As a woman with Asperger’s, I relate to the belief that women on the autism spectrum are invisible.
In my job as a substitute teacher’s aide, I am often assigned to autism units. It didn’t take me long to realize that the overwhelming majority of students in these classes are male. Their behaviors are usually more visible than the few female students there are.
As to the question of why are men more likely than women to have autistic traits, or receive a diagnosis of autism, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre who, along with PhD student Emily Ruzich, led the Cambridge/Channel 4 study. They found there’s a lot of research showing that testosterone changes brain development.
Males on average produce more testosterone than females, even when in the womb, and the data shows that children with autism on average have higher levels of the hormone than typically developing kids.
This backs up a 2009 study that looked into the prenatal testosterone levels of typical four-year-olds. “The higher the child’s prenatal testosterone, the more autistic traits they had,” says Professor Baron-Cohen.
These findings suggest the critical factor may be hormone levels rather than gender and could be pivotal to further understand the higher rates of autism diagnosis in men. But, as Professor Baron-Cohen points out, “It’s only one piece of the puzzle.” He adds: “The nature of science means one new finding opens up a hundred new questions.”
Wendy Lawson, author of “Build Your Own Life: A Self-Help Guide For Individuals With Asperger Syndrome” and a self-described autistic woman, believes girls on the spectrum may be underdiagnosed because if they have obsessive interests (often a feature of spectrum disorders), these are more likely to be socially acceptable than the obsessions of boys with autism. Girls, she says, might get into reading or animals, which seem normal, “so people don’t pick up on our social difficulties.”
Jennifer McIlwee Myers, who has Asperger’s and is the author of “How to Teach Life Skills to Kids with Autism or Asperger’s,” concurs. She says boys on the spectrum are more likely to respond to their difficulties with anger and aggression, while girls are more likely to “deal with issues quietly,” cultivating extreme “niceness” and imitating other girls’ behavior. Boys who have the vision problems that sometimes go with autism spectrum disorders may hit other boys, she explains, while girls might instead cling to other girls. And a boy who attacks other kids is going to get intervention a lot faster than a girl who cries quietly every day. Myers says there are “a lot of invisible girls” who are autistic but never get help because nobody notices.
I personally didn’t realize how I try to act like other people until I learned I was on the spectrum. I act “normal” to avoid making people mad and not being singled out as different. Females on the autism spectrum may just be better at imitating neurotypicals than our male counterparts. And that imitation makes us invisible.