Autism Spectrum Disorder has several varying criteria. The intensity of these criteria varies from person to person, which is why we identify Autism as being on a spectrum. Most mental health disorders we could rationalize as having varying intensities, but Autism is unique.
You can find a complete list of criteria in the DSM V or by clicking on this link for the website Autism Speaks https://www.autismspeaks.org/autism-diagnosis-criteria-dsm-5
For a general overview, these are a few of the symptoms you may see.
- Deficits in verbal and non verbal communication such as lack of language, eye contact, or facial expressions.
- Difficulty understanding other’s verbal and non verbal communications.
- Repetitive motor movements or speech/sounds.
- Inflexible adherence to routines (insistence on sameness).
- Specific and extremely fixated interests.
- Physically sensitive to varying items including foods, smells, and textures.
What there is still a serious lack of information on is why these symptoms so often present drastically different in male and females, particularly at a young age. All of these symtptoms can be present in both sexes with similar intensities, but more often, girls are being diagnosed with autism in their early teens/late preteen ages while boys are often diagnosed in early elementary ages or earlier.
In my experience, and based on limited readings, one of the main reasons girls are not diagnosed earlier is because they do not show the same behavioral intensity of symptoms as their male counterparts. In school, teachers will often recognize boys who appear to have hyperactivity or withdrawl and isolation from peers. Young girls in school are more adept to mimicking their neurotypical peers in an effort to fit in. Girls can often make one or two close friendships, but will struggle with emotional outbursts. However, this gets overlooked and sometimes blamed on a social construction that girls are more sensitive and emotional.
Girls also often have more “socially acceptable” interests than boys and so their fixations are overlooked. However, when probed deeper, we can often see that although the topic may be more acceptable and appear flexible in how often it’s focused on, but the intensity about how much the child likes it and the detail in which the topic is understood can be indicative of higher intensity than originally thought. In younger children, the repetitive behaviors like lining up toys and playing with peers is not often not seen the same in boys and girls, and again the behaviors are milder.
Once girls reach that preteen/adolescent phase though, it becomes harder to hide social problems. Overreactions to tone of voice, lack of self awareness, difficulty with conversations in friend groups, or making friends in general becomes more difficult. Teenage girls can be misdianogsed with social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, or just a rigid Type A teenager. Mostly because they lack a intellectual disability and have some friends, they will continue to go undiagnosed.
It’s important in this situation to just be aware. Just because two children have the same diagnosis, doesn’t mean that it will look the same or benefit from the same interventions.
It’s an interesting topic, and more supports and research is needed to help teachers, parents, and caregivers a like in recognizing the correct diagnosis in a child so that they receive accurate help.
Information taken from Autism Speaks and SPARK for Autism