Sex differences in social attention in autism spectrum disorder

Although reduced social attention and increased nonsocial attention have been reported in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the studies have relied on predominantly male samples and have been underpowered to examine sex differences. These processes may differ for females with ASD, who have been shown to be dissimilar to males in social motivation and nonsocial features, including circumscribed interests (CI). The goal of this study was to compare social and nonsocial visual attention between males and females with ASD on a validated eye-tracking paradigm. Eighty-five school-aged (6-10 years) males and females with and without ASD completed a paired preference task of face and object stimuli (half of which related to common CI). After covarying for chronological and mental age, the presence of concurrently presented CI images reduced prioritization and attention to faces for males more than females, replicating previous findings. ASD females maintained comparable attention patterns to typically developing females, suggesting that previous findings of reduced social attention and increased attention to CI-related objects in autism may be specific to males. These findings are also inconsistent with the “extreme male brain” theory of autism. The more normative orienting and attention to social stimuli for females with ASD may indicate distinct phenotypic characteristics relative to males and possibly serve as a protective effect. Autism Res 2018, 11: 1264-1275. © 2018 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc. LAY SUMMARY: As autism is more commonly diagnosed in males, less is known about females with autism. Two areas of interest include the interests held by individuals with autism and how socially motivated they are. We used eye tracking as a way to understand these two areas. Our data reveal that elementary school-aged females (6-10 years) with autism attended to faces comparatively to females without autism, suggesting that (1) they were more socially motivated than males with autism and (2) the images of common interests were less motivating to them.

Keywords: circumscribed interests; eye‐tracking; females; social motivation.