There may be gender differences in the way that autism spectrum conditions (ASC) affect cognition, according to researchers at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.
Autism spectrum conditions are characterized, in varying degrees, by problems with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
Individuals with these disorders are considered “on the spectrum” because of the differences in severity across these domains.
Children with an ASC may avoid eye contact and fail to respond to their names.
They also have problems figuring out what others are thinking or feeling because they have trouble understanding social cues — such as tone of voice or facial expressions — and may not watch a person’s face for clues about appropriate behavior. Some with an autism spectrum disorder may also lack empathy.
Although there are gender-specific differences in the serum biomarkers, genetics and brain anatomy of people with autism, little is known about any gender-dependent differences in cognition caused by the disorder.
Following their previous study on behavioral sex differences in adults with ASC, the new study compared four domains of cognition in adults with ASC to those in the general population.
The researchers discovered that perception of facial emotions was equally impaired among both males and females with ASC.
In tasks involving attention to detail or dexterity requiring strategic thinking, women with ASC performed similar to women without ASC, but men with ASC showed more difficulties than men without ASC.
According to the researchers, the findings suggest that the severity with which certain cognitive functions are affected by autism may be dependent on gender, and this has implications for assessment and intervention of the disorder.
“What we know about males with ASC should not be assumed to generalize to females,” said Dr. Meng-Chuan Lai. “Their similarities and differences need to be investigated systematically in autism research.”
The research is published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.