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The Visibility of Females with Autism: Gender Differences and the Identification of Autism

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Autism is thought to primarily affect males, with figures suggesting an average ratio of 4 males: 1 female (Fombonne, 2005). Questions have arisen, however, regarding the appropriateness of diagnostic criteria/tools for diagnosing females. Historically more attention has been paid to males with autism than females, with Asperger (1943), one of the pioneering autism researchers suggesting autism to be “an extreme variant of male intelligence” (Asperger 1944; translated in Frith, 1991, 84). This study examines the visibility of females with autism, and the existence of a bias in conceptions of autism which mean that females with autism are unnoticed. Professionals with experience working with children with autism were interviewed regarding their views of gender ratios, differences in the symptoms/presentation of children with autism and the appropriateness of diagnostic criteria/tools for use with either gender. Opinions were contradictory but indicated that females with autism may be under-diagnosed. Professionals believed there were gender differences in presentation and suggested a subtler presentation of the features of autism amongst females, linked to differences in typically developing children. Investigation into the notion of bias in criteria/tools was inconclusive, but suggestions of bias were again linked to the behaviour of typically developing children, and the increased prevalence of certain “autistic” behaviours amongst typically developing males. It was concluded that there is a need to differentiate autism more according to gender, and that females should be compared with other females, rather than the prototypical male, in determination of the severity of their symptoms and appropriateness of diagnosis.

This talk is part of the FERSA Lunchtime Sessions series.

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