Estimates of the ratio of females to males diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism varies from 1:4 to 1:10. No one understands this gender disparity: whether women really are less likely to be on the spectrum than men – or whether doctors are failing to spot the disorder in women.
Opinions are divided: Richard Mills, director of research at the National Autistic Society (NAS) says he “would not be surprised” if the true ratio was twice as high, with one woman on the spectrum for every two men. Dr Judith Gould, director of the NAS’s Lorna Wing Centre, thinks the ratio could be even narrower, with 1:1.5 female: male.
We may soon have an answer. Mills is leading the UK arm of a two-year international programme, Autism in Pink, which will look at the condition in women, focusing on the stress, social exclusion, vulnerability and misdiagnosis they suffer. It follows concerns about reluctance to diagnose women. One recent survey by NAS found girls may wait longer than boys for a diagnosis and are more likely to be misdiagnosed: just one-fifth of girls with Asperger’s syndrome who responded to the survey were diagnosed by the age of 11, compared with half of boys.
The UK is leading the research side of the programme. Last week, Mills signed up the first two of the 12 women with Asperger’s he needs to work with researchers over a two-year period. This can also mean that misdiagnosis of girls and women is also a problem. The survey found 42% of females had been wrongly told they suffered psychiatric, personality or eating disorders, compared with 30% of males.
There is also the problem that the gender difference becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: because more males are diagnosed than females, it is their symptoms and behaviours that experts have studied.
The so-called screening tools, developed to help diagnosticians spot the syndrome, focus on culturally “male” interests, such as computers, trains and cars, rather than things more likely to appeal to a girl, such as animals, soap operas or fashion.
Even when an accurate assessment is given, however, it is no guarantee that the necessary support and help will materialise: the NAS survey found women continue to struggle after diagnosis, with half of females with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism – compared with 39% of males – saying it made no difference to the support they received
16th July 2012