Autism studies tend to include few girls and women. In fact, many studies exclude them altogether. In part, this is because many more males than females have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As a result, much of what we know about ASD and its treatment comes from research on boys and men. It’s then generalized to girls and women.
That’s a problem, says researcher Jennifer Moriuchi, a psychology student at Atlanta’s Emory University and Marcus Autism Center. As evidence, Moriuchi cites the striking gender-differences that she and her colleagues have discovered in a study that tracks how children and teens with autism pay attention to social cues.
Moriuchi presented the preliminary results of this study at this week’s International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR).
Moriuchi and her co-investigators – psychologists Ami Klin, Ph.D., and Warren Jones, Ph.D. –used equipment that allowed them to track the eye gaze of study participants as they watched videos of social interactions. In particular, they tracked how and when girls and boys look at the eyes of people interacting in the video.
Generally, looking at someone’s eyes is an appropriate and effective way to pick up social cues. However, in preliminary results with 81 boys and 35 girls with autism, the researchers found that the boys were more likely than the girls to stray from this typical eye-gaze pattern. Around half of the time, the boys weren’t looking at the central character’s eyes at the appropriate time. The girls in the study diverged from the typical pattern less often.
Do boys and girls use different strategies?
The researchers found a more striking difference when they compared the children’s eye-gaze patterns to their levels of social disability.
Among the boys, more typical eye-gaze patterns were associated with higher social abilities, as might be expected. In the girls, however, the opposite seemed true. The more girls with autism looked at the eyes of the video characters, the more severe were their social disabilities.
“This suggests that the boys’ and the girls’ attention were serving different functions, perhaps reflecting different strategies in their social learning,” Moriuchi says.
Urgent need for more research on girls and women
At present, the Emory researchers can’t explain the gender differences they found. They have begun to look for insights by enrolling boys and girls in eye-tracking studies beginning in infancy.
One fact is clear, they say. These findings are calling attention to the inappropriateness of routinely applying findings on boys and men with autism to understanding and treating autism in girls and women.
“Girls’ social learning needs to be studied in its own right,” Moriuchi says. “To date, our study seems to suggest that gender is an important element to be considered in individualizing therapy for autism.”
Eye gaze is something that clinicians consider when conducting diagnostic evaluations for autism, adds Lauren Elder, Ph.D., Autism Speaks assistant director for dissemination sciences. “This study suggests that lack of eye gaze may not be a good marker of social impairment in girls and that assessment of other behaviors may be more helpful. Differences such as this may also have implications for treatment targets and strategies for girls. Clearly, more research is needed.”
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