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New Autism Research Outlines Gender Differences in Social Interactions

Boys and girls with autism spectrum disorder may share difficulties in communicating, but how those problems manifest themselves differs between the sexes—an important element for educators to remember, according to new research examining children with autism and their peer interactions.

For example, because boys tend to play more structured games, it's easier to spot when a boy with autism is being excluded. Socialization among girls tends to be more fluid, so a girl with autism may appear to be fitting in with her peer group—but a closer look might reveal less-obvious rejection.

The research also shows that in general education classrooms, girls remain more connected to peers when they are in larger classrooms—21 students or more. Boys tended to have better social connections when they were in classrooms of 20 students or fewer. Researchers hypothesize that boys might do better with more individualized attention, while girls may thrive if they have more friendship options. 

These studies about children with autism were presented Friday in Salt Lake City at the International Meeting for Autism Research, which draws reseachers from around the world. The research into social behaviors was gathered from children who are part of the seven-site Autism Intervention Research Network on Behavioral Health. This network, also known as AIR-B, is studying children with autism and their typically developing peers, with a focus on children from underserved and minority communities. It is supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, through its health resources and services administration. 

The database is unique for not only having a large number of children with autism to track, but a large number of girls, said Connie Kasari, a professor of psychological studies in education and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. UCLA serves as the coordinating site for the research network.

Research Often Male-Focused

Autism research has often focused on boys, who are five times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. So the research offers insights that educators might not otherwise have, Kasari said .For example, social groups among girls often focus on intimate talk, which may be uniquely challenging to master for a girl with a disorder whose defining feature is communication challenges. Girls with autism may be rejected by their peer groups, "but they persist in the face of rejection. They're reapproaching, and they're being rejected again." It's important for educators to note those subtle issues, she said.

Michelle Dean, the lead author of the playground study and an assistant professor of special education at California State University-Channel Islands, said an important takeaway for educators from all this research is that "it's easy to focus on autism first. But girls [with autism] are still little girls, and boys [with autism] are still little boys."

Dean also recommends that educators offer explicit social interaction lessons to typically developing classmates of students with autism. The same behaviors that young girls use to reject a classmate with autism—an eyeroll, a glance to one side—are also techniques they use to reject each other. Teaching everyone social skills can help an entire classroom, without singling out a child who has a disability. 

"Students, with a little more information, will understand that there's someone different from them" and how to best communicate with that person, Dean said. 

Links to these study abstracts and to additional findings developed from the Autism Intervention Research Network on Behavioral Health can be found at Meaningful Social Outcomes in Real World Settings: Targets, Interventions and Change.

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