Research — 06 September 2015

Girls and boys diagnosed with autism behave differently, a new study has found. And scientists discovered it is a difference in their brains that helps explain the discrepancy between the sexes.
Girls with the condition display less repetitive and restricted behaviour than boys, according to a study by a team at Stanford University School of Medicine. Experts believe the findings represent the best evidence to date that boys and girls display the developmental disorder differently.
Girls and boys diagnosed with autism behave differently, a new study has found. And scientists discovered it is a difference in their brains that helps explain the discrepancy between the sexes.
Girls with the condition display less repetitive and restricted behaviour than boys, according to a study by a team at Stanford University School of Medicine. Experts believe the findings represent the best evidence to date that boys and girls display the developmental disorder differently.
Professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, Vinod Menon, the study’s senior author, said: ‘We wanted to know which specific clinical manifestations of autism show significant gender differences, and whether patterns in the brain’s gray matter could explain behavioural differences.
‘Knowledge of the difference could help clinicians better recognise and treat autism in both sexes. ‘Understanding this is really quite crucial clinically.’
Co-author, Dr Kaustubh Supekar, added: ‘We found strong evidence for gender differences in autism.’ Researchers used two large, public databases to examine nearly 800 children with high-functioning forms of autism in the US.
Repetitive and restricted behaviour is thought to be the most widely recognised of the three core features of autism. It can manifest itself in a number of ways, including a child’s preoccupation with a narrow interest, inflexibility about routines or repetitive motions such as hand-flapping. The other core features of autism are social and communications deficits. Among children diagnosed with the high-functioning form of autism, boys outnumber girls by four to one.
Scientists were compelled to compare the expression of core features of the disorder between the sexes, because they have long suspected girls with autism may display symptoms differently. As a result scientists fear girls suffering the disorder are underdiagnosed, making it harder for them to get the best treatment.
Professor Menon said: ‘Autism has primarily been studied from the viewpoint of boys with the disorder. ‘Understanding gender differences can help in identifying the behavioural skills that are most important to remediate in girls vis-a-vis boys.’
Researchers examined the severity of autism symptoms in 128 girls and 614 boys, registered with the National Database for Autism Research.
The children ranged in age from seven to 13, had IQ scores above 70, and had been evaluated with standard tests for autistic behaviour. The boys and girls were matched for age, and had the same average IQ. Girls and boys had similar scores for social behaviour and communication.
But girls had lower (more normal) scores on a standard measurement of repetitive and restricted behaviours. The team of scientists then examined data from the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange, that included MRI scans of 25 boys and 25 girls with the condition and 19 boys and 19 girls without the condition.

This article first appeared on ‘The Nation’ on 6 September 2015.

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