Four times as many boys are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than girls. This discrepancy is both persistent and puzzling. A new study investigates how factors present before diagnosis impact how many boys and girls are diagnosed with ASD. The research demonstrated that girls are better at mimicking others than boys are and that teachers are less likely to flag a girl’s development as abnormal. The findings may offer clues that could help girls diagnosed with ASD.
The caregivers of 152 children with ASD—92 boys and 60 girls—completed a 17-question multiple choice survey about their child’s behavior before diagnosis. The researchers asked the caregivers to recall how clinicians responded when they first voiced concerns about their child’s development. Caregivers also reported whether teachers brought up concerns about the child’s development and what early repetitive behaviors or restricted interests occupied their child.
There were differences in the pre-diagnostic behaviors of girls and boys later diagnosed with ASD. Compared to boys, girls tended to have better vocabularies, stronger skills at imitating other people’s actions, and a desire to fit in. In contrast to previous studies, this study found that boys and girls have comparable levels of repetitive behaviors and restricted interests, but their interests differ. Boys were more interested in wheeled toys, while girls tended to collect objects like feathers or stickers.
Clinicians responded to developmental concerns similarly for boys and girls. However, teachers were more likely to report concerns about boys than girls. This suggests that girls’ symptoms may manifest differently at school than at home or that teachers do not know how to recognize ASD symptoms in girls.
The findings corroborate other studies suggesting that girls are more likely to mask atypical development by mimicking others. The study may lead to methods that help girls diagnosed with ASD.
This research is published in Autism.
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