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Girls Can Have Asperger's, Too

April 5, 2012
By Betsy Bethel - Editor , OVParent

Girls are much less likely than boys to have a disorder on the autism spectrum; in fact, four times more boys than girls have autism, said Kathy Shapell, founder of Augusta Levy Learning Center, an intensive autism treatment program in Wheeling.

It's suspected, however, that many more girls have a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger's syndrome, but they are not being diagnosed.

"It's very common for girls with Asperger's to be either misdiagnosed or missed altogether,"for a number of reasons, Shapell said. For one, boys with Asperger's tend to display their frustration aggressively or behaviorally, while girls tend to become more withdrawn.

Article Photos

Alaina

"In a classroom full of kids, if you're quiet, you're going to fly under the radar, as opposed to if you're acting out, people are going to pay attention," Shapell said.

While children with Asperger's are "very verbal, very bright and often of above average intelligence," Shapell said, they lack social skills that are typical of their peers. Girls, however, are more adept at mirroring acceptable behavior to meet their parents' or teachers' expecations - another reason why Asperger's might be missed.

Jane Gracey of Mount Olivet admitted that, as a very social person, she expected her daughter Alaina to engage in conversations with her elders, shake their hands and look them in the eyes when she talked - all things that did not come naturally to Alaina. The youngster was able to hold conversations, but it often was very difficult to get her to engage, Gracey said.

"It wasn't a shyness, it was a 'I'm just not interested in what you have to say,'" Gracey said about Alaina, who is almost 10 years old and attends Hilltop Elementary School in Marshall County.

Even as early as kindergarten, Alaina didn't "pair up" with any of the other girls, and her mother worried about it. Alaina, however, didn't mind being alone, Gracey said.

Shapell said this is typical of people with Asperger's. "They may talk at you rather than with you." They are often in their "own little world," she said.

And they often are truthful to the point of being blunt - and unaware that their observations may be hurtful or inappropriate. Gracey said Alaina is very matter-of-fact about stating her feelings and couldn't lie if she tried. If she hurts a friend's feelings, she feels badly about it but often doesn't understand what she said that was hurtful.

Another sign of Asperger's is an obsession with collecting a particular item, such as stuffed animals or a certain kind of doll.

When girls are young, it is common for them to collect these toys - which is why their Asperger's may not be noticed. But as they get older, they don't grow out of it and their obsession sets them apart.

Shapell said there is nothing "wrong" or "bad" about children with Asperger's - they are just different. As girls enter adolescence, this "differentness" can present difficulties when the girls become more aware that they don't fit in socially and emotionally.

Just as autism is more successfully treated when diagnosed at a young age, some of the traits of Asperger's are also better managed if caught early, Shapell said. Behavioral, phsyical and speech therapies all can help the child develop strategies to overcome some of their biggest challenges.

Gracey said that while at first it was a shock to her and her husband when Alaina was diagnosed with Asperger's last year, they are now relieved to have a name for it.

"It's nice to put a name to it, even though it doesn't change who she is. ... It's just nice to be able to explain, 'Oh, that's why she does that,'" Gracey said.

It also has helped Alaina, Gracey said. In recent years, Alaina began to process her thoughts out loud, often flapping her hands beside her head and pacing so much that she wore a dirt path in the back yard.

The hand flapping and pacing have official terminology: "stimming." Now that she knows it's called, Alaina has been known to announce to the family: "OK, I need to stim!"

"She's funny about it," Gracey said. During a visit from her grandmother, Gracey said Alaina took her to the back yard and showed her the path she had worn from pacing two hours a day.

"She said, 'You want to see what Asperger's looks like, Grandma? This is it!'"

Anyone who thinks his or her daughter shows signs of Asperger's Syndrome, should call his or her family doctor or pediatrician to set up an evaluation.

For more information, visit the National Institutes of Health information page, www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/asperger .

 
 
 

 

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