Exploring the Sex Disparity in Autism Spectrum Conditions

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I believe the mind is powerful and fascinating and Psychologists and Sociologists are today's explorers. Since I was a very young girl I have been intensely fascinated by the psychological makeup of a person and the impact the world around us has resulting in nuances that make each of us differ from one another.

In 2011-2012 I designed a study as part of my MSc Psychology degree whilst at Oxford Brookes University to explore the sex disparity in Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASCs) by examining the differences and similarities among males and females with ASCs.  A huge thank you to all of the charities, societies, organisations and online communities that facilitated and advertised my research as a sample of 69 individuals with Asperger Syndrome (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) aged 18+ kindly agreed to participate in my research completing my newly designed quantitative Likert style questionnaire and a further 10 females aged 18+ with AS undertook a 30 minute qualitative audio-recorded semi-structured interview. Informed by previous literature the questionnaire and interviews focused on eight specific areas; Appearance, Personality, Social Relationships, Childhood, Interests, Physical Behaviour, Co-morbid Disorders, Cognitive Abilities. In order to analyse the data captured by the questionnaire Mann Whitney U tests and Factor Analysis were used and  Thematic Analysis was used to analyse the transcribed interview data.

The main findings of this research indicated that whilst many areas of similarity exist between males and females with ASCs, there are also several areas of significant difference involving appearance, sensory issues, interests and co-morbidity. It demonstrated that in all sorts of ways there are similarities in the manifestation of ASCs in males and females but there are clearly identified differences. Previous research appeared to focus on the notion that both males and females with ASCs would have difficulties in relation to the triad of impairments and appear hypermasculinised. This research project sought to explore whether the sex disparity in ASCs was a result of this reductionist view neglecting to consider the idea that ASCs may manifest differently in females to males.

The analysis revealed that whilst both males and females with ASCs have difficulties regarding communication, social interaction and imagination, female ASC traits appear more subtle due to being more socially aware of their difficulties. Thus, females appear better able to cope with their difficulties through employing delayed imitation practices, prepared dialogues, repetition practices and through fiddling with their hands or belongings. Whilst both males and females seem interested in the typical male oriented interests such as maths, science and technology, females also demonstrated particular interests in animals, literature, music, arts and creative activities. Both males and females appeared aware of gender typical interests and behaviour which extended to and was evident in their personality and appearance. Although the aspect that seemed to shape both males and females clothing and hairstyle choices was comfort and practicality, females highlighted sensory issues that influenced their appearance and were more likely to wear more feminine clothing in terms of pattern and colour in comparison to males. Another finding from my research was that females with ASCs were found to incur more social co-morbid disorders (such as OCD, anxiety, anorexia to name a few) than the more genetic disorders (such as Downs syndrome) associated with males with ASCs.

Although this research indicated that whilst there are similarities in boys and girls with Autism Spectrum Conditions there are also very clear differences in the presentation of Autistic traits in girls compared to boys with ASCs, it would be helpful to develop the findings from this small-scale exploratory research project further by focusing more closely on exploring the sensory issues that females with ASCs seem to incur and the impact this has on their behaviour, appearance and social competency. As previous research has neglected this area and females in this study explained the inconvenience that results from their sensory issues regarding being able to venture and cope in different locations such as hot, noisy and busy shops, clubs and pubs as well restricting the types of clothes and hairstyle they wear, it seems an important aspect to explore in greater detail. Furthermore, as females in this study have demonstrated that they appear more receptive and or sensitive to social influence and social norms (e.g. regarding appearance), further research could investigate what it is that makes females with ASCs more open to these influencing factors.

To read my full thesis please download the PDF document below!

This area of research has gained more prevalence and media attention in recent years. On Wednesday 15th July 2015, ITV are broadcasting a documentary at 10.40pm called “Girls with Autism”. “Girls With Autism” is a one off documentary filmed at Limpsfield Grange, a specialist state run boarding school  in the UK for girls aged 11 – 16 with autism spectrum disorders. The documentary follows three pupils: Katie, Abigail and Beth over a period of 6 months at school and at home. The documentary hopes to provide a glimpse into the less familiar presentation of autism and the impact it has on the everyday lives of girls. If you are at all interested in autism spectrum conditions then I highly recommend you watch it. Beth Worboys, one of the subjects of the documentary, recently brought out a book co-written by the entire cohort of the school called “M is for Autism” that was published last week allowing the readers to view the world through the eyes of girls with autism. You can read more about Beth and the documentary here on the Telegraph.

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