Identifying girls with autism

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

The following is an excerpt from a free, downloadable booklet – Spotlight on girls with autism – published by Yellow Ladybugs.

Yellow Ladybugs is a non-government organisation, dedicated to the happiness, success and celebration of autistic girls.

What is autism?

Autism is the lens through which a person on the spectrum sees and processes the world. The autistic brain develops differently from conception and this can affect the individual’s language and communication, cognition, sensory processing, motor control and social behaviours.

Official figures show that about 1 in 68 children have an autism diagnosis, with emerging research suggesting rates of autism could be around 1-2 percent. Statistics show that boys are almost four times more likely to receive an accurate autism diagnosis than girls – a prominent gender difference.

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Did you know?

  • Girls with autism may present differently to boys 
  • Asperger’s now comes under the autism umbrella
  • Girls often get diagnosed later than boys
  • Girls are skilled at camouflaging their autism

Accurate rates of autism in girls are harder to measure. The challenge of receiving a proper diagnosis for their daughter is an early hurdle faced by many parents.

Boys are often diagnosed in early childhood, whereas girls often receive their diagnosis later, with an average age of diagnosis being nine.

This difference in diagnosis ratios has been attributed to:

  • Girls with autism presenting differently
  • Gender bias in existing screening tools and diagnostic criteria
  • Existing stereotypes about how autism presents
  • Lack of clinician’s training and experience in recognising autism in girls

This practical guide has been developed to support autistic girls at school and uses the lived experience of autistic girls and women, together with input from teachers, psychologists and other key professionals. 

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Although there are some shared traits in both boys and girls with autism, girls often present


This can result in girls being misdiagnosed, misunderstood, or missed completely. Because girls with autism are less identifiable and diagnosed later than boys they may not receive appropriate and timely support.

Girls with autism may be better at masking their difficulties in order to fit in with their

peers, and, in general, they present with a more stable profile of adequate social skills.

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Girls mask autism

Girls tend to have more cognitive resources to mask their autism, including better language

and imitation skills, and a stronger ability to blend in socially than their male counterparts.

Girls with autism are often less noticeably different or disruptive than boys with autism.

These dynamics help explain why girls tend to fly under the radar and why so many misconceptions currently exist around girls with autism. 

Common traits in girls:

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  • She may display extreme focus on her special interest (commonly animals, people, nature, books, art)
  • She may be described as being either ‘extremely shy’ or not aware of ‘social boundaries’
  • She may contain her anxiety in public but then melt-down or shut-down once home
  • She may be overly dependent or reliant on one friend who may play a nurturing and protective role, and have trouble coping without them
  • She may be extremely interested
    in socialising, but unsure how to approach making connections
  • She may have sensory sensitivities (e.g., noise, food, clothing, temperature)
  • She may exhibit extreme reactions to minor events (e.g., changes to the classroom routine) and have difficulty controlling her emotions
  • She may be very controlling in social play with peers and have great difficulty with reciprocal play
  • She may interpret language literally
  • She may be more fluid in her gender identity (e.g., prefers less ‘girly’ clothes or be extremely ‘girly’)
  • She may be extremely empathetic, nurturing and sensitive
  • She may have a great attention to detail
  • She may appear to have a good imagination8
  • She may be a perfectionist in some areas and at the same time be disorganised with basic routine tasks
  • She may prefer playing with boys in physical activities and may be perceived as being a `tomboy’. This may be because she sees girls as too socially demanding. 

Common challenges:

Whilst there are many challenges faced by all children on the spectrum, the following outlines those common challenges faced by autistic girls attending school, based on research, practitioner insight and the lived experience.

The hidden curriculum

Research shows that girls with autism are often harder to identify. Apart from the typical language, communication, cognitive, sensory processing, motor control and social challenges, navigating the ‘hidden curriculum’ is an often overlooked or unknown challenge faced by autistic girls.

The hidden curriculum is about the aspects of the school day that sit outside the boundaries of traditional lessons, but aspects that are critical to the positive experience of the classroom environment.

Girls with autism may not learn intuitively so must be taught rules and school culture. However, their coping mechanisms of masking and internalising difficulties and anxieties make them vulnerable to not having their needs met in school, even with a formal diagnosis.

Knowledge of this hidden curriculum is vital. When teachers understand the need to address this, they can then effectively teach the known curriculum in a way that girls with autism can understand.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]