Autistic girls think and act differently than autistic boys. Despite this there isn’t a lot of research into good toys for autistic girls because autism appears in boys four times more than in girls, with estimates that 1 in 80 boys has autism while only 1 in 240 girls has autism. The sex ratio is even more imbalanced in the high-functioning autistic population with referral rates in the range of 10 boys for each girl!
Because girls are underrepresented in the pool of autistic children, parents of autistic daughters have a particularly hard time finding support resources and advice on appropriate education, toys, and games. This article summarizes findings from research studies about how autistic girls differ from boys and suggests some types of good toys for autistic girls. In later posts I’ll give some specific toy recommendations.
How Autistic Girls Differ From Boys
Although research findings from studies comparing autistic girls to autistic boys differ depending on the age of children in the study, the IQ of children in the study, the type of studies, and how behaviors and skills are measured, all the studies (summarized by Nichols, Moravcik, and Tetenbaum in their book Girls Growing Up on the Autism Spectrum) present several consistent findings:
- Boys with autism spectrum disorders tend to have higher IQs as a group than girls with autism as measured by standard intelligence tests. However, IQ tests have a lot of issues when they’re applied to autistic children so take don’t take this finding at face value.
- “Play” in boys with autism is more restricted and repetitive. Studies have found that girls have better pretend-play skills and receive better scores on tests that assess play
- Girls show stronger communication skills and do better on specific communicative behaviors such as pointing and gaze-following
- Sex-related social difficulties may emerge over time. Boys have more impairments earlier in childhood, while girls show more social difficulties during adolescence
- Boys are distracted more easily and have a harder time focusing than girls
- Disruptive behavior in boys has a different goal (e.g., getting objects) than disruptive behavior in girls, which tends to be more social in nature (e.g., getting the caregiver’s attention)
- Parent reports of skills may underestimate girls’ abilities because parents have higher expectations of girls, especially regarding communication and social skills
The book by Nichols and colleagues also gives fascinating anecdotes about what autistic girls find interesting. One parent reports that while the autistic boys she knows are obsessed with science and sports topics such as trains and weather, her autistic daughters want to talk about art, music, relationships, and emotions. Another parent reports that her autistic daughter seems more “affectionate and compassionate” than boys, both autistic and non-autistic.
Autistic Girls Seek Social Connections
Another major difference between autistic girls and boys is that autistic girls actively seek social contact and connections. This stands in contrast to most boys. Veteran autism researcher Catherine Lord’s 1993 study of 21 autistic boys and 32 autistic girls found that during ages 3-5, parents often described autistic girls as imitating normal kids and seeking social contact. But despite wanting to communicate, they can’t. This became a problem as they got older. By their teenage years none of the girls had reciprocal friendships while some of the boys did. Lord believes that this is because the behavior of autistic girls is so out of the norm for expected female behavior, which makes it very hard for them to find friends. For boys the social expectations are more forgiving because boys’ social relationships can center around less social activities such as playing video games.
Autistic Girls Love to Read
Finally, Lord anecdotally finds that a lot of high-functioning autistic girls are big readers. They don’t enjoy reading subtle books but tend to enjoy fantasy books and books like the “Baby-Sitters” series. Boys tend to be less interested in books.
- Autism statistics from the Centers for Disease Control