Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is more frequently diagnosed in boys than in girls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 42 boys have ASD, but only 1 in 189 girls have ASD. A study from the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at the University College London investigated how males and females with ASD conduct their social relationships. The study is an effort to understand the differences in how ASD manifests in males and females. The results may partially explain why ASD is more commonly diagnosed in males.
The researchers evaluated 46 participants, aged 12 to 16, with similar levels of intellectual functioning. The group was a mix of boys and girls with and without ASD. The researchers assessed the participants using interviews and other diagnostic tools. They were particularly interested in how the youths seek out and maintain social relationships.
Girls with ASD behaved more similarly to girls without ASD than to boys with ASD. Autistic and typically developing girls had similar scores for social motivation and friendship quality. However, girls with ASD reported less conflict in their closest relationships than typically developing girls. In contrast, boys with ASD were less motivated to form friendships. The friendships they did form were less secure, close, and helpful than those of typically developing boys.
One notable finding is that girls with ASD were less likely to pick up on conflicts in relationships. “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,” stated lead investigator Felicity Sedgewick.
The study suggests that, because social relationships are significantly different for males and females with ASD, females may be less frequently identified as being on the autism spectrum than their male counterparts. The diagnostic criteria for ASD are based on male traits, which could make it harder to identify females. The researchers also state that it is possible that ASD is simply more prevalent in males, but it will take more research to know for sure.
This research was presented at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology.
Previous news in autism:
- Premature births associated with autism
- Reduced Connectivity in theory of mind network in children with ASD