Boys vs Girls: Gender Defines Cognitive Differences in Autism

Brain
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When it comes to autism, gender makes all the difference in how certain identifiable cognitive differences manifest in children and adults. This means that the mind of a young autistic boy might work very differently from the mind of a young autistic girl, widening the divide as those children grow up. As such, criteria for diagnosing autism might be gender-biased, particularly since male individuals are 4.3 times more likely to be found on the spectrum than females.

Children with autism have their brains wired differently. They will see the world a different way in general. This includes:

It is an interesting thought that men could have different sets of autistic markers than women, and yet a study published in the PLOS One online psychology journal points towards this truth. In essence, this could also mean that because the male population is more likely to be diagnosed, there may be some biases which could contribute to a lack of proper diagnoses in females. Certain factors are more prevalent in the former samples while the latter seem to show higher-functioning and more neurotypical behaviors than their male counterparts. This does not discount the fact that the mind works differently, that synapses are not the same when comparing brain activity and that women might be getting the shorter end of the stick and suffering silently while the boys are given proper treatment, of late.

The currently study looked at adults on the spectrum and their cognitive functioning abilities in relation to mentalizing and emotion perception, executive function, perceptual attention to detail, and motor function. All adults were of normal or higher IQ. The differences discovered were clear.

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What exactly are these differences?

Females:

  • Brain overgrowth is apparent from a young age
  • On a standardized IQ test, girls (mean age 8.2 years) with high-functioning ASC performed better on processing speed, coding and symbol search in a previous study
  • In another study referenced, when looking at measuring response inhibition, girls aged 6 to 16 years with high-functioning autism performed worse than neurotypical girls
  • Milder interpersonal autistic features
  • No matter the age, females do not have as much in gross motor impairment

Males:

  • On a standardized IQ test, boys (mean age 9 years) with high-functioning autism performed better on block design in a previous study
  • In another study referenced, when looking at measuring response inhibition, boys aged 6 to 16 years with high-functioning ASC performed comparatively to both neurotypical girls and boys
  • Slightly impaired dexterity found compared to the typical male population, affecting motor coordination, inhibition and planning on top of basic motor speed
  • Furthermore, the results point towards greater levels of dyspraxia in males with autism, compared to females on the spectrum
  • Males see the most effect on areas where they normally show superiority
  • There seems to be less attention paid to detail, as well

Both Males and Females:

  • Both sexes were found to have impaired mentalizing and basic facial emotion recognition abilities, which corresponds to previous studies on the issue
  • All emotions were hard to recognize by simply looking at facial feature, regardless of what they are
  • Impaired in identifying fear in particular, due to lack of attention to the eyes
  • Reduced sensitivity to signal errors were found in both sexes
  • No differences between sexes or in comparison with typical individuals was found when it came to working memory and word generation

Though many aspects of autism are shared across the spectrum between the sexes, differences in gender do manifest and express themselves in rather interesting changes in the brain's cognitive abilities.

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