Camouflaging Symptoms Leads to Under-reporting of Autism in Women

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World Autism Day

An estimated 1 in 66 Canadians are diagnosed with Autism. World Autism Day is held on April 2nd and every year and it aims to increase understanding and acceptance of people with Autism.  The exact cause of Autism is unknown and Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication. There are multiple risk factors that can increase the chance of having Autism which includes:

  • Having an immediate family member who’s autistic
  • Certain genetic mutations
  • Fragile X syndrome and other genetic disorders
  • Being born to older parents
  • Low birth weight
  • Metabolic imbalances
  • Exposure to heavy metals and environmental toxins
  • Maternal history of viral infections
  • Fetal exposure to the medications valproic acid or thalidomide (Thalomid)

Know that she is different, noticing that her interests veer away from those of her peers. Research over the last few years has been exploring the apparent gender difference in autism diagnosis.   Only one female is diagnosed for every three males diagnosed with ASD.  At this point, more research has to be done before we can confidently explain the statistical differences, but one line of research suggests that women and girls are more likely to “camouflage” or hide their symptoms than men and boys. While every girl and woman with ASD is unique, many share certain experiences that differ slightly from their male counterparts. According to the Asperger/Autism Network, a female with ASD may:

  • Prefer having only one or two friends, or to play in solitude, having an appreciation of and focus on specific interests.
  • Demonstrate an aversion to what is popular, what is feminine, or what is fashionable.
  • Be sensitive to textures, she might prefer to wear comfortable, practical clothing.
  • Appear naive or immature, as she is out of sync with the trends or the social norms.
  • Work very hard to “camouflage” her social confusion and/or anxiety through strategic imitation, by escaping into nature or fantasy, or by staying on the periphery of social activity.
  • Show different sides of her personality in different settings.
  • Be more prone to releasing her bottled-up emotions at home through meltdowns.
  • Be exhausted from the work of deciphering social rules or of imitating those around her to hide her differences.
  • Be anxious in settings where she is asked to perform in social situations. This could lead to mutism, escapism, or a focus on routines and rituals.[7]

While both autistic males and autistic females have demonstrated the ability to camouflage their symptoms, it appears to be more common in women and girls. This could explain why ASD seems to be under-reported in women and girls, and why autistic women can feel more isolated. For many women, it’s an emotional process that involves revisiting childhood behaviour and social problems.  To help, the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting women and gender-nonconforming autistic people.

Raising Awareness – These famous women are on the autistic spectrum:

Dr. Temple Grandin is a top scientist in the human livestock handling industry best known for giving the world a unique insight into how the autistic mind works. Even if you’re not ready to interact with someone, you can find blog posts, first-person stories, and doctor recommendations online.

Courtney Love singer of Hole was diagnosed as “mildly autistic” when she was a young girl.

Daryl Hannah American actress who starred in Splash and Kill Bill said her autism has made her incredibly shy and fearful of large events.

Maisie Hill author of Period Power, recently shared her diagnosis of autism on Instagram, stating:

Anne Hegerty English television personality

Susan Boyle Scottish singer who rose to fame after appearing as a contestant on the third series of Britain’s Got Talent.

Sharing accurate information and articles is a good way to raise awareness about autism-on-Autism Day. If you or someone you know is on the spectrum, sharing a personal story can help people understand what it’s like to live with autism, and may inspire others to share their own experiences.