Does Being a Girl “Protect” a Child From Autism?

Nearly five times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with autism. 1 out 54 boys has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) while 1 out of 252 girls does, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Indeed, rare have been the times that, in the course of his years in special education, has my teenage autistic son, Charlie, had a female student in among his classmates.

A new study by American and European researchers addresses this “gender imbalance.” There might, says the study, be something about being female that has a “protective effect” in autism and actually stands in the way of more girls manifesting with autism as currently identified.

Is There a “Female Preventive Element” in Autism?

Under Elise Robinson, an instructor in analytic and translational genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, scientists looked at records from two large databases of fraternal twins that included information about autistic behaviors (difficulties in communication and social interactions, repetitive behaviors). Twins are especially of interest for such a study as they have the same genetic risk factors and are exposed to the same environmental hazards.

As Robinson and the other researchers found, among the girls, only those with a larger amount of familial risk factors showed signs of autistic behaviors (though not actually diagnosed with autism). To conclude this, the researchers examined siblings from two groups, boys and girls whose behaviors meant they would were in the top 10th percentile for having autistic behaviors. As the Boston Globe explains:

If gender had a protective effect, the researchers would expect girls to be more likely to have a sibling with autistic traits than boys in the same group. That’s because girls would need more familial risk factors to overcome the protective effect, and those same risk factors would also be experienced by their siblings.

The study does not only offer an explanation for why so many more boys than girls are diagnosed on the autism spectrum. John Gabrieli, a neuroscientist at the Massachusettts Institute of Technology, says in the Boston Globe that the study suggests that something biological, rather than environmental or genetic,  could have a “muting” effect on girls manifesting traits of autism. Since this “preventive effect” is naturally occurring, understanding these biological mechanisms might actually provide “a suggestion of a treatment for boys or prevention for boys” or even some kind of preventive treatment that is “naturally-occurring.”

The very topic of preventing and curing autism is controversial, as more autistic individuals, both male and female, see being autistic as an intrinsic part of who they are; as part of their identity. The gender imbalance in autism has long been remarked upon by clinicians and others. Might it be that being a girl does not exactly “prevent” autism but lead to autism manifesting itself differently in girls and women and therefore going undetected — that is, does the new study instead provide reason for clinicians to revisit and even revise what is understood as autism?

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73 comments

Jacqueline S.
Jacqueline S.3 years ago

The same can be said about ADD and ADHD. More boys are diagnosed than girls and earlier because girls exhibit different symptoms. Hopefully someday we'll know so treatment is developed and utilized sooner.

vicky t.
vicky T.3 years ago

I suppose so...

Ram Reddy
Ram Reddy3 years ago

Thanks

Gokce Ozturk
Gokce Ozturk3 years ago

Interesting!

Robert O.
Robert O.3 years ago

Very interesting. Thank you Kristina.

Jennifer Smith
Jennifer Smith3 years ago

I was diagnosed as being difffrent all the way from Jr kindgergarten. I was a loner, I didn't like to interact with the other kids, and perfered to work on my own. The teachers kept saying I needed to interact with others more but that never happend.

I was in split french/English until grade 5. My mother had been pushing and pushing for testing for me knowing something was wrong. I could spend hours studding things like spelling, and not get it, yet it was no issue for me to do Math.

Grade 5 I was finally tested, and diagnosed with a learning disability. Up until a few years ago, we assumed that's what it was. However other issues NOT connected to my LD became more and more prevalent. I was more anti-social, more withdrawn, and had more then simple issues that could be explained with a learning disapility, at which point I was diagnosed with Ashburgers.

It may be that it's just showing diffrently in both sexes, rather then girls being more protected.

Tal H.
Tal H.3 years ago

Interesting!

Mari Garcia
Mari Garcia3 years ago

Interesting. Maybe there might be a genetic link.

Helga Balague
Helga Balague3 years ago

a lot to understand yeat

Christine Stewart

There are plenty of diseases that are linked to X chromosones, where males are affected more often than females, so I would not be surprised if this was at least partially true.