Signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may look different or more subtle in girls, as compared to ASD in boys. Researchers only recently began studying autism spectrum disorder in girls, and so the list of signs in girls continues to evolve. Because girls with ASD, or autism don’t always “fit the mold” of the disorder (and because there is no specific test for autism in girls) their diagnoses can be delayed. Learn about the most common symptoms of autism in girls so you can get your daughter the help she may need.
Both girls and boys with autism spectrum disorder often do not start speaking until after the age of 2. Most children begin babbling around 1 year of age, and by age 2 they can say simple phrases like, “Bye-bye” and “More water.” One warning sign of autism in girl toddlers is they do not begin making meaningful sounds until they’re closer to 3 years old, and they may not speak meaningful phrases until after the age of 4. If your daughter has delayed speech, have her screened for autism spectrum disorder.
Girls with autism seem to engage in more sociable behavior in the school setting than boys do, but when girls get home they tend to exhibit more outbursts or “meltdowns” as they apparently release the stress of maintaining their social functioning all day. Many parents of girls with autism spectrum disorder report a phenomenon called the “four o’clock explosion.” Boys with autism, on the other hand, tend to be more disruptive during the school day than they may be in the home environment.
Parents of girls with autism who participated in the Simons Simplex Collection research reported their daughters with autism showed more irritability than boys diagnosed with autism, or autism spectrum disorder. Girls with autism spectrum disorder may be less flexible in adapting their behaviors, which could account for why they become irritable more often or more frequently. This irritability may manifest in outbursts, such as the after-school meltdown. These outbursts often do not occur in public, but within the confines of the home environment.
Girls with ASD have shown a remarkable ability to mimic others in social situations and thereby “pass” as a typical child. Boys with ASD, on the other hand, often exhibit very clear postures and behaviors that mark them as “different” from other children their age. In fact, some girls with autism may fit in very well with their schoolmates until junior high, when their social differences become more marked.
One major sign of ASD in boys is repetitive behavior like rocking or flapping their hands. Girls with ASD may not show as many signs of these repetitive behaviors, or it may be possible they’re more subtle in girls. Many typical girls twirl in place or engage in other repetitive physical behaviors, so this behavior in a girl with autism may not look noteworthy. However, if you notice persistent repetitive behaviors in your daughter, even if they’re subtle or don’t seem markedly different from what other girls do, consider getting her screened for autism.
While boys with autism spectrum disorder often develop an attachment to unusual objects like keys or binder clips, girls with autism may show less of an attachment to objects. Or, they may develop attachments to more common things like stuffed animal toys. Many girls without ASD may form attachments with toys too, which can make it difficult to differentiate this behavior in girls with autism. Monitor your daughter’s attachments to objects to look for subtle differences between typical girl behavior and something that looks a little more obsessive.
Boys with autism are widely known to obsessively sort objects or line them up instead of playing with them. Girls with autism, on the other hand, may not exhibit this behavior at all, or it might be very subtle. Instead of lining up toys, girls with autism spectrum disorder may be more likely to play with their toys in a non-traditional manner. For instance, a girl with autism may play with her stuffed unicorn as if it were a car instead of an animal.
Autism in girl babies may look very similar to that of infant boys. Girls with autism spectrum disorder may not develop socially in infancy the way a typical baby does. A girl baby with autism may not make eye contact or respond to the sound of your loving voice. She may not like to be touched. She may not respond to her name at an age where it would be appropriate to do so (such as by her first birthday). If your infant daughter seems detached from you, discuss the possibility of an autism diagnosis with your pediatrician.