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Girls with Autism May Require Different Treatment Than Boys

As a mother of both a boy and a girl with autism, I can tell you that they have always been very different. Marc is more overt in getting his needs met through strong verbalization. Julia remains chronically shy and withdrawn in social situations, even though her language skills are stronger than Marc’s. Julia is drawn to figurine play; Marc always lined up his toys, played with them in specific groupings, or moved them methodically from one spot to another.

Until recently, boys and girls on the spectrum have been painted with the same brush both in terms of diagnosis, and more importantly in terms of treatment. According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), Autism or ASD is almost five times more common in boys (1 in 42) than in girls (1 in 189). That discrepancy, says Christine Wu Nordahl, Ph.D, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, UC Davis School of Medicine and MIND Institute, is what has led to a historical bias towards the male gender in autism research using MRI.

As a result of this bias, “girls with autism are understudied and we don’t yet know if there are biological differences in brain structure and connectivity between boys and girls with autism. [We want to] advance the understanding of the biology of autism in girls. With a better understanding of this biology, we hope to be able to find cause(s) and better treatments,” says Dr. Nordahl.

In research that has already been published, Dr. Nordahl discovered that there was a greater difference in brain anatomy between girls with autism and girls without autism, than there was between boys on the spectrum and those who aren’t. In a nutshell? Girls with autism can face more severe social impairments than boys.

With the physical differences finally being researched and understood, it would make sense to revisit treatments for girls with autism. Girls may require different treatments than boys in order to improve. Without research, we will continue use the same methods for both sexes, which may not be the best course of action.

At the Yale Child Study Center, Pamela Ventola is looking at the difference in autism treatment between boys and girls. Ventola is looking for 24 families who have diagnosed girls ages six to nine to participate in a three year study.

“During four months of study and play-based therapy with each girl, Ventola’s team hopes to gain a deeper understanding of the sex-based differences between boys and girls with autism, how girls respond to treatment, and how the girls perceive and react to social signals.” The team will also look at possible genetic differences and whether supplements of the oxytocin hormone, which is associated with social bonding and feelings of attachment, might be effective in children with autism.

To read more about issues that affect girls/women on the spectrum, have a look at these resources. Books that I have found personally useful, and carry in our bookstore are: Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder – Understanding Life Experiences from Early Childhood to Old AgeGirls Growing Up on the Autism Spectrumand Girls Under the Umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorders: Practical Solutions for Addressing Everyday Challenges


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