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Members of the Lonely Hearts Club?

 
 

Autism experts speculate that one of the many complicating aspects of diagnosing autism in girls and women may have to do with the way boys and girls are socialized differently. Nearly from birth, parents and other caregivers encourage girls to seek out social interaction, to smile, to be polite and socially accommodating; while in many cases, it’s more acceptable for boys to be more independent, defiant or less socially engaged. This increased attention to girls’ social development may lead them to work harder to “fit in”. The ability to act the part can often “mask” or “camouflage” their internal feelings. In other words, girls with autism are encouraged to follow norms of being friendly and outgoing while also attempting to cope with social difficulties. 

Masking of symptoms could have far-reaching effects for females with ASD. Not only could it make diagnosis challenging, it may eventually lead to challenges with friendships and intimate relationships later on in life. In her research on autism and relationships, Dr. Laura Graham Holmes, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Autism Research, has found some gender differences. Women with autism are more likely to be in romantic relationships compared to males with autism, but the reasons why are not yet known. Despite this, women still experience high rates of loneliness consistent with those reported by boys and men who have autism, suggesting that these relationships are not providing all of the social support that people need to feel healthy and happy. “Finding romantic partners and maintaining healthy romantic relationships is an important facet of adulthood for most people and can be challenging for anyone. Considering how women on the autism spectrum report that it can be difficult to navigate relationships, including how to avoid “red flags” and remain safe, we need more research on how to support women as they pursue fulfilling sexual and romantic relationships,” says Dr. Holmes. In light of recent research on the substantial impact of loneliness on longevity in the general population, these higher rates of loneliness in women with autism poses concerns for their overall quality of life.

Dr. Holmes is currently conducting a sexuality and relationships for women on the autism spectrum (ages 18-40 years) and their parents. Click here if you are interested in participating. To learn about additional opportunities to participate in CAR research, please visit www.centerforautismresearch.org/enroll.