At the current moment, a lot of our research on autism focuses on boys who have it. We don’t know a lot about how girls with autism tend to present the disorder—that’s one reason why a lot of girls are diagnosed later than boys (or fall through the cracks entirely!). We do know, however, that girls often fare better with communication and social skills than their male counterparts.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean their autism is less severe or that they have fewer obstacles to overcome. A study published in the journal Autism Research found that girls may struggle in other ways.
Researchers from a few different organizations and universities found that girls on the spectrum tend to have more trouble with executive functioning and adaptive skills—that is, the ability to “plan, organize, and complete tasks;” as well as the ability to complete daily chores and tasks, respectively.
In other words, girls may have better social and communication skills, but they have greater difficulty with day-to-day functioning and independence.
This was the largest study ever conducted on this subject, bringing in 79 girls and 158 boys, all ages 7 to 18.
Researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health, the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National Health System, and The George Washington University conducted their work by having parents report their child’s ability to function and complete tasks on a daily basis. The children were then matched for age, intelligence level, and degree of autism and ADHD symptoms.
“Our goal was to look at real world skills, not just the diagnostic behaviors we use clinically to diagnose ASD, to understand how people are actually doing in their day to day lives,” said one of the study’s authors, Dr. Allison Ratto.
When they did this, they found that the girls tended to have more trouble with executive functioning and adaptive skills than the boys did—a result that came as a surprise to researchers.
“The natural assumption would be that those communication and social skills would assist [girls] to function more effectively in the world, but we found that this isn’t always the case,” said Ratto.
The results of this study help us deepen our understanding of the differences between boy and girl autism. This can have huge implications on how we detect and treat the disorder in females.
“This study highlights that some common assumptions about the severity of challenges faced by girls with ASD may be wrong, and we may need to spend more time building the adaptive and executive function skills of these females if we want to help them thrive,” said lead researcher Dr. Lauren Kenworthy, the director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders.
A. Stout received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing through Grand Valley State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2015. In addition to being a passionate autism advocate, she is a member of various fandoms, a study abroad alumna, and an animal lover. She dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world someday.