Autism Symptoms in Women: Camouflaged or Overlooked?

As physicians and researchers continue to refine their understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), increasing evidence is shedding light on the distinct manifestation of autism symptoms in women.1 Because of the historical emphasis on the stereotypical presentation of ASD among boys and men, women with ASD have often been overlooked or misdiagnosed due to the unique behavioral patterns and challenges faced by women with ASD.

This has contributed to the development of a sex and gender bias in which neurodevelopmental conditions are diagnosed at a significantly higher rate for boys/men compared to girls/women. In particular, ASD has a 1% prevalence in children with a 3:1 boy-to-girl ratio.1 

Correspondingly, women with ASD may not receive an official diagnosis until later in adulthood. Failure to recognize ASD in girls/women at an early age may lead to underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis with other mental health conditions, greatly impacting their mental health, social functioning, and quality of life — compounded by an increased risk of developing comorbid eating disorders, sleep disorders, neurological conditions, and/or psychiatric conditions.2,3

Given the adverse outcomes associated with the under-recognition of ASD symptoms, understanding the presentation of autism symptoms in women can help equip physicians with the knowledge needed to better identify and support women with ASD to improve their quality of life.

What Are the Diagnostic Criteria for Autism?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the diagnostic criteria for ASD must include persistent deficits observed in each of the following 3 domains of social communication and interaction:4

  1. Social-emotional reciprocity
  2. Nonverbal communication used for social interactions (ie, lack of facial expressions, lack of nonverbal communication, or abnormalities in eye contact, body language, and use/understanding of gestures)
  3. Relationship development, understanding, and maintenance

In addition to these social and communication deficits, individuals must have a history or current presentation of at least 2 of the 4 types of restricted, repetitive behaviors:4

  • Stereotyped or repetitive movements, speech, or use of objects
  • Adherence to inflexible routines, insistence on sameness, or ritualistic patterns of behavior (either verbal or nonverbal)
  • Restrictive fixations or interests with abnormal intensity or focus
  • Either hypo- or hyperreactivity to sensory input or atypical interest in sensory aspects of an environment

These 7 diagnostic criteria for ASD are graded on a severity scale by the level of support needed, in which Level 1 requires support, Level 2 requires substantial support, and Level 3 requires very substantial support.4

Gender Differences in Autism Symptom Presentation, Comorbid Conditions

Although the DSM-5 has standardized the diagnostic criteria for ASD, women often elude official diagnosis at an earlier age because their initial symptoms manifest differently, relative to men.

Psychiatry Advisor spoke with Tatiana Rivera Cruz, LICSW, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, who shared her expertise and insights about these sex- and gender-related differences among individuals with ASD.

She stated, “Boys often [are] diagnosed early on, around 2.5 to 3 years [of age], because the symptoms of autism [are] extremely noticeable and very intense — in particular, extreme, repetitive, behavioral patterns (like hand shaking or repeating certain words) or absence of sensory skills or specific sensory preferences.”

Conversely, she explained that “With girls, the symptoms of autism are muted and not as noticeable. Often times, the symptoms of autism that manifest in women are confused with ADHD, depression, anxiety, or social anxiety.” These misdiagnoses can have a major effect on individuals, as Ms Cruz highlights when discussing her encounter with a patient.

I treated a [woman] who was diagnosed with autism much later in life. The [woman] mentioned that she couldn’t understand what was happening to her because she felt that she couldn’t be social with people or communicate well. She didn’t understand social cues. She didn’t get sarcasm. She didn’t get jokes. She believed it was social anxiety because being around people understandably gave her anxiety since she couldn’t understand them and felt like she didn’t fit in.

When we evaluated her, she met all the criteria for an autism diagnosis — yet for years she received psychotherapy treatments for depression, anxiety, and social anxiety. These treatments weren’t really addressing the underlying problem, rather they were just managing secondary symptoms that developed due to autism.

