“If clinicians don’t have autism in mind when they see an eating disorder, they stop there,” Happé said. Many people find a diagnosis helpful in making sense of why they feel “different” and in finding acceptance and understanding from family and friends.
Hannah Belcher, an autism researcher at Anglia Ruskin University who was diagnosed as an adult, said she had anxiety as a child and stopped going to school at 14 because she was struggling to cope.
“It was only when I was 23 that I saw an art therapist who suggested I was possibly autistic,” she said. “I am certain I would have gained more support around my anxiety as a child and would have suffered from less mental health difficulties had I had the diagnosis earlier. I also masked my autistic traits a lot, and I think knowing and understanding what these were would have enabled me to be myself more.”
The NHS estimates there are about 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK, based on a roughly 10:1 gender ratio. If the real ratio were shown to be 3:1, this would suggest that up to 200,000 girls and women with autism have been omitted from the national tally.
Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism, said there was growing recognition of the issue, with a steady increase in referrals of women and girls to specialist diagnostic centres during the past few years.
“Recent research suggests that the number of males and females on the autism spectrum is far more equal than previously thought and diagnostic statistics suggest,” she said. “The problem is that professionals often don’t understand the different ways autism can manifest in women and girls, with many going through their lives without a diagnosis and an understanding of why they feel different.”