Why Girls May Be Protected Against Autism

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Boys outnumber girls when it comes to autism diagnoses, and researchers may have uncovered one reason why.

Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, but whether that trend is rooted in biological differences between the genders or the fact that girls might simply hide their symptoms better, hasn’t been clear.

The gender-based difference could be due to factors that increase the risk among boys, or, alternatively, factors that protect girls. Researchers led by Elise Robinson of Harvard Medical School decided to investigate the latter, and determine whether there might be something about being female that protected girls from the the developmental disorder. The team analyzed data from two large samples of twins, one from Sweden and the other from the U.K.  They theorized that if something were protecting girls from autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), then families of girls who actually did develop them should have a greater than average risk, and that risk would overwhelm whatever protection they received from their gender.  In other words, girls would have a higher threshold for developing ASDs — they would have to be faced with a heavier burden of whatever genetic or environmental risk factors cause ASD in order to actually develop it.

(MORE: A Genetic Clue to Why Autism Affects Boys More)

Such family-based risk can be measured by studying levels autistic symptoms in unaffected siblings: in families at high risk of developmental and psychiatric disorders, even unaffected members tend to have mild symptoms, but not enough to qualify for a diagnosis.

“If greater familial [risk] is required to produce autistic impairments in girls, the family members of affected females should on average carry greater risk than the family members of affected males,” the authors write.  Because identical twins share the same genetics, they studied fraternal twins only, comparing sets in which only one had an autism spectrum disorder. Nearly 4,000 British twins and just over 6,000 Swedish twins were included in the research, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

(MORE: Autism Numbers Are Rising: The Question Is Why?)

The study found that if a girl scored in the top 10% on autistic traits, the odds of her twin scoring in a similarly high range were 37% greater than those for a boy.  That meant the girls came from families with significantly greater risk levels. Because the study looked at autistic traits in a sample from the general population, rather than from those who sought treatment, the results do not simply reflect the fact that girls are less likely to be diagnosed, even if they have the condition.

“It is a really interesting and generally well-done study,” says Marjorie Solomon, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California Davis MIND Institute, who was not associated with the research. She adds, “The differences in gender ratio in ASD have been a source of great curiosity, given their many implications.”

The study was only designed to test the theory that families of girls with ASDs might have higher than risk of the disorders, and was not structured to test for exactly what it is that seems to protect girls. But that knowledge could lead to potentially better treatment options for both genders. Based on earlier research, experts see genes, rather than social or environmental factors, as the most likely explanation for lower risk among girls.

(MORE: Studies: New Clues to the Genetic Roots of Autism)

What might some of those genetic factors be? It’s possible that they may involve the social bonding hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin.  “The basic thought is that girls have less vasopressin and higher natural oxytocin,” says Solomon, “And oxytocin is a social hormone, so that would be protective.” The lower levels of vasopressin might also be helpful:  while this hormone is thought to be involved in social connections—particularly for boys, who tend to have higher levels — in animals it is also linked to aggressive defense of territory and mates.

Or it may involve other metabolic systems that aren’t as obviously connected to social development. Either way, the findings raise interesting questions about how developmental disorders like ASDs are seeded, and open up intriguing new possibilities for treating them. “An understanding of the biology underlying female advantage could greatly aid progress in understanding,” autism and “in identifying prevention factors for ASDs,” the researchers write.

62 comments
KuroiAmaterasu
KuroiAmaterasu

Like all gender differences, particularly when it comes to diagnoses, this is a product of the white male cisgendered patriarchal rape culture.


Just like how Borderine Personality disorder doesn't exist, and is merely a way of labeling innocent women who are acting rationally as mentally ill in order to silence them.


Lets go get a huge posse of bloggers to shout down anyone with facts!

