Autism Often More Challenging for Girls
> 8/7/2007 9:25:39 AM

Autism, in its myriad forms, makes for a challenging diagnosis. The social and professional lives of those affected by even the more workable forms of the disorder will inevitably be compromised. While precise mechanical jobs and detail-oriented hobbies may be ideally suited to many autistic individuals, they often lack the empathic skills needed to maintain personal relationships and develop full independence. This makes things especially difficult for girls.

All autism research shows a far higher incidence (4:1) of the disorder among the male gender, but even a 20% share of the more than 500,000 autistic individuals under the age of 21 who are living in the United States today makes for a large subset of girls whose daily lives are affected not only by the disorder itself but the social difficulties it presents. This is not to say that its effects are more or less severe among females, though the ratio of high-functioning or Asperger's Syndrome individuals leans even more heavily toward the male side (as high as 10:1). It simply means that autism further complicates many of the intense social challenges that affect young women to a greater degree than their male peers. The acts of maintaining a positive self-image, reading the emotions of peers and feeling comfortable in social situations simply present greater challenges for the autistic individual. These contentious issues suffer enough during the turbulent uncertainties of adolescence.

A greater percentage of autistic girls are also mentally retarded. But for the many autistic and especially Asperger's-affected girls with normal or above average IQ's, school options are almost uniformly bad: the girls may have trouble following class discussions despite their intelligence, but when placed in special-ed, which is a male-dominated world, they have very few female counterparts and may wind up even more emotionally isolated. To indulge in gratuitious gender generalizations, boys more often converse in systematic ways about automobiles, video games or sports statistics, and autistic individuals may be well-versed in these topics despite other social impairments. Girls, on the other hand, often find peer connections even more difficult to establish due to the same emotional disconnect and inability to read the feelings of their peers. Far from the stereotypical autistic individual who is absorbed in self-contained thought patterns and seemingly disinterested in others, many of these girls need the same sort of interpersonal relationships sought by every other young woman their age. Their subsequent isolation leads, unfortunately, to more cases of comorbid depression and anxiety. And in follow-up studies of high-functioning autistic individuals, boys almost always fare better both socially and professionally, more often earning college degrees, getting married, having children, and achieving financial independence.

Echoing the fact that ADHD more frequently goes unnoticed among girls due to less obvious manifestations (more attention problems, fewer outbursts and behavioral disruptions), most field experts, including the Center for Disease Control, agree that female voice in the autism spectrum dialogue is underrepresented. Autism research focusing on or even directly involving girls is rare, and many related treatments are not tested on female subjects due to concerns about controlling variables among study groups. Widely reknowned Cambridge psychiatrist Simon Baron-Cohen asserted several years ago that autism is simply an exaggerated "masculinity" of the hormones and the intellect, drawing a connection between the disorder and the presence of excessive testosterone during fetal development. Studies have shown that children with abnormal prenatal testosterone readings have a narrower range of interests and think in far more systematic ways; this is a defining autistic trait. Female subjects as a whole, whether young children or adults, display greater emotional acuity than their male peers in nearly every related survey, and autistic individuals are particularly challenged in this area of cognizance. Boys also generally score better on tests of systematic reasoning - math, mechanics, and visual orientation exams.

While Baron-Cohen's theory continues to receieve a proportionate degree of criticism, it offers a plausible explanation for the obvious disparities existing between autistic boys and their female equivalents. Independent studies support the idea that autism not only affects boys and girls differently but that its genetic causes are different for the two genders as well. Autism remains a frustrating condition even in the face of ever-expanding research, but we should be encouraged by the narrowing search for a genetic cause and pay a little more attention to the group most often left out of the discussion - the girls.

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