Young boys in America are diagnosed with autism four times more often than girls, and researchers want to figure out why. New research reveals language may play a crucial role.
It turns out, girls use different kinds of words to retell a story than boys do -- words like "I think" and "I feel." And that very language separator may mask autism in girls.
She's bright and creative. Eleven-year-old Caroline Robb has autism, which is challenging when she's trying to fit in with other preteens in middle school.
"I used to run around by myself on the playground," said Robb. "I didn't really get to talk to a lot of people. I kind of sat out a lot."
She uses "feeling" words to describe her situation, and that's what makes her different from boys with autism. 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, a scientist in the Center for Autism Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Even Caroline's parents who had her diagnosed at 4, 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," said 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," said 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.
Parish-Morris said ideally, she'd like to see society become inclusive of people with autism no matter their language style.