Studies Find Lack of Differences between Boys and Girls with ASD

Although autism affects both genders, it is primarily associated with boys. In fact, the diagnosis rate for autism in the United States is nearly five times as high for boys, in comparison to girls. As a result, scientists and researchers have begun exploring why current diagnostic tests may miss many girls who are on the spectrum. Furthermore, they are trying to get a grasp on how autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may affect girls and women differently.

A recent study, reported in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, used multiple measures of language, social, and communication skills in 234 boys and 54 girls that had been diagnosed with autism.  Based on common perceptions, the researchers expected the girls to have better verbal skills, poorer nonverbal skills, and fewer repetitive behaviors. However, they discovered that there was no significant difference in any of these aspects.

Another study, published in the same journal, compared play behaviors of 40 girls with autism and 40 boys with the disorder, matched by age and severity of the disorder. The children were recorded over the course of 20 minutes, to analyze how they played. In particular, they analyzed two different skills: joint attention, which means attending to the same object as another person, and behavioral requesting, which means they elicit help in getting objects from someone else, or responding to these requests. Difficulties in either of these skills can be a signal for autism.

Although there is some previous evidence that typically developing girls, and girls with autism, have better play skills than boys, the res
earchers of this study did not find any significant differences in play type of complexity between the children used in their sample.

Catherine Lord, lead researcher of the first study, states, “I’ve been looking for the differences for years, but I haven’t been able to find them so far.” Many teams have tried to find the differences between genders of children with autism and of comparable intelligence and capabilities, but have failed to find anything. Despite this, many small pieces of empirical evidence state that autism manifests variably in boys and girls. In order to find these dissimilarities, researchers will need to do a more extensive recruitment of girls with autism disorders for their studies. This poses an issue, as many girls may be on the autism spectrum, but are not receiving the proper diagnosis. Lord states, “I don’t think we can say there are no differences [between genders]; they’re just overshadowed by bigger things.”

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