By: Tabi Cooper, WRC volunteer*
In the United States, there is a 1 to 150 chance of being diagnosed with autism; the male to female ratio for this diagnosis is 4:1. Recognizing the ratio and that research focuses on male autistics, it’s unsurprising that females with autism are overlooked.
So, why are there a lower number of female autistics? One theory is that is that the number of female autistics is not lower, but that there are a large number of undiagnosed females with autism. One reason behind the low number of females being diagnosed might be that females display different signs of autism than their male counterparts. For example, when considering gender roles, females are generally expected to be shy and docile, while males are more outgoing or aggressive. If a male child does not fit this profile (e.g. if he is shy), he might be diagnosed earlier. If a female child is shy, it’s just considered part of her temperament. Thus, many females might not even receive an autism diagnosis until early adulthood.
How do I know about this? It’s because I am an autistic female, and I know firsthand how difficult it was to get a diagnosis. When I was 4 years old, my parents took me to get evaluated. The evaluation focused on many different aspects of my development; during the evaluation, the evaluators noticed that I had “autistic-like characteristics,” but they did not diagnose me with autism. I’m not sure if they did not diagnose me at the age of four because the evaluation took place in 1985, when little research had been conducted on autism, or if it was because of my gender.
Fast forward to 2004 when I was finally diagnosed. There is now more research on autism conducted. Yet, there is still a lack of research on female autistics; much of it focuses on Rett Syndrome: the female-dominated form of autism. I have Asperger Syndrome, which is a male-dominated form of autism. I see two major problems with research on female autistics: it’s difficult to get a large enough sample (fewer diagnoses) and the medication that treats anxiety and hyperactivity are not generally tested on female autistics.
To help female autistics, separate research needs to be done that does not focus on the male population. There has been research done on the differences of heart attacks on males and females; maybe there are differences with autism between males and females. I believe that it is important that autistics should have the opportunity to live successfully with autism, but that requires research for both male and female autistics. Autism does not display a gender-bias, nor should its research.
*Editor's Note: The WRC blog will occasionally feature thoughts and opinions shared by a guest blogger. Many volunteers and friends of the Center have expressed an interest in contributing, and we look forward to sharing their various interests, experiences, and reactions to current political, social, and cultural topics.
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