Increasingly, experts are realizing that Asperger’s in girls looks different from Asperger’s in boys. Some thoughts on what that means for girls on the spectrum . . .
I was raised to be a good girl. This meant, above all, being seen and not heard. Don’t bother the adults. Don’t make waves.
And this was mostly fine with me. As a child, I spent hours and hours alone. Some of my happiest memories involve going on long bike rides, exploring in the woods, and playing games in my room, all by myself. I remember quite a few fiercely contested games of Risk and Monopoly that pitted me against myself.
My parents never questioned what I did for hours in my room with the door closed. If I disappeared for the afternoon into the woods behind our house, their only concern was that I be home by five-thirty for dinner.
I don’t know what would have happened if I came home at six. I was a good girl and good girls followed the rules.
But the problem with being the good girl, especially if you’re a young undiagnosed aspie, is that good girls are invisible. Aspie boys tend to act out. They have problems with anger management. They’re defiant and oppositional. They’re not team players. They shrink away from competition and refuse to follow the rules.
Years ago these boys got slapped with labels like “juvenile delinquent” and “behavior problem.” Today, out of every ten children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, eight will be boys and two will be girls.
The big question raised by this disparity is: are boys more likely to be aspies or are they just more likely to get diagnosed because their symptoms tend to fit the classic manifestation of AS?
Gender Differences in Asperger’s Syndrome
Dr. Hans Asperger, the researcher who originally identified the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, based his definition of the condition on the boys he studied. He found that although they had average or above-average intelligence, the boys had poor nonverbal communication skills, failed to show empathy with their peers, spoke in an overly formal way, were clumsy and were drawn toward all-absorbing interests that dominated their conversations.
Increasingly, experts are realizing that AS in girls looks different from AS in boys. For example, boys are more likely to have a special interest in something mechanical–like trains, engines, or elevators–usually at a level far more intense than is age-appropriate. I read a case study about a teenage boy who was obsessed with cataloging the different types of outhouses found in his region. And recently, on a tour of Washington, DC I sat behind a boy who knew more about the history of U.S. presidents than the tour guide.
This kind of deep, obscure knowledge is an obvious tipoff that a child is a little different.
Asperger Traits in Girls
What does AS look like in girls? As a kid, I collected a lot of things: coins, stamps, baseball cards. I loved to organize my collections and was thrilled when I discovered a new addition at a coin show or in my monthly stamp club delivery. These were somewhat odd hobbies for a seven- or eight-year-old girl but I also played with Barbies, collected dolls, loved to sew my own clothes and voraciously read Nancy Drew mysteries.
Anyone who looked closely enough would have noticed that I spent more time organizing and categorizing my Barbies and their clothing than actually playing with them. That my Nancy Drew mysteries were invariably lined up on my shelf in numerical order. And all of those clothes I spent hours sewing? I rarely wore them. I just liked the process of cutting out the patterns and putting everything together like a big cloth puzzle.
The signs were there, but they were far more subtle than those being given off by the little boy who can identify every WWII fighter plane or wants his dad to drive him all over the state photographing outhouses.
Social expectations may also play a role in the underdiagnosis of girls. It’s socially acceptable (or even desirable) for a girl to be “shy” or quiet. The same passive tendencies in a boy are perceived as a lack of assertiveness, an unacceptable trait for males in our society.
Throughout childhood I heard that term over and over again. She’s just shy. That excused everything. If I didn’t participate in discussions in school, it was because I was shy. If I sat on the sidelines at a birthday party or went off to read in an empty bedroom at a family party, it was because I was shy. If I didn’t want to be in the school play or I didn’t have many friends–all part of my shyness.
It never occurred to anyone to ask why I liked to be alone or had few friends or avoided social situations. I was a good girl. I didn’t make waves. What was the problem?
Aspie boys are more likely to act out, which is a problem. And aspie boys seem to be less adept than aspie girls at learning to mimic social behaviors. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of how girls and boys play.
Aspies at Play
As young girls, my friends and I often played ‘school’ or ‘house’. These were cooperative role-playing games in which we acted out scenarios like math class or making dinner. As long as I got to be the teacher or the mother, I loved these games. They played into my need for control and my love of organizing.
If I didn’t get to be the teacher or the mother, the game usually ended in a nasty fight between me and the girl who got that role because I couldn’t stand following directions. Other kids’ rules made no sense to me. They felt all wrong. I had to be in charge or I wasn’t playing. Dr. Tony Attwood describes this as “god mode”–the way that aspie kids need to control every aspect of a social situation to make it safe for them to interact.
For whatever reason, my friends tolerated my god mode and hung around, though not all the time. I remember more than a few shouting matches that left me without anyone to play with for the rest of the day.
Unlike boys’ games where there tend to be winners and losers, girls’ games are often based on how well a girl cooperates with the group to create an enjoyable role-playing scenario. Boys’ games are often competitive–from sports to video games–and the incentive to play lies in the possibility of winning. A boy can fit in by being good at a skill. If he can get to level ten on a popular video game or has a good jump shot, he’ll find other kids to pursue his interests with. For a boy, a specialized skill that’s valued by peers may allow him to get by without learning the nuances of building and maintaining friendships.
This may also be why older aspie boys tend to excel at a practical skill, like building computers, writing software code or solving complex math problems. Even in the absence of excellent social skills, this kind of practical knowledge will give them a foot in the door with a peer group.
From their earliest social interactions, aspie girls have more innate incentives to learn social skills–or at least learn to fake them. This may be another reason why it’s easier for aspie girls to stay under the radar as they make their way through the school system and into adolescence. Their social survival depends on it. Perhaps it’s the girls who fail to adapt who are most easily diagnosed. Their lack of social skills often results in the sort of isolation, bullying and depression that set off alarm bells in parents and teachers.
Aspie kids are incredibly adaptable. We learn early on that we’re different–whether some specialist tells us that we are or not. We’re far more sensitive to the world around us–particularly the social world–than we let on. It may not look like it to others, but most aspie kids are trying really, really hard to fit in.
And maybe that was the problem for some of us. We became too good at being good girls, so good that we became invisible. We slide under the radar right into adolescence or early adulthood, maybe even into middle age, before we realize that being a good girl has its limitations. Or perhaps we go to the opposite extreme–from good girl to bad girl in the blink of eye–and the people around us chalk it up to the trials of adolescence or a mid-life crisis.
It’s been tough, realizing that being a good girl isn’t the cure-all that I was raised to think it was. Sometimes, I’ve learned, being a good girl is bad for you.