What the unique issues for females on the autism spectrum?
We have reported on research that suggests girls are being under diagnosed as well as interviewed Olley Edwards on her views. Autism Daily Newscasts begins to address these issues further in a series of articles.
It is well-known that autism affects boys more often than girls. The current ratio is 4 to 1, and is even as high as 8 to 1 at the higher end of the spectrum. While the reason for this gender inequality is currently unknown, scientists are searching for a reason why females are less likely to be diagnosed with the disorder.
A recent study at Yale University suggests that the female brain may somehow be inherently protected from developing autism. Researcher Stephen Sanders and his team observed variations in genes and mutations between male and female subjects. They found that girls actually had substantially more high-risk genetic mutations associated with autism than boys, yet they were less likely to develop autistic behaviors. These results imply that female brains may have more inherent protection against developing the disorder than male brains.
This study corroborates a twin study published in the February 2013 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which found that girls with autistic traits were more likely to have siblings with similar traits than boys are. The study also found that girls are less likely to display traits of autism unless there are also a variety of other risk factors present.
Another study by Ami Klin at Emory University found that girls with autism tend to engage in their social environments differently than boys with the disorder. The results showed that girls with mild autism spent more time looking at people’s eyes than those with more severe autism, while the opposite is true for male subjects.
While these studies show promise, many researchers fear that girls are under-diagnosed and under-represented in current research. Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of Autism Speaks says,
“It’s such an important biological clue – why do we have this excess in boys?”
Researchers have also noted that boys and girls with autism tend to differ in how their symptoms manifest. Dr. Peter Szatmari, head of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, says,
“Often, the symptoms of ASD appear as extreme shyness or anxiety in girls, masking that they may not be responsive to the social cues of others. And while fixated interests are common in both sexes on the autism spectrum, girls tend to focus on topics such as ponies, princesses, dolls, or drawing – common passions for non-autistic girls, too. Boys, on the other hand, may become stuck on less typical activities, such as lining up blocks or running sand through their fingers. As a result, doctors may miss that some of their female patients show signs of autism.”
It is clear that further research on gender differences in autism is warranted, both to determine whether there are biological factors that decrease female’s chances of developing the disorder, and also to better serve the girls and women who are currently living with autism.