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Autism spectrum disorder looks different in girls’ and boys’ brains

Illustration of a brain, composed of female symbols
Gary Neill

A new study has begun to shed light on what may be important differences in how autism spectrum disorder (ASD) develops in girls and boys. The study, a multicenter collaboration of researchers including UVA professor of neurology Kevin Pelphrey, used data drawn from brain imaging and genetic analysis to find evidence suggesting not only that ASD may develop in a different part of the brain in girls than in boys, but also that girls with ASD may have a greater number of genetic mutations in this part of the brain. 

Importantly, this research included an equal number of boys and girls diagnosed with ASD. Because boys are more frequently diagnosed with ASD, girls have been underrepresented in research, making it difficult to discern possible sex differences. This study found that differences between girls with ASD and a matched cohort of typically developing girls were not the same as those between typically developing boys and those with ASD.

These findings, the researchers write, suggest caution in drawing conclusions about ASD in girls based on research conducted primarily with boys.