WilliamHewitt
WilliamHewitt

SCPI founder and chief scientist Dr Theresa A Deisher PhD has published a study on AD Prevalence linked to contaminated vaccines since 1979 when CDC secretly changed vaccine manufacturing from animal cell lines to aborted fetal cell lines that have much higher risk of autoimmune disease (Crohn's IBD) and Insertional Mutagenesis that inflames gut blocking immune system from excreting mercury from body resulting in mercury overload in brain and CNS of >75 ppb. CDC refused to notify Congress or public of this change until 2009 (30 years later). CDC and HHS refused to safety test the vaccine manufacturing change. Billy@isp.com 

happy-julie
happy-julie

Hopefully as the generations go on in the future, humans will evolve stronger, and able to tolerate Mercury and other deadly poisons. The authorities have always covered up real facts like preserving Vaccines in Mercury-based preservatives.  Mercury can slowly send a human-being Mad, and is passed down through sperm/eggs to the next generation. Try to have tooth fillings, without Amalgam (Mercury-based fillings). I had a lot of Amalgam fillings forced on me at the school dentist...Luckily I have felt better since they were removed. Has any-one questioned an increase in Bottle-feeding infants in the last 100 years? Good luck with all the theories  :-)

northerngirl
northerngirl

I think you are forgetting one very important aspect, which is that girls with ASD - especially high functioning ASD - may simply be under-diagnosed. Biologically speaking, girls are more likely to have advanced language skills in general in a normal population in comparison to their male peers. In a sense, you may be partially right about a biological "protection" in which girls are more likely to keep their verbal ability. The loss of speech is a major reason parents seek out a diagnosis, but in the event that a child keeps it speech but had difficulties in other Autism related areas the parents may not seek out treatment or the child may be given an alternate diagnosis to describe the other behaviors. Unfortunately, it is very possible, that these undiagnosed girls are still suffering from many of the other hallmarks of the disorder. Because they are undiagnosed, or misdiagnosed, they are not benefiting from getting the proper help.


In the case of high-functioning Autism, many girls are under-diagnosed. It took me 30 years to find someone who diagnosed me appropriately. Obviously, my verbal skills are in tact, but I suffer from many of the other problems that plague people on the spectrum, social problems, sensory problems, etc. Furthermore, in higher functioning individuals, it is important to take a look at how society has separate expectations for males and females. Antisocial boys are allowed to be that way, it is a masculine trait to be independent. Girls are expected from a very young age to be nurturing and social. Many high-functioning girls are pushed by their parents, friends and society at large to be more social. They are forced to keep eye contact and pressured into learning the intricacies of small talk. Because of this, many of them learn to do so just to please the people around them, even to the extent that it may cause them psychological problems because of their inadequacies. Superficially, they appear more "normal" than their male counterparts, even if the still struggle to maintain and keep friendships and jobs. They are more likely to be misdiagnosed mood disorders like anxiety and depression. ADD (especially without hyperactivity), is another common diagnosis as is OCD. 


Unfortunately, Autism is often diagnosed based on how a child or person acts outwardly. Girls may outwardly behave differently from their male counterparts but most doctors either can't (because of lack of appropriate language skills in young patients) or don't have in-depth conversations with these types of patients to find out what's going on internally. The perpetuation of the idea that girls are less likely to be on the spectrum is only hurting the Autism community, it causes girls and women to suffer in silence or to be misdiagnosed for secondary symptoms - like anxiety, depression and OCD, that may manifest because of their difficulties in coping with with their sensory and social problems. More, not less attention, need to be focused on finding ways to better diagnose the condition so that more girls are getting the help they need.

suburp
suburp

@BenisonAnne @TIMEHealthland well, girls are disadvantaged everywhere else I guess...

ibtlius
ibtlius

The primary reason for autism or any other illness that usually didnt occur in such high level in earlier generations can be single-handedly traced back to age of the mother when she gets pregnant. Average women under the unreasonable, idiotic, influence from militant feminists propaganda have put themselves under extreme stress of trying/proving to 'have it all' without facing the due consequences. 

Guess what?, Nature has a simple, effective way of reminding us all who the real boss of this planet is and always will be.

Each and every day, those feminists morons come with yet another way of 'proving' their crackpot concept of 'equality'. No amount of  changes to public policy, laws or propaganda can save you sorry assess unless you cure yourselves of the disease of penis-envy that plagues your minds.

No amount of College degrees can guarantee you knowledge leave alone the most important one, wisdom.

OffendedMan
OffendedMan

This will wind up as a repeat of the ADHD fiasco - girls who show these traits will get extra help in school, boys who show these traits will be shot up with drugs to control them.

boycottchina1
boycottchina1

People that have children when they are older tend to have more boys.  Paternal age has also been a shown to possibly be a factor in Autism.  I wonder what the age range of the parents in the study were?

BiffStrong
BiffStrong

 Could someone please translate this article into the English language?

