Autism spectrum disorders affect around one percent of the population and manifest more frequently in males than in females. Much of the scientific literature regarding autism spectrum disorders has focused on the male perspective. However, a new study from the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre has found significant differences in the brains of men and women with autism spectrum disorders.

The research team, which included senior study author Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, used magnetic resonance imaging to determine whether there were differences in how autism affects female and male brains. They found that there are, in fact, marked differences between female and male brains. According to Baron-Cohen, “females with autism show neuroanatomical ‘masculinization.’” This could suggest that the mechanisms that cause sexual dimorphism—prenatal sex hormones and sex-linked genetic mechanisms—are part of the cause of autism.

The researchers concluded that the brain anatomy of a person with autism depends significantly on the person’s sex. The MRI data showed that brain areas that were atypical in adult females with autism resembled areas that differ between neurotypical males and females. This abnormality was not observed in males with autism.

Dr. Meng-Chuan Lai who led the research explained that “the findings suggest that we should not blindly assume that everything found in males with autism applies to females. This is an important example of the diversity within the ‘spectrum’.”

Working with autism on along gender lines could lead to greater understanding of autism in general. This research indicates that people on the autism spectrum can be divided into subgroups, which can help researchers to deepen their understanding of the causes and manifestations of autism.

This research is published as an open-access article in the journal Brain.

Learn more about how iLs works with autism on our autism page.

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