Background: Autistic individuals frequently experience social communication challenges. Girls are diagnosed with autism less often than boys even when their symptoms are equally severe, which may be due to insufficient understanding of the way autism manifests in girls. Differences in the behavioral presentation of autism, including how people talk about social topics, could contribute to these persistent problems with identification. Despite a growing body of research suggesting that autistic girls and boys present distinct symptom profiles in a variety of domains, including social attention, friendships, social motivation, and language, differences in the way that autistic boys and girls communicate verbally are not yet well understood. Closely analyzing boys' and girls' socially-focused language during semi-structured clinical assessments could shed light on potential sex differences in the behavioral presentation of autistic individuals that may prove useful for identifying and effectively supporting autistic girls. Here, we compare social word use in verbally fluent autistic girls and boys during the interview sections of the ADOS-2 Module 3 and measure associations with clinical phenotype.
Methods: School-aged girls and boys with autism (N = 101, 25 females; aged 6-15) were matched on age, IQ, and parent/clinician ratings of autism symptom severity. Our primary analysis compared the number of social words produced by autistic boys and girls (normalized to account for differences in total word production). Social words are words that make reference to other people, including friends and family.
Results: There was a significant main effect of sex on social word production, such that autistic girls used more social words than autistic boys. To identify the specific types of words driving this effect, additional subcategories of friend and family words were analyzed. There was a significant effect of sex on friend words, with girls using significantly more friend words than boys. However, there was no significant main effect of sex on family words, suggesting that sex differences in social word production may be driven by girls talking more about friends compared to boys, not family. To assess relationships between word use and clinical phenotype, we modeled ADOS-2 Social Affect (SA) scores as a function of social word production. In the overall sample, social word use correlated significantly with ADOS-2 SA scores, indicating that participants who used more social words were rated as less socially impaired by clinicians. However, when examined in each sex separately, this result only held for boys.
Limitations: This study cannot speak to the ways in which social word use may differ for younger children, adults, or individuals who are not verbally fluent; in addition, there were more autistic boys than girls in our sample, making it difficult to detect small effects.
Conclusions: Autistic girls used significantly more social words than boys during a diagnostic assessment-despite being matched on age, IQ, and both parent- and clinician-rated autism symptom severity. Sex differences in linguistic markers of social phenotype in autism are especially important in light of the late or missed diagnoses that disproportionately affect autistic girls. Specifically, heightened talk about social topics could complicate autism referral and diagnosis when non-clinician observers expect a male-typical pattern of reduced social focus, which autistic girls may not always exhibit.
Keywords: Autism spectrum condition; Autism spectrum disorder; Language; Sex differences; Social phenotype.
© 2022. The Author(s).