Health Watch: Talking Autism - Boys Vs Girls

Young boys in America are diagnosed with autism four times more often than girls, and researchers want to figure out why.

It turns out girls use different kinds of words to retell a story than do boys. Words like 'I think' and 'I feel.' And that very language separator may mask autism in girls.

She's bright and creative. And 11-year-old Caroline Robb is autistic... which is challenging when she's trying to fit in with other pre-teens in middle school.

"I used to run around by myself on the playground. I didn't really get to talk to a lot of people. I kind of sat out a lot," explained Robb.

She uses 'feeling' words to describe her situation, and that's what differentiates her from autistic boys. They usually only use concrete words.

"Girls with autism will tend to kind of hover near social groups out on the playground. And, I think that kind of behavior, the hovering near, can make it complicated for people when they're looking for autism," said Julia Parish-Morris, PhD, Scientist, Center for Autism Research at CHOP.

Even Caroline's parents who had her diagnosed at four, first noticed behavioral, rather than language, differences.

"It definitely was not language that took us there. It was behaviors, body movements and learning things," Elizabeth Robb, Caroline's mom, said.

"When you separate out the kids with autism into boys and girls, the girls with autism actually talked a lot more like the typical kids than the boys," continued Dr. Parish-Morris.

But here's what to listen for in boys and girls: fewer emotional phrases like 'I feel,' or 'she thinks.' more concrete words and kids who are laser-focused on only one subject.

"It's not universal to all girls, neither is it exclusionary of all boys... but to really pay attention to the other more subtle things that might be showing up in girls and young children that have autism," stated Dr. Parish-Morris.

More research needs to be done to determine exactly why boys are diagnosed so much more often than girls.

But experts think linguistics hold major clues. Dr. Parish-Morris says ideally, she'd like to see society become inclusive of autistic people no matter their language style.

Contributors to this news report include: Donna Parker, Field Producer; Jamison Koczan, Editor; and Roque Correa, Videographer.
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