRAE, the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at UCL, questions around the higher prevalence of autism in males keep cropping up. Is autism really that much more common in males, or is there something else going on?

The current diagnostic gender ratio is 1:4, but many believe there is significant under diagnosis of females and that the true ratio is closer to 1:2. This matters; undiagnosed autism has been linked to eating disorders in teenage girls, and girls whose other conditions are diagnosed but their autism missed, or whose autistic symptoms are misdiagnosed, are at risk of interventions that can aggravate autism-related symptoms or trigger mental health conditions.

Where girls are diagnosed it is typically later than boys, which means they miss out on early interventions and support.

So on International Women’s Day 2017 we’d like to highlight some of the work that goes on in the sector to address this gender imbalance, so that girls and women on the spectrum get the support they need, when they need it.

Diagnostic criteria still reflect that autism was for many years understood as a male dominated condition. CRAE is contributing to a growing body of research on how autism presents differently in girls, including a recent study into social relationships which found that autism is more subtle in females. However while autistic girls are more socially motivated and have more intimate friendships than autistic boys, they are not as good as non-autistic girls at recognising conflict within those friendships.

Nasen, the National Association of Special Educational Needs, have produced a guide on supporting girls with autism spectrum conditions. The guide provides school based support strategies, different professional and academic perspectives on the issue of autism and gender, as well as outlining the key issues girls with an autism spectrum condition face.

One of the findings of the EU funded ‘Autism in Pink’ project was the need to raise public awareness of ‘masking’, which autistic girls and women appear to be both more motivated to and better at than autistic males. Many of the participants worked hard to compensate for or suppress their autistic characteristics by mimicking others and continuously analysing social situations. As well as being exhausting, masking makes it harder for parents, teacher and other professionals to identify and refer for an autism assessment.

Pears Foundation is pleased to support the National Autistic Society, the lead partner on the Autism in Pink project, to develop an online training resource for teachers, GPs and other health and social care professionals. The project has been developed in consultation with Dr Judith Gould, founder and Lead Consultant at the Lorna Wing Centre for Autism and one of the UK’s leading experts on the challenges of diagnosing women and girls on the autism spectrum. NAS will be working closely with women on the autism spectrum, parents of women and girls on the spectrum and a team of professionals from NAS, and the project will be overseen by the Autism and Girls Forum, an expert group initially brought together by the NAHT (National Association of Head Teachers).

By raising awareness amongst front line professionals most likely to come into contact with and refer girls and women who may be on the autistic spectrum for diagnostic assessment, the training resource will help ensure that that women and girls on the autism spectrum are better supported by professionals and better are able to access the diagnosis and support they are entitled to.