Could gender differences in the symptoms of autism mask their prevalence in girls? A recent study into autistic friendships highlights some striking asymmetries.

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According to a new study, the way in which autistic boys and girls enter friendships can be quite different.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that around 1 in 68 American children have been identified with an autism spectrum disorder.

Autism appears to be far more prevalent in males than females; almost five times more boys are thought to have the disorder than girls. According to the CDC, around 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls are on the autistic spectrum.

Research being presented today at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology puts an interesting slant on autism, friendship and the differences between girls and boys.

Felicity Sedgewick and her team at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London in the UK conducted a study comparing autistic children’s relationships with the relationships of non-autistic children of equivalent age.

In total, 46 young people, aged 12-16, all of a similar intellectual level, were assessed by a number of psychological measures and interviewed at length.

According to Sedgewick:

Autism is seen as being much more common in boys because more boys than girls are diagnosed as being on the spectrum. This may be because diagnostic tools and criteria have been developed with boys and so are more biased towards identifying a ‘male presentation’ of autism.

So it is important to look at possible differences between autistic girls and boys to understand differences in the presentation of autistic features.”

Sedgewick’s results showed that the girls, autistic or otherwise, had similar scores for social motivation and friendship quality. Autistic girls, however, reported substantially less conflict in their closest relationships when compared with non-autistic girls.

As far as the autistic males were concerned, their relationships were qualitatively different. They were less motivated to form friendships and the bonds they did build were less secure, close or helpful than their non-autistic peers.

One of the key findings was that the relationships of autistic girls were more similar to those of non-autistic girls than they were like autistic male’s relationships. The autistic girls were also less likely to pick up on conflict within their relationships than non-autistic girls.

The results are a tantalizing glimpse into how a non-gender specific diagnosis might not always pick out autistic girls. Sedgewick says:

Our findings show that the problems dealing with social relationships are more subtle in autistic girls than they are in autistic boys, which might contribute to the difficulties detecting autism in girls.

Dealing with conflict with friends and significant others could be an important area to target when supporting girls and young women on the spectrum.”

The question of gender and autism is a huge one. It encompasses a number of issues and potential avenues for research. At one end of the spectrum, there is the possibility that the diagnosis of female autism is lacking. Perhaps a male-oriented clinical research setting has led to skewed diagnostic tools.

The questions raised by the gender discussion are not limited to diagnostic frameworks, though. Could it be that females are better at masking autistic traits? Are autistic girls less likely to be disruptive at school and therefore less likely to be brought to the attention of teachers and psychologists?

Some research has shown that autistic boys are more likely to display repetitive behavior than autistic girls; perhaps this makes them easier to spot.

However, it could well be that autism is indeed more common in males (perhaps not such a large difference as is currently believed, but the difference may remain). This raises the question: why do males seem to display autism more often than girls?

Is this gender split due to biochemistry? Is it a hormonal imbalance? A subtle difference in brain structure? The questions are mounting up. Dr. Judith Gould, consultant clinical psychologist and director at The Lorna Wing Centre for Autism says:

Autism is more diverse than originally thought, with new ideas being put forward every day. In fact, it’s a case of ‘the more we know, the less we know,’ particularly in how gender affects individuals with autism.”

A disorder as varied and complex as autism is unlikely to be fully understood for a long time, but these kinds of discussions are illuminating and necessary.

Medical News Today recently covered research investigating how a genetic mutation can cause autism.