Girls vs. Boys: Communication differences in autism

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If you work with students with autism, chances are you’ve noticed some communication differences between the boys and girls on your caseload. But how do you quantify these differences? Do they impact treatment? Are they even real?

We’ve touched on this topic before, but there isn’t loads of research on it at the moment. This preliminary study by Sturrock et al. takes a deeper dive into examining the language and communication profiles of females and males with autism.

The study explored the language and communication skills of 9–11-year-old children with ASD and IQ scores in the average range*, compared to age and gender matched peers with typical development (TD). Within both groups, female and male performance were examined separately. Note that each of the four groups was relatively small (13 children per group). Overall, though, they found some surprising (and not so surprising) differences among the groups.

The ASD group as a whole scored about the same as the TD group on measures of expressive and receptive language. However, the authors did see a subtle deficit in the ASD group when it came to narrative language tasks (an issue we’ve discussed before).

But what about those gender-related differences? Well, it turns out that within the ASD group, females outperformed males in pragmatic language and semantic language tasks. However, females with ASD still lagged behind matched females with TD. Another interesting difference? Girls in general consistently scored better than boys on “language of emotion” tasks (like listing as many feeling/emotion words as possible in one minute).

So what we do with these preliminary findings? Primarily, this study can help you consider potential areas of strength and weakness to look out for during evaluation and treatment of children with ASD. Young females with ASD may need some pretty high-end support with pragmatic and narrative skills to communicate effectively with peers (and that support may further require careful attention to that child’s social group— hello, individualization!)

Additionally, the authors make the case that by increasing our awareness of the female ASD profile, a historically under-diagnosed and misdiagnosed condition, we may be able to help these girls get identified and get access to services sooner rather than later.

*The authors refer to this as High-Functioning Autism.

 

Sturrock, A., Yau, N., Freed, J., Adams, C. Speaking the same language? A preliminary investigation comparing the language and communication skills of females and males with High-Functioning Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi: 10.1007/s10803-019-03920-6.