Autism Spectrum Disorders

Today is World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD), marked annually on 2 April and aims to place a spotlight on the unique talents and challenges that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience.

Many people in our community will think they’re aware of traits associated with ASD, but how informed are you really?

During my 13 years experience as a psychologist, I have noticed that a far greater number of boys present for ASD assessments than girls; and when females do present, they are, on average, generally older than their male counterparts.  

This observation correlates with ASD diagnoses; across the board, far more males are diagnosed than females. While the ratio for ASD sits at 4:1, for what was known as higher functioning autism (ASD Level 1 - formerly known as Asperger’s) the ratio is 10:1. It raises the question of whether this is a reflection of the incidence of autism or if females are being missed.

Current research suggests that females with ASD present differently to males, which aligns with my experience as an assessor and provider of ongoing support. Theories include that males with ASD exhibit more externalising and repetitive behaviours, whereas females with ASD present quieter; and can mimic the social interactions of their peers.

Other attributes associated with ASD in females include:

  • difficulty forming and maintaining friendships;
  • special interests that tend to be more conventional (than males) but are unusual in terms of intensity;
  • wearing a ‘mask’ in public but will meltdown the second they are home;
  • having more imagination and pretend play - although, on closer observation may just be acting out a social script;
  • having better communication skills than males but will sometimes have an unusual aspect to their language;
  • being obsessive about the way they organise things to the point of perfectionism; and
  • having similar sensory sensitivities to males but their reactions are often more intense.

By definition, ASD is a spectrum disorder so females can present with any number or combination of traits.

Research also supports the notion that a lack of awareness about the differences in presentation of ASD in females may be why they are misdiagnosed or undiagnosed.

Receiving a diagnosis can be confronting; although, it can also help to identify strategies that unlock coping mechanisms, as well as provide opportunities for increased support and understanding.

It would be ideal if families of children and adults with ASD didn’t have to navigate ASD alone. That’s why, as an agency, CatholicCare proudly partners with families, schools and the wider community to enhance understanding of ASD in males and females.

Our hope is that improved understanding will lead to early intervention and adequate support for people with ASD, paving the way for society to embrace the spirit of WAAD every day.

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Tanya Russell

Tanya Russell is CatholicCare's Assistant Director and a registered psychologist.