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Girls may be masking autism, research shows

New research from Bond University has revealed autism may be going undiagnosed in girls.

A study from the university’s Centre for Autism Spectrum Disorder showed while girls often appear more socially competent than boys it could be a façade for internal distress caused by autism or similar conditions. Professor Vicki Bitsika, CASD director, said while the centre is just part-way through this research, she worries that undiagnosed autism could lead to other mental illnesses.

“Just one girl to every three boys is diagnosed with autism and we are suggesting that this disparity is not necessarily due to fewer girls being affected by this condition, but rather that they are trickier to identify,” Bitsika said. “We need to be sensitive to the fact they have a difficult internal life despite their external appearances.”

The research showed many girls mask their issues by using sophisticated language and behaviours that are rote learned, meaning they have little understanding of the meanings behind their actions. Bitsika said further examination and questioning of girls is necessary so professionals can get a full understanding of their impairment. She also said diagnostic systems are generally based on the more obvious autism indicators in boys and if professionals continue to use this criteria, more and more girls will go undiagnosed.

Bitsika also said parents who believe their daughter may be experiencing social difficulties should gently and calmly question her.

“Asking girls to elaborate on what they’ve told you about a situation is really useful, because if they are using rote learned language it starts to break down,” she said. “There is a definite discrepancy between girls being able to recite a social rule and following that social rule. While they can repeat it, because they don’t actually understand it, they can’t follow through on the rule in daily life. They can also be very strict rule followers, who can’t tolerate a rule being broken.”

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