Soldier
Soldier

Of course, everyone knows that boys, like the "men" they become, simply create themselves, like magic, in a vacuum.

Soldier
Soldier

All treatments for autism that show even very slight success are those that introduce very intense social interaction between a caring adult and the infant, but unfortunately always far too late in the developmental process to possibly overcome the damage done by the earlier hidden neglect.  Among such families in America many more male infants than female infants are placed on a comfortable shelf and left to develop alone.  It’s just that simple.  In America you can do anything you want to boys, even systematically screw them over in cribs and schools and gyms, even in the Boy Scouts and churches, and no one will ever say anything (unless there’s money to be made for adults).  Give boys a lobby half as powerful as those for women, and just watch the autism discussion “evolve”.  (Autism should never be lumped in with those disabilities (much smaller in number) that have similar symptoms but which have clear physiological causes.)

Soldier
Soldier

Autism is a consequence of the human brain failing to develop properly.  The gross gender differences in diagnosis of childhood autism in the US (which are actually much higher than four-to-one) are due to the same thing that it as always been:  infant neglect during the very critical first 1,000 days of life when the brain is developing.  Girls in our society receive enormously more attention, from everyone, than do boys – primarily because boys are the only minority group in the US that does not enjoy a powerful lobby.  All the efforts, driven by women, to seek causes of social autism elsewhere are simply blame-shifting ploys.  All anyone interested in autism has to do is focus on severely understaffed orphanages, such as many in eastern Europe, where it has always been actually possible to study the social interaction provided to infants during those first 1,000 days.  This was always the primarily scientific focus prior to the recent huge spike in male autism diagnosis among US white middle class families where parents are pursuing careers and where childbirth has been delayed beyond the optimal period.

RebaMcNee
RebaMcNee

This article was useless. Waste of time to read.

LisaFelsman
LisaFelsman

Could this be a parenting thing as well?  Doesn't lots of hugging, holding, cuddling and touch promote the manufacturing of oxytocin in the bloodstream?  I think that we always question what we could do better or differently as parents.

akchum
akchum

I'd like to see more research into the effects of neurotoxic chemicals in autism. My autistic son is chemically sensitive. He is hypersensitive to neurotoxic fluoride which is widely present in water and thus food. A vaccine triggered his descent into autism (regression), which also contained neurotoxic chemicals. Many autistic people are chemically sensitive.  Girls have more redundancy in genetic protection from the effects of toxins due to the extra genes on the leg of the X chromosome (girls are XX and boys XY remember. This could account for the fact that 4 times as many people who are autistic are male. But we all know that they don't find anything they don't want to, so I'm not holding my breath.

literata72
literata72

It seems to me to have more to deal with hyper-growth that would come from GMO foods and Agent Orange and other such environmental aggressors. Before AO was discovered as a defoliant at mega-doses, it was planned to super-grow soy. I suspect that these various poisons combined with mercury and other such poisons are gnarling their brains like root-bound plants. I have made two boys with varying degrees of the diagnosis. 

MartinDoe
MartinDoe

The real reason is that although there are very real cases of autism... Lately the culture has been to misdiagnose the crap out of children , whether its ADHD or Aspergers or autism the majority of diagnosis are wrong boys act out more so they are misdiagnosed more often.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

It is a weird syndrome.... why was it not here 200 years ago?

what has changed?

EukaryoteGrex
EukaryoteGrex

@happy-julie The mercury-vaccine hypothesis has been conclusively disproven multiple times.  Unvaccinated children are just as likely to have autism as vaccinated children, and those countries which discontinued the use of mercury-based preservatives did not show reduction of autism rates.

It's easy enough to get composite fillings, or gold fillings (expensive, though.)

BenisonAnne
BenisonAnne

@suburp Not when it comes to health and development in general. Males the more vulnerable sex. @TIMEHealthland

wholahay
wholahay

@ibtlius All I see in your post is a bunch of woman bashing.  Get turned down for a date yet again?

OffendedMan
OffendedMan

@Soldier  - Yes, God forbid that modern (progressive) parenting or feminist psychobabble should be connected to autism in boys.  Can't have any studies showing that.   

arhianrod
arhianrod

@Soldier Sorry. Your theory is BS. As a pediatric practicioner and as someone who works daily and knows personally parents with autist male children, parenting is not the issue.  

alleigh25
alleigh25

@akchum There has never been a legitimate study linking vaccines to autism. The only study that ever has was proven to be fraudulent. There is no reason to believe a vaccine did anything harmful to your son.

