Recently, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine undertook a study aimed at analysing the differences between the symptoms exhibited by autistic boys and girls. This could help provide potentially better diagnostics for girls.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder. As the name suggests, it varies in severity over a spectrum. Autistic boys and girls display several symptoms ranging from intellectual disabilities to sensory issues and repetitive behaviours among others.
One of the early descriptions of autism published by American psychiatrist Leo Kanner in 1943 stated that the likelihood of an autism diagnosis was higher in boys than that in girls. Over the next several decades, this bias led to all autism-related research benefitting males more than females.
Now with the help of artificial intelligence and modern brain imaging techniques, researchers have found that girls that possess brain patterns similar to boys are likely to have motor symptoms that are more pronounced. On the other hand, boys are prone to greater language impairment. Additionally, the study also reported that autistic girls usually show less overtly repetitive behaviours, causing diagnostic delays.
The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to analyse the brain scans of 773 autistic participants. Out of that, 637 were boys and only 136 were girls, the historical bias in autism diagnostics still acting as a barrier to further research into how the disorder affects females. Kaustubh Sapekar, the lead author of the study notes, “When a condition is described in a biased way, the diagnostic methods are biased. This study suggests we need to think differently.”
The senior author of the study, Vinod Menon further described the relevance of studying the diagnostic differences between autistic boys and girls. He said, “We know that camouflaging of symptoms is a major challenge in the diagnosis of autism in girls, resulting in diagnostic and treatment delays. We detected significant differences between the brains of boys and girls with autism and obtained individualized predictions of clinical symptoms in girls.”
Knowing the key neurological and behavioural differences between male and female patients can make a huge difference in providing the right treatment at the right time. The algorithm developed post studying the brain scans of 678 participants was 86% accurate in distinguishing between the brain scans of boys from those of girls. Additionally, the algorithm was also put to test by running the brain scans of 976 typically developing children. As expected, it could not distinguish among them – further confirming the findings of the research.
The researchers believe that this study has the potential to pioneer better, more focused AI-based diagnosis and treatment for autistic girls, bridging the historical diagnostic disparity.