Barriers to an autistic identity: How RRBs may contribute to the underdiagnosis of females

Emily Cary, Aparajita Rao, Erin Stephanie Misato Matsuba, Natalie Russo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Autistic females are frequently underdiagnosed, misdiagnosed, and/or diagnosed later in life. Restricted and Repetitive Behaviors (RRBs) are increasingly critical for diagnosis and yet are commonly rated lower in females. Whether this reflects genuinely lower levels of these traits, or if female-typical RRBs have a different phenotypic presentation that may not register on current quantitative measurement tools is unclear. Methods: Twenty-one autistic females and 21 autistic males matched on chronological age and FSIQ completed the AQ, ADOS-2, and ADI-R. Items from the ADOS-2 and ADI-R were selected that were relevant to the four area s of restricted and repetitive behavior in the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria of autism. Using a mixed-methods analytical approach, scores and comments on these measures were compared between sexes to better characterize RRBs in autistic females. Results: There were no sex differences on the AQ, which broadly assesses autistic traits. When analyzed by the four DSM-5 RRB criteria, there were no sex differences on the ADI-R when using traditional algorithm scoring that narrows questions down to those that are more sensitive and specific in capturing autism in research samples with a high proportion of males. When incorporating additional items relevant to the DSM-5 to identify sex differences in a broader pool of items, females scored higher on stereotyped movements and speech. Females also engaged in more sensory behaviors during the ADOS-2. Qualitative analyses indicated that females were more likely to engage in stereotyped body rocking and spinning, stereotyped behaviors when anxious, to show major reactions to changes, repetitive language including listing and counting, and sensory behaviors, especially in the tactile domain. Conclusion: Exploratory findings highlight sex differences in RRBs that may help enhance diagnostic clarity for females. Higher tactile sensory behaviors in females suggests there may be increased diagnostic sensitivity for females with the updated DSM-5 that now includes sensory components as part of the diagnostic criteria.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number102275
JournalResearch in Autism Spectrum Disorders
StatePublished - Nov 2023


  • Autistic identity, females, RRBs
  • Diagnosis
  • Sensory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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