LARGE numbers of girls with high-functioning autism may be going undiagnosed because they have taught themselves superficial social skills, such as making eye-contact and smiling at the right time.
Deakin University research psychologist, Alexandra Head, yesterday said data indicating four times as many boys as girls had high-functioning autism – such as Asperger syndrome – could be seriously flawed.
Her recent PhD study had looked at why so many more boys were being diagnosed than girls, and concluded it was possible girls developed coping strategies to help compensate for their autistic tendencies, so were effectively passing under the radar of doctors and teachers, Ms Head said.
Children with high-functioning autism are believed to share a range of mannerisms and behaviours, including trouble with social skills and a tendency towards inappropriate responses.
Other common behaviours among people on the autism spectrum are avoiding eye contact, misinterpreting other people’s moods and emotions, and having a need for routine and obsessive habits and interests.
But Ms Head said girls appeared to have “more abilities” than boys in social areas, which helped them manage and conceal some autistic behaviours.
“The girls still have deficits which would be significant enough for them to get a diagnosis (of autism), but what we think may be happening is they are learning superficial skills, coping mechanisms and strategies to deal with social situations, which boys on the spectrum don’t pick up until much later in life.
“Parents and teachers and clinicians are thinking ‘there’s something not quite right here with these girls’, but they’re not even approaching the idea of an autism spectrum disorder because the girls chat with other people and they know when to smile at the appropriate times.
“So the clinicians and teachers think the girl might have some odd behaviours but she can’t possibly have an autism spectrum disorder.”
The number of boys diagnosed with severe autism was double that of girls, but the difference was even greater for high-functioning autism, Ms Head said.
Because of the huge difference in the number of boys diagnosed with high-functioning autism as opposed to girls, it had become known as basically a boy’s condition, which compounded and further skewed testing and data in the field, she said.
A new Deakin study was now being conducted, looking at the different ways men and women produced, interpreted and reacted to emotions and facial expressions, Ms Head said.