Aligned with Ms Cruz’s observations, research indicates that boys with ASD exhibit more pronounced restricted, repetitive behaviors compared with girls, promoting earlier recognition and diagnosis by clinicians.1,5 Girls, on the other hand, demonstrate greater social communication skills, prelinguistic and linguistic functioning, autobiographical memory, and cognitive flexibility than boys with ASD.1

Studies also indicate that women with ASD are more likely to be diagnosed with comorbid cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nutrition, and psychiatric disorders, relative to men with ASD.3  

Researchers have theorized that differences in sex hormones during the prenatal period affect brain anatomy, function, and gene expression. These sex-based differences in brain development may in turn contribute to the different manifestations that are observed in ASD, like the ability of women with ASD to more frequently and successfully mask or camouflage their symptoms of ASD due to their heightened skills of observation, analysis, imitation, and communication.1 

[P]hysicians should consider careful ASD screening assessments that account for autism symptoms in women, instead of relying on the more pronounced manifestations that are commonly associated with boys/men.

Societal Factors Influencing Autism Diagnoses in Women

In addition to the differences in symptom presentation and comorbid conditions observed between girls/women and boys/men, delayed diagnosis of ASD in women may be due to societal factors, including clinician bias, parental education, and compensatory behaviors exhibited by girls/women with ASD.

Clinician Bias

According to qualitative research studies, women diagnosed with ASD in adulthood reported that healthcare providers often dismissed their symptoms and lacked awareness of the differences in ASD symptom manifestation among women, leading to delayed diagnoses.6

A systematic review published in 2021 confirmed these self-reported concerns, as investigators found that clinician bias was a barrier to early ASD diagnosis among women. Parents of girls with ASD perceived a hesitancy or reluctance among clinicians to diagnose girls with ASD, and girls were often misdiagnosed with other conditions. The authors noted that part of this reluctance may correspond to the perceived higher incidence of ASD among boys.5

Lack of Parental Education, Resources

Because ASD has long been associated with the stereotypical presentation displayed by boys, many parents believed that ASD was not a relevant diagnosis for girls — thereby dissuading parents from identifying symptoms and seeking a diagnosis earlier in their child’s life. Overall, parents of boys are around 1.46 times more likely to express 1 or more concerns about ASD than parents of girls.5

Ms Cruz commented, “Misinformation is another thing, especially in social media. This may be a cause for delayed diagnosis because people might get the sense that seeking out a diagnosis or an explanation for why they are different from other people isn’t necessary.” Potential misinformation regarding the importance of an early ASD diagnosis and prompt treatment may thwart parents, or even patients themselves, from taking action to seek a diagnosis of ASD.

Compensatory and Camouflaging Behaviors

Given that girls with ASD more frequently use camouflaging techniques to mask social difficulties when interacting with peers, their symptoms may not be as apparent to parents and physicians.5

In a review of the diagnostic implications of autism symptoms in women, study authors broke down social camouflaging into 3 categories: 1) compensation for autistic traits or behaviors, 2) masking one’s own autistic traits via constant monitoring of personal behaviors (such as eye contact, gestures, facial expressions), and 3) assimilating other people’s behaviors and forcing oneself to perform and pretend during social interactions

To further elaborate, Ms Cruz gave the following examples of camouflaging or masking techniques effectively used by girls and women with ASD:

  • Suppressing behaviors is a masking technique in which individuals with ASD suppress their emotions, expressions, or socially “unacceptable” behaviors to adapt and conform to social settings.
  • Studying and imitating social behaviors is a camouflaging technique (whether it is done consciously or subconsciously).7 Individuals will observe people during social events and try to imitate these behaviors. Women with autism may try to plan ahead and try to envision how they will react when placed in certain social situations.
  • Analyzing body language is another masking technique women with ASD use to imitate and fit in with colleagues and peers to feel more comfortable despite their perceived differences.
  • Scripting conversations may make it difficult to detect ASD in women. Individuals will imagine conversations involving small talk about basic topics to prepare for social interactions. This is frequently paired with rehearsing those conversations beforehand.
  • Exhibiting excessive accommodations is another masking technique that women with ASD may use. They may try to be more “go-with-the-flow” and not as strict with the requirements that they need to feel comfortable, but this technique becomes very hard to maintain for longer periods of time.
  • Lastly, helpfulness is a compensatory technique that women with ASD may exhibit. It might pertain to helping other people, but also helpfulness toward oneself (eg, knowing when to take oneself out of an awkward or uncomfortable situation). Women with autism frequently think about these things in advance and use them to adapt to the situation at hand.

