Research suggests many girls could be suffering with undiagnosed autism — as they are better at covering up signs of the disorder compared to boys.
Teachers are six times more likely to identify boys as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than girls, with parents twice as likely to make the same assessment.
However, a study by University College London found autistic traits were more common in girls than thought.
Researchers used a series of tests to analyse emotional reactions in more than 3,500 participants in the “Children of the ’90s” study at the University of Bristol.
Participants were asked to identify emotions of people as happy, sad, angry, or scared. They were then asked to attribute one of the same four emotions to an animated triangle and circle moving around a screen.
Boys and girls previously identified as having attributes of autism were more likely to make mistakes when identifying sad and scared faces and wrongly identify faces as happy.
When the genders were contrasted, girls with autistic traits were found to be better at recognising emotions in the photographs but fared less well with the triangle and circle cartoons.
This suggests girls may be better at masking the signs of autism in social situations but are less able to do so in unfamiliar settings, the study reported.
Dr Radha Kothari, lead author of the study, which is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry said: “The lack of association between social communication difficulties and facial emotion recognition in girls suggests girls might learn to compensate for facial emotion recognition difficulties. This has important implications for current assessment of clinical ASD in girls.
“Gender-specific assessment of ASD traits and characteristics might be important in order to understand the causes of ASD, and individual treatment needs across gender.”
Dr Kothari said the findings suggested many girls may not be diagnosed with autism and could be missing out on treatment.
The study also found teachers were six times more likely to identify boys over girls when assessing whether a child had ASD. Parents were are only twice as likely to identify a boy rather than a girl with having the disorder, the study reported.
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