This week, Sesame Street introduced Julia, a new character who has autism. Julia hasn’t actually appeared on the show — and it’s not yet clear whether she eventually will — but no matter; the Muppet’s “digital storybook” released this week was enough to get parents excited.
As it turns out, there’s a potentially good reason for that excitement: Julia, as you may have gathered, is a girl. And some researchers who study autism argue that the condition may be underdiagnosed in girls, which could help explain why the disorder is five times more common in boys. The fact that a children’s media empire like Sesame Street made Julia its first autistic character reminds that, of course, girls can have autism, too.
In a recent piece for Spectrum, a site that covers advances in autism research, psychiatrist Somer Bishop writes that the diagnostic criteria for autism are largely based on studies of autistic boys and that the behaviors simply don’t look the same in little girls with the disorder. The signs may be more subtle, for one, as Bishop found herself in her own clinical practice. She writes:
One 6-year-old girl I met several years ago seemed, at first, to have good social skills. She responded appropriately when I introduced myself, complimented my outfit and politely answered all of my questions. It was only when I saw her again a few days later that I understood her family’s concerns: She made nearly identical overtures, as if our interaction were part of a play she had rehearsed.
Historically, she explains, it’s been thought that girls with autism are less intelligent than boys with autism, but this is probably based on outdated data. “[B]ecause these studies were conducted during a time when higher-functioning children with autism were less likely to be identified, such studies likely missed girls with high intelligence quotients (IQs) and milder social difficulties — whose autism may have been particularly difficult to detect,” writes Bishop, who is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
Beyond that, doctors and clinicians may be more likely to pick up on things like restricted/repetitive interests — some key signs of autism — in boys. “For example, a 10-year-old girl with autism might bombard a listener with facts about her favorite pop star whereas a boy might rattle off train timetables, and a teen girl with the disorder might obsessively collect makeup rather than old coins,” writes science journalist Sarah DeWeerdt, in a different post for the Spectrum. An obsession with pop stars or makeup is typical of many girls, so clinicians may be less likely to notice when these things may suggest autism.
True, Julia’s inclusion in the cast of characters may never delve very deeply, or at all, into the gender differences in autism — and, as others have pointed out, the initial buzz over her introduction may fizzle if she never makes an appearance on the television show. Still, the little Muppet’s existence may make families with autistic children, and especially girls, feel a little more seen and understood.