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Understanding Women On the Autism Spectrum: Clinical Profiles of 70 Women with Mild ASDs

Saturday, 4 May 2013: 09:00-13:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
L. J. Burke1, K. P. Stoddart1,2 and S. Abdelsayed1, (1)The Redpath Centre, Toronto, ON, Canada, (2)Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

Recent literature suggests that women on the autism spectrum may be under-diagnosed. Anecdotal information has identified features that may present differently in women than in men, and a small number of studies have reported the presence of conditions which appear to co-occur in women on the spectrum at higher levels than expected, such as eating disorders. However, there is little research available to assist practitioners to better recognize ASDs in women.


To examine the profiles of women on the milder end of the autism spectrum in order to better identify characteristics that may provide a clearer profile of these women. 


The clinical files of 70 women on the milder end of the autism spectrum were reviewed. The women ranged in age from 18 to 68 years. These women were seen at a private practice which specializes in those on the autism spectrum, and particularly those at the milder end of the spectrum. All of the women were referred to the first author for a psychological assessment, and for most, the first diagnosis of Asperger syndrome or autism (high functioning).  Variables of interest to the study were identified prior to the file review and each file was reviewed and variables coded.  The data was analyzed using SPSS. 


Among the results of interest, it was identified that a large proportion of women had family members on the autism spectrum, and of the women who had children, half of those children had a diagnosis of an ASD.  A third of the women were in, or had been in a spousal relationship.  Adaptive measures identified social skills which were well below expectations and many women had poor overall life skills functioning. Many had been diagnosed with related disorders prior to their ASD diagnosis, or had a diagnosis concurrent to the ASD. Over half the women experienced depression and three quarters, anxiety. Other diagnoses included specific learning disorder, ADHD, eating disorder, OCD, sleep disorder, social phobia, panic disorder, adjustment disorder, Tourette’s disorder, bipolar disorder, attachment disorder and psychosis. All of the women reported sensory processing issues, and more than three quarters, motor planning concerns. The primary concurrent physical disorders were respiratory and gastrointestinal. Behavioral manifestations included inappropriate social responses, withdrawal, self-harm, aggression, rage and hoarding.  Half the women reported alexithymia.  While half of the women had high average to superior cognitive functioning and a third had completed a university/college program, one third women were unemployed and relied on family financially.


The current study provides evidence of an emerging profile by which professionals can better understand women on the milder end of the autism spectrum and which will provide new avenues for investigation and support.

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