How Gender Differences Influence the Needs of Girls on the Autism Spectrum

I have often argued – and will never tire of arguing – that people on the autism spectrum are human first, rather than primarily autistic. Being human means many things, but we shouldn’t forget one of its most fundamental aspects: Relating to the surrounding world through our bodies, wherein lie the senses and perception.

To have a body is, in turn, to have a gender. Recent years have seen some intriguing research on differences between boys and girls in terms of how they learn, think, perceive the world, etc.

Before proceeding, I need to be crystal clear about something. The “differences” of which I speak are not value differences that justify gender stereotypes. They do not make either gender superior or inferior to the other. Rather, the differences between the sexes complement one another to make a complete and rich human tapestry.

If we do not take these differences into account, this can paradoxically lead to stereotyping and to the shortchanging of boys, girls, or both.

As an example, consider the fact that girls tend to have sharper hearing than boys (Sax, 2005, p. 17). A teacher who speaks in an above-average tone of voice that no boy ever finds troubling may disturb his female students, thus interfering with their learning.

Let’s say the girls voice their concerns in this matter. Imagine the danger inherent in the teacher’s unawareness of this important perceptual difference in girls. With such awareness comes an understanding that they are responding to a very real, and understandably upsetting, phenomenon. But without it, the teacher might be tempted toward a common stereotype – namely, that girls make much ado over nothing and are emotional to the point of irrationality.

 

The Importance of Gender Considerations
in Autism Spectrum Disorders

 

All this said, how is the gender question relevant when it comes to dealing with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs)? Consider Mandavilli’s (2015) insights on this matter:

“Even after a girl [on the autism spectrum] gets the right diagnosis, she may be offered (. . .) essentially the same services offered to a boy in the same situation. Scientists and service providers rarely acknowledge the additional challenges being female may bring, whether physical, psychological or societal. (. . .) Advocates and scientists in other disciplines have run up against and resolved many of these same problems, but in autism, the fact that boys and girls are different is sometimes treated as if it’s a startling new discovery (para. 10, bold added).”

To be sure, the unique needs of ASD females are many. But given limited space, I want to focus on a need that stands out most powerfully: Social life.

Face vs. Motion:
Perception and Social Skills

In order to lay a foundation from which to consider the social issue, I want to focus on one major difference between neurotypical boys and girls cited by Sax (2005):

“Researchers at Cambridge University wondered whether female superiority in understanding facial expressions was innate or whether it developed as a result of social factors[.] (. . .) [They] decided to study newborn babies on the day they were born. (. . .) The results of this experiment suggest that girls are born prewired to be interested in faces while boys are prewired to be more interested in moving objects. The reason for that difference has to do with sex differences in the anatomy of the eye (p. 18-19, italics included).”

This may explain why social interaction is, on average, more important to girls than to boys. All human beings are social creatures (however widely sociability may vary from person to person); but the friendships of boys and men tend to center around shared activity (hearkening back to the fascination with motion), whereas girls and women tend toward more person-centered relationships (facial focus).

From what I have been able to gather, girls on the autism spectrum are no different from their neurotypical counterparts in this respect. Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at Weill Cornell Medical College Director Catherine Lord observes that “[o]n average, girls [on the spectrum] are more chatty, less disruptive and less likely to be entranced by trains or moving vehicles than boys are” (as cited in Mandavilli, 2015, Girl power section, para. 7).

As ASD girls progress through developmental stages in which socialization becomes increasingly important, they are likely to require more specialized attention and services. Mandavilli (2015) puts it this way:

“In early childhood, boys and girls with autism are about the same. If anything, girls appear to be more social — whether because they actually are or are just perceived to be. As they edge closer to adolescence, however, girls with autism lose this early social advantage, becoming less and less likely to have friends, and more likely to be isolated (Social networks section, para. 2).”

No one on the autism spectrum, whether male or female, wants to be alone. People with ASDs are as desirous of human connection as anyone else, but lack the natural capacity to navigate the complexities of the social world.

But whereas boys are more apt to accept this as a given and forgo the effort, girls on the spectrum appear more likely to behave as “social butterflies” in spite of their deficits, which can open them up to embarrassment and/or abuse.

The Other Girls

It is also helpful to consider the neurotypical girls surrounding girls on the spectrum. They, too, possess the female “facial-focus,” which can mean one of two things.

As Mandavilli (2015) suggests, neurotypical girls can come to see themselves as “protectors” of their ASD peers (Growing up section, para. 6). But in adolescence, the “facial-focus” can also translate into a fixation on self-image, which in turn becomes an obsession with cliques and the “mean girl” attitude. Here you have a potentially volatile arena in which the social hurdles ASD girls face could get them into trouble.

A Possible Aid

Without trying to discourage friendships with female peers, I would like to suggest that appropriate friendships with boys of the same age group may be helpful to girls on the spectrum. According to Mandavilli (2015):

“Imaging studies have reported that the social brain is underactive in people with autism, but [Yale professor Kevin] Pelphrey’s lab has found that if typical girls have the most active social brains and boys with autism the least active, typical boys would tie with girls who have autism somewhere in the middle. “That kind of blew us away,” he says. (Different worlds section, para. 6, italics added).”

To be sure, gravitating towards too large a number of male friends carries its own risks. In adolescence, the social vulnerability of ASD girls could make them prey to sexual abuse. As in all things, prudence is of the essence.

But perhaps if parents and teachers are able to come together and identify trustworthy boys – and girls, for that matter – with whom ASD girls attend school, they could get the proverbial ball rolling on positive change.

Conclusion: Personal Reflections as a Male on the Spectrum

Autism is a broad condition that involves social and conceptual difficulties resulting from uneven sensory experience, which in turn involves a combination of hypertrophied and atrophied senses. Which senses are hyper-alert and which are under-alert varies from person to person.

But as much as this and other variations within the spectrum may be recognized, autism has traditionally been viewed as a male disorder.

Looking back on my own experience with Asperger Syndrome, I must acknowledge the irony in the fact that my condition has, in a certain sense, led to greater sympathy with the female sex than with the male sex (especially during my school days).

I think this may stem from the fact that one of my hypertrophied senses is the sense of hearing – which, as mentioned, tends to be stronger in females than in males. While I cannot prove this in anything approaching a scientific manner, the theory makes sense in my mind. Like girls, I was always very sensitive and had strong emotions – a fact that may have roots in the sensitivity of the ears.

So as much as people may associate autism with males, we may recognize that the overall “picture” is more complex than we might suppose.

 

Daniel Crofts is a 31-year-old man with Asperger Syndrome. He has an MA in English/Literature from the State University of New York College at Brockport and experience in the fields of freelance journalism, substance abuse prevention, online higher education, and service to people with developmental disabilities. He runs a blog called Forming Horizons (forminghorizons.com), which is dedicated to the mission of dialogue and information among and for the various parties impacted by autism spectrum disorders.

References

Mandavilli, A. (2015, October 19). The lost girls. Spectrum. Retrieved from https://spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/the-lost-girls/

Sax, L., M.D., Ph.D. (2005). Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences. NY: Doubleday.

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