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An autistic child touches an electric globe (REUTERS/Ali Jarekji)

On the spectrum

Gender stereotypes may prevent young girls with autism from being diagnosed, experts say

By WITW Staff on October 13, 2016

Biases in diagnoses stemming from gender stereotypes may be preventing girls from receiving proper treatment for autism, argue experts from the Autism Women’s Network.

While there may be biological explanations for why it is that men are 4.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than women, scientists have found that autism can express itself differently in women and remain undiagnosed as a result. “The symptoms, the diagnostic criteria are simply based on studies that were done on men only,” said Carolyn Mallon, a nurse who was recently diagnosed with the disorder herself.

Compounding the problem are stereotypes about gender and race that lead even the most obvious signs of the disorder to be overlooked. While parents might be concerned about a young boy who stays indoors, avoids social contact, and obsesses over a hobby, a young girl who behaves the same way “will be considered quiet, polite, ladylike, and all the other gender-based labels which society assigns to girls before they’re even born,” explained Sharon daVanport, the president of Autism Women’s Network.

Morenike Giwa Onaiwu of the Autism Women’s Network said that she remained undiagnosed for a long time due to preconceptions about how women — particularly black women — behave.

“Social awkwardness? Of course not; apparently I’m just rude — like all the stereotypes of ‘sassy’ black women rolling their heads and necks in a circle while firing off some retort,” recalled Onaiwu. “Lack of eye contact? Apparently I’m a ‘shy girl’ or ‘playing hard to get’ or ‘shifty’ … Anything but what it really is — an autistic person being autistic who happens to be black and happens to be a woman.”

Read the full story at Quartz.


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