I owe readers an apology. In September, I started a short series on how autism in girls is different than in boys. The last post promised a look at how autistic girls pass as being neurotypically normal by compensating for their situation. Since making that promise, I have been distracted by a number of pressing issues and opportunities. Now, I will finally get back to exploring how girls often mask their autism.
A core difference between boys and girls on the autism spectrum was observed by Dr. Louis Kraus, a psychiatrist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago who specializes in autism: “Girls tend to want to socialize and be part of a group, even though it may be awkward. Boys, on the other hand, tend to be more isolative.” That difference causes girls to take steps to be accepted in social groups whereas boys often don’t bother.
One young woman, who wasn’t diagnosed until she was 19, always played with boys because she found sports easier and boys didn’t talk as much. Amanda Gulsrud, clinical director of the Child and Adult Neurodevelopmental Clinic at University of California, Los Angeles, observed that girls appear to have mastered what some call “social camouflaging” to mask their autism. Girls in studies stick close to the other girls to look like they are socially connected when they’re not really connecting. They didn’t have deep, meaningful connections or exchanges; they flitted in and out of the social connection.
Girls on the spectrum tend to be quiet and behave more appropriately than do boys. At least at younger ages, girls tend to be more verbal and socially interactive than boys. As girls age, they develop coping techniques and become experts in pretending not to have autism by camouflaging it.
A common way of masking is to develop a repertoire of responses to parrot when situations occur that she does not instinctively know how to handle. Tookie, for example, has little empathy for others (a common Asperger’s trait) but, over time, accepted that she needed to respond in an appropriate way to people who were grieving or undergoing painful experiences. She adopted, “I’m so sorry” as her stock response each and every time she perceives the need to provide emotional support.
The use of a stock phrase works most of the time but becomes repetitive with people to whom she has become close. This is yet another way in which maintaining social relationships is difficult for Asperger women.