How Autism in Women Is Different: Unique ASD Symptoms, Risks
Women with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often display symptoms differently than do autistic men. For example, they may be better able to mimic social standards and their fixations may occur across more socially acceptable topics. But women with ASD are at risk for abusive relationships, and a quarter of women with eating disorders are on the autism spectrum. Learn more about autism in women here.
Q: “Do the symptoms of autism in women differ from typical ASD symptoms in men?”
A: Yes. For one, women on the autism spectrum may be able to mimic social standards better than some autistic men — they often describe taking on personas or mimicking other people to fit in. A woman with autism may show a larger range of emotion in her face and voice. She might be able to adopt social standards fairly well but find it exhausting and stressful. The drama of female peer relationships can feel really overwhelming and not enjoyable — she might even gravitate toward male friendships for this reason.
Intense, fixed interests are a main symptom of autism. Women may fixate on more socially relevant hobbies: they might jump into church work or environmental causes. Their autism may be missed because of the mainstream nature of these interests, but the people who know them best are often quick to point out how obsessive their interest actually is.
Autism in women can present with an eating disorder. In fact, research shows that around 23% of females with eating disorders are on the autism spectrum.1 Studies also suggest that women with autism who are diagnosed with anorexia benefit less from treatment than do non-autistic patients.2 The fixation for these women might be nutrition, or they might have really restricted, repetitive eating profiles because of sensory issues or because they crave repetition. Since the eating disorder is the most critical and evident condition, the autism spectrum disorder often gets overlooked.
A significant risk for women with autism is being taken advantage of in relationships. One particular study reported a shockingly high incidence (9 of 14 participants) of sexual abuse; half of the accounts occurred in relationships.3
The following information came from Theresa Regan, Ph.D and her webinar “Could I Be on the Autism Spectrum?” The Adults’ Guide to Pursuing an Accurate ASD Diagnosis. That webinar is available for replay here.
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1 Wentz E, Lacey JH, Waller G, Råstam M, Turk J, Gillberg C. Childhood onset neuropsychiatric disorders in adult eating disorder patients. A pilot study. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (Dec. 2005) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00787-005-0494-3
2 Stewart, C. et al. Impact of ASD Traits on Treatment Outcomes of Eating Disorders in Girls. European Eating Disorders Review: The Journal of the Eating Disorders Association (Jan. 2017) https://doi.org/10.1002/erv.2497
3 Bargiela, S., Steward, R., & Mandy, W. The Experiences of Late-diagnosed Women with Autism Spectrum Conditions: An Investigation of the Female Autism Phenotype. Journal of autism and developmental disorders (Jul. 2016) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27457364