The primary reason why it sometimes seems like autism is "triggered" by vaccines is simply because the age of onset is about the same as the age of vaccination. It's a coincidence.

julian9ehp
julian9ehp

@Hadrewsky Reread the 18th century or earlier accounts of "changelings." These are children with vast amounts of knowledge who seem to have no emotions or odd emotions (e.g., laughing when they hear someone has died). The children are presumed to be fairies, put in place of human infants who have been kidnapped. In my opinion, these accounts are explanations for what we would today call autism spectrum disorders. (But I am a laywoman.)

emjayay
emjayay

Because back then they were just wierd or crazy or retarded.

Soldier
Soldier

@OffendedMan @Soldier

There is no group in America easier for self-interested jerks and creeps of ALL stripe to screw over under ANY pretext than boys - primarily because "men" are too cowardly to stand up and SCREAM.

Soldier
Soldier

@arhianrod @Soldier

5.  Each and every one of those rights, those choices, DO come with corresponding responsibilities.  And I, for one, am getting really tired of footing the bills, taking the blame, doing the hard stuff, for all those rights and choices.  It’s killing our whole society, slowly, with a sweet smile, a hateful passive-aggressive smile.  I look at holier-than-thou women like this self-serving writer and all I see is Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.  And cowardly "men" who are too afraid to call them out are equally to blame.

Soldier
Soldier

@arhianrod @Soldier

4.  And those women are still making the same petty whines they did a half century ago, while using the same “victim” “statistics” – all running on brainless auto-pilot, wallowing in their eternal victimhood in order to avoid their just responsibility.  All that self-involvement devoid of responsibility over the past half century is creating a steadily growing bigotry among American women that is just ugly.  Their lobbies, their mouthpieces, their politicians, their “scientists”, their talking heads, their pontificating "experts", even their “journalists”, all engage in a very wide range of slick propaganda tricks to deceive the public and tilt the table in their favor.  It's long past the time for women to assume the hot seat and step up to the responsibility, the accountability, that has long been theirs. 

Soldier
Soldier

@arhianrod @Soldier

3.  It's not just male autism.  Those privileged women buy twice as many girls as boys from those foreign orphanages.  They choose to have far more girls than boys in artificially engineered births.  Their women-dominated schools ensure that twice as many girls as boys go on to get university degrees.  Boys have enormously higher rates than girls in school drop-outs, suicides, drug use, arrests, violent deaths.  Far more boys than girls are “diagnosed” with “learning disabilities” so they can be crippled with the chemical equivalent of frontal lobotomies.  The low test scores of boys in their schools are systematically hidden behind the much higher test scores for girls.  Etc., etc.  The American woman's dream of a perfect society is cloning themselves.

Soldier
Soldier

@arhianrod @Soldier

2.  Factors most associated with the explosion in boy autism are white middle class parents; bearing children much later in the life of the mother than in the past; parental obesity; and well-educated parents pursuing careers.  It is NOT by accident that diagnoses of autism are going through the roof, at really huge cost to society.  All those loser boys out there do NOT “create themselves”.  Only a fool would regard women any different than the way women regard men - guilty until proven otherwise.  No women in American history has ever championed a cause for a group other than her own, not even for the way women-dominated public schools screw over their own sons; American women are all born with a million rights, a million choices, and no responsibility.   Parenting IS the issue – WOMEN parents.

Soldier
Soldier

@arhianrod @Soldier

1.  “Knowing” parents is NOT objectively studying their behavior during the first 1,000 days of life.  And you make money buying into the woman's version of "truth".  Only a fool would buy into the explanations offered by those who profit from those excuses.  And spending billions of dollars of other people’s money to chase blame-shifting excuses is NOT the way to arrive at truth.  Go study those understaffed Russian and Third World orphanages where privileged middle-aged American women go to buy children.  Over half the children born in this country are born to single women, and less than one-in-four American boys can rely on a constant father through age eighteen.   The predominant definition of “family” and “parents” today is “single mothers” - who exercise their many “choices”. 

akchum
akchum

@alleigh25 @akchum  I was there. You were not. I saw it happen. You're just spouting what you've heard the 'experts' say. You're quoting the official party line. Wake up.

