The role of sex-differential biology in risk for autism spectrum disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that affects approximately four times as many males as females, a strong sex bias that has not yet been fully explained. Understanding the causes of this biased prevalence may highlight novel avenues for treatment development that could benefit patients with diverse genetic backgrounds, and the expertise of sex differences researchers will be invaluable in this endeavor. In this review, I aim to assess current evidence pertaining to the sex difference in ASD prevalence and to identify outstanding questions and remaining gaps in our understanding of how males come to be more frequently affected and/or diagnosed with ASD. Though males consistently outnumber females in ASD prevalence studies, prevalence estimates generated using different approaches report male/female ratios of variable magnitude that suggest that ascertainment or diagnostic biases may contribute to the male skew in ASD. Here, I present the different methods applied and implications of their findings. Additionally, even as prevalence estimations challenge the degree of male bias in ASD, support is growing for the long-proposed female protective effect model of ASD risk, and I review the relevant results from recurrence rate, quantitative trait, and genetic analyses. Lastly, I describe work investigating several sex-differential biological factors and pathways that may be responsible for females’ protection and/or males’ increased risk predicted by the female protective effect model, including sex steroid hormone exposure and regulation and sex-differential activity of certain neural cell types. However, much future work from both the ASD and sex differences research communities will be required to flesh out our understanding of how these factors act to influence the developing brain and modulate ASD risk.

Keywords: Autism; Autism spectrum disorder; Female protective effect; Prevalence; Sex differences; Testosterone.