How Autism Spectrum Disorder Affects Boys and Girls Differently

How Autism Spectrum Disorder Affects Boys and Girls Differently

Guest Post by Kelly Tatera, Action Behavior Centers of Austin, Texas

A whopping 1 in 68 children experiences Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). A staggering number of boys are affected by this disorder.  We will tackle the challenging subject of how Autism Spectrum Disorder affects boys and girls differently.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, how Autism Spectrum Disorder affects boys and girls Differently

There’s still a lot to learn about ASD, but the developmental disability appears differently in boys and girls. In fact, boys are five times more likely to have an autism diagnosis than girls.

Until recently, gender wasn’t a huge focus of autism research. However, plenty of recent studies have added to the growing pile of evidence how Autism Spectrum Disorder affects boys and girls differently. Lately, scientists are looking for an explanation for this difference.


Differences in brain structure

Science teaches us that brain structures differ between the sexes. One difference occurs in the cortex.  If anatomy wasn’t your strong suit, the cortex is the outer brain layer.  This is the part involved in language, memory, and cognitive functions. Men tend to have thinner cortexes, while women have thicker ones.

In a 2017 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, a team of researchers used MRI brain scans to analyze the differences in cortical thickness between 98 people with ASD and 98 people without the disorder.

In general, men tend to have thinner cortexes than women.  Interestingly, thinner cortexes showed a higher risk of autism regardless of gender. Women with thinner cortexes were three times more likely to have ASD than women with thicker cortexes. Ultimately, these findings show that the thicker cortexes in women may offer some protection from ASD risk.  Physical brain structure influences how Autism Spectrum Disorder affects boys and girls differently.

Tolerance to genetic mutations

Genetic mutations play a role in a variety of disorders, like autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD. A bunch of geneticists decided to see how these affect men and women differently.  They believed that these mutations could help explain the differences between men and women in developmental disorders.

The team came up with the “female protective model,” which suggests that women may have a higher tolerance against harmful genetic mutations. As such, a larger number of genetic mutations must be present to cause a girl to receive an ASD diagnosis. A boy and a girl could have the exact same genetic mutations.  However, the boy might show signs of ASD while the girl could show none.

ASD-related Behaviors Present differently

Another major difference between the sexes is how autism behaviors present themselves. Stanford University researchers found strong evidence that girls with autism show less repetitive and restrictive behaviors (RRBs) than boys.

RRBs are a gold standard of ASD.  These behaviors include hand flapping, rocking back and forth, and lining items up. Temper tantrums in response to transitions are also common.   Since  ASD signs are less obvious in girls, they are at a higher risk of remaining undiagnosed.

For more articles on autism research and inspirational autism stories, check out ABC’s blog.


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