The clinician perspective on sex differences in autism spectrum disorders

Research studies using existing samples of individuals with autism spectrum disorders have identified differences in symptoms between males and females. Differences are typically reported in school age and adolescence, with similarities in symptom presentation at earlier ages. However, existing studies on sex differences are significantly limited, making it challenging to discern if, how, and at what point in development females with autism spectrum disorder actually exhibit a different behavioral presentation than males. The purpose of this study was to gather impressions from a large group of clinicians to isolate specific areas for future study of sex differences. Clinicians were surveyed about their opinions and perceptions of symptom severity in females, as compared to males, at different points during development. They were also asked to provide open-ended responses about female symptom presentation. Consistent with previous literature, clinicians noted more sex-related differences in restricted and repetitive behaviors and fewer differences for social communication features. Differences were most commonly observed in school age and adolescence, suggesting this time period as a critical and particularly vulnerable window for females with autism spectrum disorder. The results are discussed in the context of other male/female differences across development so that more targeted investigations of autism spectrum disorder sex differences across development.

Keywords: adolescents; autism spectrum disorders; diagnosis; preschool children; qualitative research; repetitive behaviors and interests; school-age children; social cognition and social behavior.