Sex differences in autism spectrum disorders

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Abstract

Purpose of review

A strong male bias in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) prevalence has been observed with striking consistency, but no mechanism has yet to definitively account for this sex difference. This review explores the current status of epidemiological, genetic, and neuroendocrinological work addressing ASD prevalence and liability in males and females, so as to frame the major issues necessary to pursue a more complete understanding of the biological basis for sex-differential risk.

Recent findings

Recent studies continue to report a male bias in ASD prevalence, but also suggest that sex differences in phenotypic presentation, including fewer restricted and repetitive behaviors and externalizing behavioral problems in females, may contribute to this bias. Genetic studies demonstrate that females are protected from the effects of heritable and de-novo ASD risk variants, and compelling work suggests that sex chromosomal genes and/or sex hormones, especially testosterone, may modulate the effects of genetic variation on the presentation of an autistic phenotype.

Summary

ASDs affect females less frequently than males, and several sex-differential genetic and hormonal factors may contribute. Future work to determine the mechanisms by which these factors confer risk and protection to males and females is essential.

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