Off the Radar: How Gender Biases Affect Autism Diagnosis Among Young Girls

by Haidee Chu, Culture Writer

Try this, if you were to associate the words polite, reserved and timid with one gender among young children, what would it be? The answer seems almost painfully obvious— girls. At least that’s what the media has often primed us to believe. As a result of the ceaseless reinforcement and normalization of gendered performativity, the social lives of children, especially young girls, are heavily affected—quite negatively, in some cases. Expectations of gendered behaviors, among many other factors, is one of the major reasons Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is disproportionately under-diagnosed among young girls. This is due to the fact that autistic symptoms among young girls are often mistaken as gendered behaviors that are expected of them, such as reticence and shyness. In other words, these artificial, socially-created gender stereotypes have significant implications and consequences for young girls who are yet to be diagnosed with autism, effectively preventing their diagnosis. The subsequent dearth of research of ASD among young girls only serves to exacerbate current circumstances for potentially autistic young girls, while also perpetuating the existing delays in diagnosis and treatment.

According to American Psychiatric Association, Autism Spectrum Disorder, more commonly shortened as autism, is a developmental disorder characterized by limitations in social interactions, in verbal and non-verbal communications, as well as repetitive behaviors. While previously scientific researchers have found young boys to be almost five times more likely to be affected by high-functioning form of autism, one of the latest studies has found that autism manifests differently depending on biological sex. This begs the question: Is it possible that ASD is under-diagnosed among young girls? Dr. Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford School of Medicine and one of the study’s authors, does not dismiss the possibility.

He says, “Girls with autism display autism symptoms differently, and this may lead them to be underdiagnosed or may make it harder for them to get the most appropriate treatment.” He, along with his co-writers, also acknowledges the skewed efforts invested into researching autism among young boys relative to those invested into young girls. He admits that the importance in research for autism among girls had been undermined in some ways ever since the initial discovery of the disorder, as young girls with autism had always been assumed to share the same neurobiological abnormality as young males with autism. This pattern is particularly concerning, as it suggests there are male-centric standards in autism research and diagnosis, which could have negative implications to the well-being of females. It not only increases the chances of undiagnosed girls with autism developing eating disorders and depression later on in their lives, it also abases the value and importance of women’s health, and arguably, the value of women in general.

In short, this recent discovery calls to attention the possibility of under-diagnosis of ASD among young girls. This is in part due to signs of autism being confused for the gendered behaviors expected of young girls by society. Identification of autistic traits are especially complicated among young females with mild ASD, as they often posses a greater ability than young males to mimic behaviors that manifest social competence to compensate for their personal behavioral impairment. Wendy Lawson and Jennifer Mcllwee Myers, authors of autism-related self-help and didactic books, concur with the findings of the research. Lawson mentions that unlike young boys with autism, when girls with autism demonstrate tendencies of reticence and obsessive, repetitive behaviors, it is deemed as more socially acceptable. Myers adds, young boys with autism tend to capture more attention with their behaviors as compared to young girls with autism. This is because the more aggressive tendencies associated with boys with autism are likely to be perceived as abnormal and problematic, while the tendencies of girls with autism to adapt to circumstances and deal with anxiety and frustration in silence is attributed to the normalized gendered expectations of being nice and compassionate. Evidently, autistic behaviors in young girls that differ from those of boys with autism are more likely to be overlooked. In other words, gender biases obscure the discovery of underlying potentials for autism among young girls, leaving those who already feel vulnerable even more invisible to the world.

Hopefully, the new research findings will elicit further awareness of autism among young girls going forward, so that those who are yet to be diagnosed would receive their necessary treatments and therapies as soon as possible. On the other hand, while most of us are not neurobiologists, we shall allow previous ignorance to inspire us not only to approach gendered expectations that permeate our society from new lenses, but also to tackle the normalization of gendered behaviors head on.

This article is published belatedly in honor of Autism Awareness Month.

Photos: Cover

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