Autism in Women: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

By raluca.olariu@…, 5 October, 2022
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Autism is a condition that causes people to act differently from neurotypical people. It's often called "autism," but it's not really an illness; it's just a different kind of behavior than most people exhibit.

It used to be divided into subtypes, such as Aspergers'syndromes, but it's now considered a disorder with a broad range of varying degrees of symptomatology and severities.

But among adults, autism is about four and a half times more common in males than in females.

Three main characteristics characterize autism spectrum disorders (ASDs)

Autism typically appears during infancy, before the age of two. For instance, children might not look at their parents' faces when talking to them. They might be indifferent toward their parents.

By age two, children usually begin showing signs of aggression, failure to respond to their names, or starting to take steps backward in their language skills.

Social communication and interaction symptoms

People who suffer from autism may have trouble making friends.

This can result in any number of symptoms, including:

  • lack of social skills
  • They didn't respond to their name.
  • resistance to touching
  • a preference for being by myself
  • inappropriate or no facial expressions
  • difficulty initiating conversations or keeping them going
  • talking too much about something you know nothing about.
  • unusual language patterns
  • inability to understand or recognize emotion in others
  • trouble reading facial expressions
  • difficulty following simple directions
  • predicting someone's response or reaction.
  • inappropriate social interactions
  • lack of ability to understand nonverbal communications

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Behavioral pattern symptoms

People who are autistic tend to have repetitive behaviors that are difficult to change.

Some of these patterns include:

  • perform repetitive movements, such as nodding up and down
  • develop habits or routines that cannot be interrupted.
  • cutting, including slashing and banging your head against walls
  • repeating words and phrases
  • becoming extremely interested in a particular topic, subject, or detail
  • experiencing sensations of lightness and sounds more or less strongly than other people
  • focusing on one thing at a time
  • eating certain foods because they're your favorites or disliking certain foods for their texture

What are the differences between men and women?

Researchers say there isn't any difference between the types of autism in men and women.

However, women seem to practice camouflaging symptoms more often. Strategies include:

  • making sure you look people in the eyes when they're talking to you
  • planning jokes or phrases ahead of using them in conversation
  • mimicry
  • imitating expressions and gestures

It seems that autistic men and autistic women may camouflage their autism better than autistic boys and autistic girls. This could explain the lower rates of diagnosis for these groups.

Studies comparing autism rates among boys and girls have been limited by their size or quality. There has not yet been conclusive evidence suggesting that there are significant gender differences in autism prevalence.

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A large study compared behaviors between autistic males and autistic female subjects. It found that autistic female subjects had significantly lower cognitive abilities and adaptive functioning than autistic male subjects. However, their overall level of functioning was similar to that of autistic male subjects.

Another study found that autistic males had an increased risk for internalizing disorders.

Additional longitudinal research is needed to draw clearer conclusions about the diagnoses and behavior patterns among and between autistic males and females.

What causes autism in women?

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are not well understood. Many experts believe they're caused by multiple genetic and environmental influences.

There's no evidence that the cause of autism is different for males and females, but some experts say that boys are at a greater risk than girls.

There's also an extreme male brains (EMB) hypothesis which suggests that fetal exposure to high amounts of testosterone during pregnancy could lead to changes in the developing fetus' brains.

As a consequence, a child's brain may be better at focusing on categorization than empathy and socialization. This contrasts with an adult's brain, which is better at empathizing and socialization.

Hormone levels during pregnancy aren't well understood yet, so there are some major limits to this theory. However, it's a step forward for understanding how autism develops and for explaining why it occurs more often in males than females.

Is there a test for autism in women?

Autism cannot be diagnosed by any medical tests. It is a complex condition that may require multiple visits to different specialists for diagnosis.

If you think your kid might have autism, make an appointment with their regular physician first. Your physician may then recommend seeing a specialist for further evaluation.

If you think you might be autistic, talk to your primary care physician first. You can also speak to a psychologist for further evaluation. Read more about the diagnostic procedure.

It can be difficult to diagnose autism when an adult presents with similar symptoms. You might have to see several doctors before you find someone who understands your symptoms and worries.

Ask close family relatives about any potential symptoms you may have displayed as a child if at all possible. This can help your doctor get an idea of your developmental history.

During the whole process, remember that you're your own best advocate. If you think your doctor isn't taking you seriously, speak up or seek another medical professional. It's not uncommon for patients to seek a second medical professional's advice, and you shouldn't be embarrassed to do so.

What treatments are available for autism in women?

There's no known way to "cure" autism, but some people benefit from taking medication.

But medication is just one aspect of supporting someone with ASD. There are many different types of therapy that can help you learn new skills and cope with life.

Books for adults with autism

Being an autistic woman can often be emotionally challenging because of the way autism affects one's ability to communicate and interact socially. Many autistic women face challenges related to re-examining their own behaviors and social skills from when they were children.

To learn more about how you can deal with autistic symptoms, have a look at these books:

The bottom line

Researchers are beginning to better understand the differences between how male and female children develop autism.

However, even though this is promising for future generations’ autism diagnosis, adults who think they may be diagnosed with autism still face challenges in receiving an accurate diagnosis and finding appropriate support.

As awareness about autism and its various forms increases, so too do the available services for people who need them.

Photo credit: Unsplash.