Even though they score higher on tests of communication and social skills, girls with autism appear to struggle more than boys with the demands of everyday life.

New research finds that girls on the spectrum have more difficulty with planning, organizing, making small talk and other adaptive skills needed to get up, get dressed and make it through the day.

The findings come from a study looking at 79 girls and 158 boys ages 7 to 18, all diagnosed with autism, whose parents responded to questions from several standardized rating scales about their child’s executive function and adaptive behavior.

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“When parents were asked to rate a child’s day-to-day functioning, it turns out that girls were struggling more with these independence skills,” said Allison Ratto, a psychologist at Children’s National Health System who worked on the study published in the journal Autism Research.

“This was surprising because in general, girls with ASD have better social and communication skills during direct assessments,” Ratto said. “The natural assumption would be that those communication and social skills would assist them to function more effectively in the world, but we found that this isn’t always the case.”

Girls are far less likely than boys to be diagnosed with autism. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the developmental disorder is 4½ times more common in boys.

As a result, research has traditionally focused on the male experience. This study is believed to be the largest ever to address executive function in girls on the spectrum.

“This study highlights that some common assumptions about the severity of challenges faced by girls with ASD may be wrong, and we may need to spend more time building the adaptive and executive function skills of these females if we want to help them thrive,” said Lauren Kenworthy, director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National Health System and the study’s senior author.

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