Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a neurological developmental disability that is commonly characterized by difficulties with social interaction, communication, repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, and specific patterns of thinking or learning. Autism is referred to as a spectrum because it presents itself differently in each person. People with autism may excel in areas such as music, art, mathematics, or science, highlighting their diverse talents.
Autism can be identified in early childhood, although some people don’t receive a diagnosis until they’re adults. Early intervention, behavioral therapies, and specialized educational support can help manage symptoms and improve the quality of life for autistic women and children. In this article, we explore how autism presents in women, how to diagnose it in women, and whether it’s more common in men or women.
How Does Autism Present in Women?
Autism presents differently in women compared to men. While men tend to have more visible symptoms, women tend to internalize their symptoms. Here’s how autism typically presents in women:
- Social camouflaging: Autistic women may use masking, a camouflaging technique where they learn to hide their differences by imitating social behaviors to better blend into social situations. This can make their symptoms less obvious and contribute to underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis.
- Social interaction: While women with autism often seek out social connections, they may struggle to understand social cues or interpret body language or tone of voice. This may affect their ability to form friendships, leaving them feeling isolated despite their desire for social interaction.
- Executive function: Many women with autism experience problems with executive function, a set of skills that involves memory, thinking, and self-control. Women with executive function problems may find it hard to stay organized, complete tasks, and regulate their emotions.
- Special interests: Many autistic people have specialized, obsessive interests. Women’s special interests often align more closely with typical societal norms, such as animals, literature, or specific academic subjects, while autistic men tend to focus on specific objects or things.
- Sensory sensitivities: Women with autism may experience different sensory sensitivities or cope with them differently than their male counterparts. This may cause sleeping difficulties because they are more sensitive to noises that can keep them awake or they struggle more to feel comfortable.
- Language and communication: Autistic women may develop strong language skills or exhibit more subtle communication difficulties compared to men, making their challenges in this area less obvious.
- Mental health problems: Due to their struggles with sensory sensitivities, executive function, and social interactions, it’s common for women with autism to experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety or suffer from addiction.
How To Diagnose Autism in Women
As a result of masking and different coping mechanisms, diagnosing autism in women can be tricky. Here are some of the diagnostic approaches we use:
- Comprehensive evaluation: Our team is highly experienced in diagnosing autism. We provide a thorough evaluation, including a detailed review of the patient’s developmental history, behavioral patterns, and current challenges.
- Diagnostic criteria: We use the diagnostic criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, as a guideline. However, we always consider the gender-specific nuances in how autism presents itself in women.
- Observations and interviews: We take time to observe the patient’s behavior and conduct interviews with both the patient and their family. This helps us gather information about social interactions, communication patterns, sensory sensitivities, and repetitive behaviors.
- Autism-specific assessments: We use various standardized assessments and questionnaires tailored to assess autism in adults. These assessments cover areas such as social communication, behavior patterns, sensory sensitivities, and special interests.
- Collaborative approach: Diagnosis often involves a multidisciplinary team, including psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, speech-language pathologists, and occupational therapists. This approach helps ensure a comprehensive assessment that considers various aspects of the patient’s functioning.
- Consideration of gender-specific traits: Our clinicians are mindful of the gender-specific traits and characteristics of autistic women, such as masking, to avoid misdiagnosis.
- Exclusion of other conditions: It’s essential to rule out other conditions or disorders that might mimic signs of autism in women to ensure an accurate diagnosis.
Diagnosing autism in women requires a comprehensive and individualized approach that considers their unique presentation of symptoms. Collaboration between experienced professionals and a thorough evaluation of the individual’s history and current behaviors are vital for ensuring an accurate diagnosis.
Is Autism More Common in Men or Women?
Historically, autism has been more commonly diagnosed in men than in women. The male-to-female ratio in autism diagnoses has been reported as at least 3:1, but is likely much higher, suggesting a greater occurrence in males. However, there is increasing recognition that autism might be underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed in women due to differences in how the symptoms manifest across the genders.
High-functioning autism in women may result in subtler social difficulties. They may mask their symptoms more effectively, making them harder to diagnose. Recent research and a growing awareness of these gender differences suggest that the prevalence of autism in women might be a lot higher than previously thought.
The Benefits of a Diagnosis
Autistic women who haven’t been diagnosed are likely to judge themselves and find life more difficult. In contrast, women with autism who do receive a diagnosis usually find that it has a positive impact on their lives, helping them rebuild their confidence and self-esteem. Having a formal diagnosis provides clarity and a better understanding of the challenges and strengths associated with autism. This can be particularly helpful for a young child who may need additional support throughout their life.
Schedule an Autism Test
If you’re wondering if you or your child has autism, schedule an appointment for testing or treatment with NeuroHealth Arlington Heights. Our specialists are experienced in diagnosing autism, regardless of age and gender. An accurate diagnosis can help ensure that you or your child receives the support and resources needed to help you and your family build strategies to manage symptoms effectively.