Another aspect that may mask ASD in women is the concept that their “special interests” or intense focuses on particular subjects may align more with their neurotypical peers, such as interests in celebrities or animals, like horses. However, the intensity of interest remains atypical.8

Although these camouflaging behaviors may help women with ASD to fit in socially and interact with their neurotypical peers better, these behaviors are superficial coping methods that can promote autistic burnout, constant feelings of exhaustion, a loss of sense of self, and increased anxiety and stress.8

Studies indicate that women with ASD are objectively more adept at these camouflaging techniques than their male counterparts, and this heightened ability among women to mask their symptoms of ASD is associated with superior signal-detection sensitivity.10 Further, the gender-based expectations of girls/women to “be more social” or “act like a girl/woman” may promote a higher degree of censuring ASD symptoms while simultaneously adopting gender-normative social behaviors.9

Consequences of Delayed Diagnosis

A delayed diagnosis of ASD likely results in long-term consequences, given that early interventions during critical developmental stages in childhood can make a major difference in symptom trajectory. Ms Cruz extrapolated on these consequences, stating, “Not catching autism early can lead to increased difficulties with speech and language issues, executive function, self-regulation, and sensory sensitivities if these symptoms of autism are not treated early.”

Women with ASD are more likely to be prescribed psychotropic medications, such as antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and mood stabilizers, while men with ASD have higher odds of being prescribed anticonvulsants, stimulants, or other medications typically used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (AHDH) to help manage their symptoms impulsivity, hyperactivity, and distractibility.10

These gender disparities in prescription trends parallel women’s experiences in medicine more generally, and are in line with Ms Cruz’s observation that women often are diagnosed with secondary mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, instead of their underlying disorder. These prescription differences reinforce the notion that ASD does in fact manifest differently in women and men.10

Undiagnosed ASD in women may also promote autistic burnout. Although symptoms of autistic burnout differ from case by case, it has been described as “an overwhelming sense of physical exhaustion.”11

Some individuals with autistic burnout may experience uncontrollable emotional outbursts of sadness or anger, intense anxiety, or even suicidal ideation. Autistic burnout can also exacerbate certain symptoms of ASD, including repetitive behaviors, heightened sensitivity to sensory input, or increased difficulty accepting changes to daily routines.11

Evidence suggests that autistic burnout often results as a consequence of camouflaging and mimicking neurotypical behavior, such as small talk, eye contact, and suppressing repetitive behaviors — all of which require significant effort and energy on the part of the individual with ASD.11 

Ms Cruz recounted,

Most of the patients that I have seen with autism have said that they have coped with autism for a long time until a point where they can’t do it anymore. That feeling was the driving force behind them eventually seeking help and an official diagnosis. They coped for so many years trying to overcome situations, avoid other situations, manage symptoms, or change the way they saw or did things. At the end, they just can’t do it anymore.

Clinical Challenges Diagnosing Autism in Adults

Diagnosing ASD in adult women may prove challenging to clinicians for several reasons. For example, developmental trajectories and outcomes of social communication vary more during adolescence and adulthood than childhood.12

Additionally, ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that by definition manifests in early childhood. If this diagnosis is missed during childhood, it may prove more challenging to diagnose in adults because their parents or other family members may no longer be present to provide reliable childhood medical history or symptom reporting. This is particularly important as patients may not be able to accurately recall or identify autistic traits they may have exhibited at a young age. 12

Given that women with ASD have an increased likelihood to develop comorbid conditions relative to men, clinicians may inadvertently focus more on the management of these conditions and thereby overlook the more subtle symptoms of ASD that are present in women.12

With this in mind, physicians should consider careful ASD screening assessments that account for autism symptoms in women, instead of relying on the more pronounced manifestations that are commonly associated with boys/men. Additionally, women who present with symptoms of ADHD, depression, anxiety, or social anxiety may warrant a full ASD assessment to ensure diagnostic accuracy.

Active efforts are needed to remedy this health disparity. Identifying this “lost generation”12 of adult women with ASD is the first step in validating the struggles that they are enduring, but just might be better at hiding.

Editor’s note: Some responses have been revised for clarity and length.

This article originally appeared on Psychiatry Advisor

Related Articles