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Unpacking Gender Disparities in Autism Diagnoses

Jun 7, 2024 | Autism

Autism affects individuals across all genders, but females are often diagnosed later or misdiagnosed with other conditions. This discrepancy can lead to a lack of appropriate support and understanding for women with autism, impacting their lives and their ability to reach their fullest potential.

Autism is diagnosed much more frequently in boys than in girls, with as many as four boys diagnosed for every girl. This gender disparity in autism diagnosis is contested, and it is not clear whether it occurs because autism is more prevalent in males or if there is significant underdiagnosis in females. Under diagnosis in girls may be due to diagnostic criteria being based on male studies, gender norms obscuring recognition of traits in girls, or girls being better able to to learn ways to mask their social deficits.

The Gender Disparity in Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition characterized by challenges with social interactions, communication, and repetitive behaviors. It is a spectrum, meaning symptoms and their severity can vary widely among individuals. Autism affects people of all genders, ages, and backgrounds, though its presentation can differ significantly among populations.

The fact that autism is diagnosed more in males than females is well-known, with a ratio of 4:1 (boy:girl) being often cited. This ratio is an average that comes from a 2009 review of 43 individual studies looking at gender disparities, with ranging ratios of 1.5:1 to 15:1, indicating that this prevalence is influenced by many factors, including the age and country of the participants.

While these prevalence rates indicate that boys are more likely to have autism diagnosed than girls, recent studies suggest that the actual number of females with autism may be higher than reported due to underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis. For instance, a recent 2017 meta-analysis reviewing 54 studies found that the true ratio is closer to 3:1, indicating a diagnostic gender bias.

The reasons for this gender disparity are widely debated, but our current understanding is that it has to do with how autism presents in different genders and possible limitations in the diagnostic criteria.

How Autism Presents in Different Genders

Autism manifests differently in males and females, leading to variations in diagnosis and subsequent support. It’s important to recognize, however, that all genders can present all autistic traits; there are not male traits and female traits. What is being discussed here are differences in presentation which may lead to differential rates of diagnosis between males and females.

In males, autism is often characterized by more direct behaviors, especially in repetitive actions. They may react more intensely to sensory stimulation (such as loud sounds or bright lights), have issues making friends, and have trouble communicating verbally and non-verbally.

In contrast, females may exhibit subtler symptoms that can be overlooked or misinterpreted (such as constant hair-twirling as a repetitive behavior). Girls and women may be more adept at social camouflaging or mimicking what others are doing to fit in better, which can make it challenging to observe autistic traits. Additionally, girls are more likely to be diagnosed with autism later than boys, indicating a lack of adequate support in managing their condition early on.

These differences highlight a potential factor in why autism is underdiagnosed or misrepresented in women. While gender differences are not set in stone, they do indicate that our understanding of autism and the diagnosis process itself is far from complete, and there are steps we can take to help ease the disparity of diagnoses.

Why Autism Goes Unnoticed in Women

While both the prevalence rates of autism and how it manifests differ significantly in men and women, there is still the issue of underdiagnosis and why it occurs. While these reasons are debated, we can evaluate different factors that account for the discrepancy.

One of the main limitations in determining diagnosis is the research on autism itself, which has historically focused on male populations. For instance, a meta-analysis of 24 studies evaluating brain differences in participants with autism found that only one of the 24 studies included all-female participants. Across all studies, about 86% of participants were male.

As a result, tests and criteria for autism are likely biased towards traits more commonly seen in males, such as overt repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. While this wasn’t the intention of the researchers, and it may be easier to observe autism in males than females, it does indicate a lack of research on how autism manifests in women.

The presence of camouflaging, which occurs as a strategy for women with autism far more often than men, also makes it more challenging to observe and diagnose certain autistic traits. Individuals who can mimic others effectively and downplay their traits are less likely to be noticed. In turn, those who go unnoticed don’t receive essential support. Further, camouflaging can lead to higher rates of anxiety and depression and skew one’s sense of self.

The Importance of Tailored Interventions

The disparity in autism diagnoses between men and women highlights the need for tailored interventions that address the unique needs of individuals with autism. Traditional interventions have often been designed based on male presentations of autism, which can leave females underserved and misunderstood.

Tailored interventions for women with autism should consider the specific challenges and strengths that are common in females. For instance, social camouflaging requires interventions focusing on authentic social skills and emotional support rather than just behavioral changes. Interventions may need to address co-occurring conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are often more prevalent in women with autism.

For parents, recognizing early signs of autism in girls can be more challenging due to the subtler presentation of symptoms. Parents should be attentive to behaviors such as intense interests in specific topics, even if these interests appear more socially typical for girls, such as animals, literature, or movement (common fixations for girls with autism). Additionally, parents can watch out for signs of social withdrawal, anxiety in social situations, and a tendency to mimic or mirror others’ behaviors.

Early intervention is crucial, especially for girls. The best practice is to seek out early screenings for autism during health and wellness checks at 9-, 18-, 24-, and 30-month visits. Consultation with a developmental pediatrician or psychologist can provide additional, more specialized strategies for screening young children. Early detection and support can significantly improve the long-term outcomes for individuals with autism.

Take the Next Step to Better Mental Health With Start My Wellness

Autism can affect all individuals of all genders, but several factors have led to underdiagnosis or misrepresentation in females. Understanding these disparities and addressing them with gender-sensitive approaches is crucial for providing effective support and improving outcomes for all individuals on the spectrum.

At Start My Wellness, we are committed to addressing these gaps in diagnosis and care. Our experienced team is well-equipped with the knowledge and expertise to recognize and support the diverse ways autism can present in women and men.

If you or a loved one is experiencing challenges related to autism, reach out to us at (248)-514-4955 and meet our therapists to take the first step towards better mental wellness.


  1. Start My Wellness: Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder
  2. Pediatric Research: Epidemiology of Pervasive Developmental Disorders
  3. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry: What Is the Male-to-Female Ratio in Autism Spectrum Disorder? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
  4. The Spectrum: The Differences in the Presentation of Autism Based on Gender
  5. Archive of General Psychiatry: Meta-analysis of Gray Matter Abnormalities in Autism Spectrum Disorder
  6. Journal of Autism: Quantifying and Exploring Camouflaging in Men and Women With Autism
  7. Start My Wellness: Understanding the Autism Diagnosis Process
Dr. Anton Babushkin

Author: Anton Babushkin, PhD

Looking for a Therapist? Start My Wellness has highly experienced Licensed Therapists that are currently accepting new patients.


Blog Posts Tags: Autism | Autism Testing
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