News and Notes from The Johnson Center

Sex Matters! (The Importance of Gender-Based Research in Autism)

JCCHD | Thu, June 14, 2012 | [Research]

Gender ResearchAutism affects at least four times as many boys as girls—maybe more; in fact, the higher number of males diagnosed with autism is the most common autism research finding. Gender-based differences are not limited to autism.  Other neurodevelopmental disorders such as learning disabilities, ADHD, ADD and oppositional defiant disorder also occur much more frequently in boys than in girls. 

Several theories have been proposed to explain this gender bias. Boys might be more vulnerable to damage from genetic abnormalities, metabolic perturbations, environmental exposures, and/or infections, leaving them more susceptible to autism. Hormonal factors (both before and after birth) might influence the development, as well as the outcome, of autism especially since estrogen is a potent brain protector (neuroprotectant). Girls are also considered more social, with better verbal and communication skills than boys. (Perhaps this enables them to compensate for deficits in their social development, so that they do not appear to be so severely affected, avoiding detection).

Since boys are affected with autism so much more often, it is not surprising that many autism research studies only enroll boys. However, the increased risk of autism in boys actually highlights the importance of including girls in autism research, because if we could identify what protects so many girls from autism, we might be able to reduce the rate of autism in boys. And the many girls affected with autism could also benefit from this research.

We are working with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center on a new study to identify a blood biomarker for autism, enrolling an equal number of boys and girls, both with and without autism. The study requires only one office visit, and all participants receive a ‘Super Hero’ T-shirt. Compensation is also provided. Click here to read more about research studies at The Johnson Center or email us to learn more.