Soldier
Soldier

@alleigh25 @Soldier @arhianrod

Using really stupid labels like “hate feminists and women in general” to silence valid criticism, even if politicians still tell women whatever women want to hear to buy their super-majority “me” votes, thankfully, isn’t going to work much longer.  (Most of us have been listening to this asinine nonsense for the past half century; eventually it will become it’s own self-fulfilling prophesy.) Obviously you believe your own self-serving propaganda.  It's been a well-known fact internationally that the US has been awarding twice as many university degrees to its women than to its men for the past quarter of a century, which opens the way to over 800,000 foreign students, mostly male, coming to America's campuses every year.  Those numbers are cumulative, resulting in tens of millions of women over men now with advanced educations in this country, with women in metropolitan areas across the country now earning 119% of the earnings of men.  (Ditto with H-1B visas given for much better educated and highly qualified foreign workers.  “Feminists” are now whining that our visa programs discriminate against FOREIGN women – damned any discrimination against American boys!) 

It's also well known internationally that all this is primarily a factor of America's dismally poor women-dominated K-12 public "education" industry.  These differences grow wider every year, despite federal civil rights law existing for the past forty years specifically designed to keep such absolutely critical factors in proper and equitable balance.  Our mind-numbing, navel-contemplating schools teach to girls and expect boys to adapt.  The poor test scores of boys are routinely hidden behind the higher scores of girls, as are AP participation ratios, graduation rates, college admissions, scholarship awards, etc., by the “education” industry’s rigid use of censorship rules requiring only gender neutral (uni-sex) terms like “children” and “students” in their self-serving deceptive reporting.  There is no place anywhere in the US “education” industry, K through post-graduate school, where gender balance is maintained according to US civil rights law.  But no one knows such things because “entitled” women and all their lobbies and mouthpiece “journalists” never stop whining about their own manufactured problems.  In the US, you can do anything you want to boys, and no one will ever say anything – because American women only care about themselves, have a million rights and zero responsibility, are the most self-involved humans on the face of the Earth, and because boys are the last minority in the US without a major lobby.  Sooner or later all this “me” sickness is going to blow up right in the faces or all those whining women.  (P.S.  Suicide “attempts” are just another over-worn childish tactic to whine for attention – one of those self-serving things at which American women truly excel.)

alleigh25
alleigh25

@Soldier @arhianrod We get it, you hate feminists (and women in general). But you should probably take a look at your "facts." There are not twice as many girls as boys getting college degrees. Girls make up slightly more than half. Boys have higher rates of suicide, but girls have higher rates of suicide ATTEMPTS. As for test scores, boys actually score slightly better on average on standardized tests. The scores are very close, but boys outscore girls by a small margin.

alleigh25
alleigh25

@akchum @alleigh25I really am sorry that you've had to deal with all of that, and I understand why you want there to be a simple explanation. But the reality is, you did not and could not have "seen" vaccines trigger his autism, even if they did. You can't see causation. You did not see what was going on inside his brain and body before the onset of his autism. You have no way of knowing what caused it. You believe it was the vaccine because you noticed it shortly after he received the vaccine, which is an understandable link for someone to make, but it does not mean the two things are related.

There have been many, many studies exploring the possibility of a link between vaccines and autism, and they have not found one. That doesn't make it impossible that there is one, but it does mean that if there is a link, it's incredibly small and extremely rare. If there is a tiny, rare link, it is possible that your son could be the one in several million children who experiences it, which would be unfortunate. But as of now, there is no reason to assume there is any connection, because there is zero evidence to support that.

And the idea that "they never find what they don't want to" goes completely against the fundamental goal of science, which is to understand how things work. Scientists have found a great deal many uncomfortable things in the past several thousand years, things they'd prefer not to be true, and they have written them up and published them just the same as they have anything else. There is no reason to believe that dozens of peer-reviewed studies are somehow falsified. The Wakefield study, which initially concluded there was a link between vaccines and autism, was falsified (extremely so, as a matter of fact), and he lost his license to practice medicine because of it. They don't take kindly to falsified studies. The goal is for every study to be reproducable, so others can do it themselves and compare their own results. The more similar studies obtain similar results, the more likely these results are to be correct. That's how science works.