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When Social Talk Raises a Flag

Girls on the autism spectrum talk about friends more than boys do—and may have symptoms missed as a result.

People images/iStock
People images/iStock

A girl with autism is less likely to be diagnosed than a boy whose symptoms are equally severe—and the way she uses social language may help explain why, a new study suggests.

In the study, autistic children ages 6 to 15 underwent clinical interviews. Compared to boys matched in age, IQ, and symptom severity, girls used significantly more friend-related words like “best friend” or “buddy”—a difference that may stem from heightened social motivation in autistic girls, says author Julia Parish-Morris, a researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. What's more, “Girls report more efforts to ‘mask’ symptoms than boys”—and because girls in general use more social language, it may be that autistic girls do the same in an effort to seem neurotypical.

The study's expert clinicians still noted social challenges in the girls. But others less versed in autism may assume that a girl who chatters about friends can’t be autistic, even if other symptoms are present. Listening to the subtext of a girl's friend talk could highlight subtle social issues, Parish-Morris suggests. “If she's consistently struggling, it’s worth sending her to a specialist.”