Autism spectrum disorders: toward a gendered embodiment model

Soc Sci Med. 2012 Jun;74(11):1667-74. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.06.013. Epub 2011 Jul 12.


One of the most consistent observations in the epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is the preponderance of male cases. A few hypotheses have been put forth which attempt to explain this divergence in terms of sex-linked biology, with limited success. Feminist epidemiologists suggest the importance of investigating specific mechanisms for male-female differences in health outcomes, which may include sex-linked biology and/or gender relations, as well as complex biosocial interactions. Neither domain has been systematically investigated for autism, and the possible role of gender has been particularly neglected. In this article, we posit hypotheses about how social processes based on perception of persons as male or female, particularly patterns of social and physical interaction in early development, may affect the observed occurrence and diagnosis of ASD. We gesture toward an embodiment model, incorporating hypotheses about initial biological vulnerabilities to autism--which may or may not be differentially distributed in relation to sex biology--and their interactions with gender relations, which are demonstrably different for male and female infants. Toward building such a model, we first review the epidemiology of ASD with an eye toward male-female differences, then present a theory of gender as a "pervasive developmental environment" with relevance for the excess burden of autism among males. Finally, we suggest research strategies to further investigate this issue.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive* / diagnosis
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive* / epidemiology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Gender Identity
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Prejudice*
  • Sex Factors
  • United States / epidemiology