Social camouflaging in girls on the autism spectrum: A peer-reviewed study by Lizaan Schwartz, Provisional Psychologist

Social camouflaging in girls on the autism spectrum: A peer-reviewed study by Lizaan Schwartz, Provisional Psychologist

As a professional I have observed the increased levels of anxiety and emotion dysregulation young females with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often experience when camouflaging their social difficulties.

This is often most pronounced in school environments and there appears to be qualitative differences in social coping behaviours between young males and females with ASD. To date, few studies have investigated these gender differences and historically there was limited empirical evidence to support the notion of social camouflaging for those with ASD. Recently, Dean, Harwood and Kasari (2017) studied social camouflaging in girls with a verified diagnosis of ASD. They analysed the social behaviour of 96 primary school aged children during their lunch break.

They found that girls with ASD tend to “stay in close proximity to their peers” and “weaved in, and out of activities their peers were engaging in”. The researchers interpreted these behaviours as traits of masking social challenges.

The researchers further explained that when observed from a distance, girls with ASD looked like their typically developing peers. However, when they analysed the quality of their social engagements these individuals struggled with maintaining mutual engagements with their peers; experienced difficulties with recognising and interpreting social cues (e.g., rolling of eyes, sharing glances, giggling, or smirking); and would often misinterpret the emotions of their peers during the interaction.

The researchers concluded that girls with ASD mask their social challenges more effectively and qualitatively different than boys with ASD.  Although girls with ASD are more focused on social engagements when compared to boys with ASD, girls tend to be less successful drawing on their social skills when they were close to their peers.

In my own clinical practice, I have observed that young girls with ASD experience the following challenges on a day-to-day basis:

  • Increased levels of anxiety after prolonged social experiences;
  • An over-focus on other people’s emotions, which tends to be internalised and interpreted as a negative emotion;
  • Greater levels of analysing their own social performances and continuously evaluating if they have made a social error;
  • Energy depletion at the end of the day which often negatively impacts sleep quality;
  • Difficulty identifying, understanding and describing the emotions they are feeling (i.e., Alexithymia).

 

Reference

Dean, M., Harwood, R., & Kasari, C. (2017). The art of camouflage: Gender differences in the social behaviours of girls and boys with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 21(6), pp.678-689.

 

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