Girls with autism more likely to experience poor mental health, study reveals

The misdiagnosis of autism in women may be fuelling a mental health crisis, a major study has revealed.

The research, published by the Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah, is among the first to study the link between diagnosis rates and mental illness.

According to the paper, women are able to “camouflage” – defined as hiding or compensating for – autistic traits much more so than men, meaning clinicians have a much harder time identifying and diagnosing females on the spectrum.

Because of this, women are less likely to receive the appropriate therapy from an early age, which can result in poor mental health in later life.

The BYU study looked at 58 women who had symptoms of autism, such as finding it hard to relate to others and getting anxious about social situations, but reported hiding these feelings around others. In fact, just one third had been formally diagnosed with autism.

The study included several face-to-face assessments, including an IQ test and a structured social interaction to evaluate observable autistic traits.

The results revealed “significant psychological distress” among this group, with 62 per cent, 66 per cent and 67 per cent reporting symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety respectively – much higher than the general population.

Commenting on the findings, author Dr Jonathan Beck said: “Mental health providers face significant challenges in appropriately assessing and providing recommendations for women with autistic traits.”

Co-author Dr Rebecca Lundwall added: “There are teenagers and middle-aged women who have been struggling for years and are repeatedly misdiagnosed.

“They’re wondering ‘Why can’t I fit in, why don’t I understand when people are telling jokes and when they are serious, why are dating situations so difficult, what is wrong with me?’”

“Part of the reason we want to get these girls and women diagnosed earlier, is so that they can say, ‘Okay, that’s what’s going on, I’m not that unusual, I can find other people like me.’ They can feel like they have a tribe and are not alone.”

According to the latest statistics, autism affects around one in every 100 people, meaning there are around 700,000 individuals on the autism spectrum in the UK.

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