Children with autism are not just children with special needs; they display special qualities. It isn’t the same across the board for children with autism. Boys and girls process emotions and express them differently from each other and learning more about how autism differs between genders can help families and professionals to assist them better and support their needs.
The University of Cambridge completed a large-scale study to look at the difference between boys and girls. Researchers investigated two psychological theories, which aims at understanding how children with autism process feelings: “The Empathizing-Systemizing Theory” and “The Extreme Male Brain Theory.”
The Empathizing-Systemizing Theory explores how the brain of the child with autism processes emotions. The results showed that girls exhibit higher test scores for empathy. They are better equipped to be able to understand the feelings and thoughts of others and can be expected to react accordingly.
Behavior in boys was slightly different. Male participants scored lower on empathy tests and higher on systematic tests. This shows that, overall, they are excellent at recognizing patterns and paying attention to details. These characteristics help them to understand and create rule-based systems and are instrumental while considering ways of teaching them.
These findings are also linked to the second theory: The Extreme Male Brain theory. The lower empathy scores and higher systemizing scores show what the researchers call “a masculinized approach,” which reflects a lower ability to understand the feelings of people who are around them. Since autism is often linked to lower scores on empathy tests, boys are more frequently placed on the ASD spectrum and their autistic traits are much easier to recognize.
Males are strong thinkers, but they also have the emotions as their female counterparts. They may process emotion differently, but they certainly still have plenty of it. The University of Cambridge, who conducted this research, makes very clear that their lower scores for empathy do not suggest their lack of caring for others.
According to Dr. Varun Warrier from the research team at Cambridge,
“These gender differences in the typical population are very clear.”
These theories are two decades-old but this is the first time they were conducted on such a large scale. Over half a million people were included in the study and the findings were in strong favor of these two theories.
It is a good start for general understanding of traits for both, boys and girls with autism, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg of understanding children individually. These results are based on the subjects tested as a whole. There are many other factors that contribute to how boys and girls with autism process their feelings and understand their surroundings.
“We know from related studies that individual differences in empathy and systemizing are partly genetic, partly influenced by our parental hormonal exposure, and partly due to environmental experience,” says Dr. Warrier.
These findings are leading the way to more research. Ideally, that research will help provide new and improved ways to provide care and treatment for the students here at Shema Kolainu – Hear Our Voices and autistic children around the world. Dr. Carrie Allison of the University of Cambridge study agrees, saying, “The next step must be to consider the relevance of these findings for education and support where needed.”