Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The lost girls

It took 10 years, 14 psychiatrists, 17 medications and 9 diagnoses before someone finally realized that what Maya has is autism. Maya loves numbers, and with her impeccable memory, she can rattle off these stats: that the very first psychiatrist she saw later lost his right to practice because he slept with his patients. That psychiatrist No. 12 met with her for all of seven minutes and sent her out with no answers. That during her second year at Cambridge University in the U.K., industrial doses of the antipsychotic quetiapine led her to pack on more than 40 pounds and sleep 17 hours a day. (Maya requested that her last name not be used.)

But those numbers don’t do justice to her story. It’s the long list of diagnoses Maya collected before she was 21, from borderline personality disorder to agoraphobia to obsessive-compulsive disorder, that begin to hint at how little we understand autism in women...

Maya does have some of the conditions she’s been diagnosed with over the years — she’s been depressed since the age of 11, has crippling social anxiety, and in her teens, wrestled with anorexia. But these were just expressions of the autism that was there for anyone to see had they looked closer. “It’s all secondary to the Asperger’s,” says Maya, now 24. “I get depressed and anxious because life is difficult; it’s not the other way around.”

It’s not uncommon for young women like Maya to be repeatedly misdiagnosed. Because autism is at least three times as common in boys as in girls, scientists routinely include only boys in their research. The result is that we know shockingly little about whether and how autism might be different in girls and boys. What we do know is grim: On average, girls who have mild symptoms of autism are diagnosed two years later than boys. There’s some debate about why this might be so. From the start, girls’ restricted interests seem more socially acceptable — dolls or books, perhaps, rather than train schedules — and may go unnoticed. But the fact that diagnostic tests are based on observations of boys with autism almost certainly contributes to errors and delays.

As they enter their teens, girls struggle to keep up with the elaborate rules of social relationships. Cribbing style notes on what to say and how to say it, many try to blend in, but at great cost to their inner selves. Starting in adolescence, they have high rates of depression and anxiety — 34 and 36 percent, respectively. A few studies have also found an intriguing overlap between autism and eating disorders such as anorexia, although the studies are too small to estimate how many women have both.

Even after a girl gets the right diagnosis, she may be offered behavioral therapy and specialized lesson plans, but they’re essentially the same services offered to a boy in the same situation. Scientists and service providers rarely acknowledge the additional challenges being female may bring, whether physical, psychological or societal. There are no guidebooks for these girls or their families about how to deal with puberty and menstruation, how to navigate the dizzying array of rules in female friendships, how to talk about romance and sexuality or even just stay safe from sexual predators. Advocates and scientists in other disciplines have run up against and resolved many of these same problems, but in autism, the fact that boys and girls are different is sometimes treated as if it’s a startling new discovery.

In the past two to three years, there has been an uptick in the attention paid to the issues that affect women with autism. More money is now available for scientists to study whether and how autism differs in boys and girls. This past year, the journal Molecular Autism dedicated two special issues to research specifically exploring the influence of sex and gender on autism. “Almost overnight, we went from a couple of people talking about sex differences to everyone studying this as a major factor in the field,” says Kevin Pelphrey, Harris Professor at the Yale Child Study Center.

Unpublished results from Pelphrey’s lab confirm what common sense suggests: Women with autism are fundamentally different from men with autism. Autism’s core deficits may be the same for both, but when the symptoms intersect with gender, the lived experience of a woman with autism can be dramatically different from that of a man with the same condition...

After her disastrous encounter with the psychiatrist who decided she has paranoid personality disorder, a doctor who had been kind to her while in the hospital offered to take Maya back as a patient. It was only when Maya began complaining about the ridiculousness of offices being closed on ‘bank holiday’ Mondays (“Weekdays are for work!”) and how overwhelming it was for her to walk down a noisy street that the psychiatrist added up the signs to arrive at the correct diagnosis.

A full 18 months after Maya came home from the hospital, she went back to Cambridge for her final year and switched her focus from genetics to psychology and cognitive neuroscience. She burst into Baron-Cohen’s office at Cambridge one day while he was in a meeting, announced that she has Asperger syndrome and asked if he would supervise her dissertation on mirror neurons and autism. He agreed. She still has bouts of depression, but her stay in the hospital taught her how and when to ask for help. “When I came out of hospital, I basically lived along the lines of ‘if it’s stressful, don’t bother doing it,’” she says. “Nothing is worth getting that depressed.”...

The university accommodated her diagnosis, allowing her to take her exams alone and with breaks in between, and in June 2014, despite some ongoing depression, Maya graduated from Cambridge. “If you can go in two-and-a-half years from being locked in a psych unit to graduating from Cambridge, you can do anything, really,” Maya says.
Courtesy of:


  1. Begeer S, Mandell D, Wijnker-Holmes B, Venderbosch S, Rem D, Stekelenburg F,
    Koot HM. Sex differences in the timing of identification among children and
    adults with autism spectrum disorders. J Autism Dev Disord. 2013


    To examine differences by sex in the timing of identification of individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), survey data were collected in the Netherlands from 2,275 males and females with autistic disorder, Asperger's syndrome and PDD-NOS. Among participants < 18 years of age, females with Asperger's syndrome were identified later than males. Among participants ≥ 18 years of age, females with autistic disorder were identified later than males. In more recent years, girls with Asperger's syndrome are diagnosed later than boys, confirming earlier findings. In adults, the delayed timing of diagnosis in females with autistic disorder may be related to changing practices in diagnosis over time. Strategies for changing clinician behaviour to improve recognition of ASD in females are needed.

  2. Croen LA, Zerbo O, Qian Y, Massolo ML, Rich S, Sidney S, Kripke C. The health
    status of adults on the autism spectrum. Autism. 2015 Oct;19(7):814-23.


    Compared to the general pediatric population, children with autism have higher rates of co-occurring medical and psychiatric illnesses, yet very little is known about the general health status of adults with autism. The objective of this study was to describe the frequency of psychiatric and medical conditions among a large, diverse, insured population of adults with autism in the United States. Participants were adult members of Kaiser Permanente Northern California enrolled from 2008 to 2012. Autism spectrum disorder cases (N = 1507) were adults with autism spectrum disorder diagnoses (International Classification of Diseases-9-Clinical Modification codes 299.0, 299.8, 299.9) recorded in medical records on at least two separate occasions. Controls (N = 15,070) were adults without any autism spectrum disorder diagnoses sampled at a 10:1 ratio and frequency matched to cases on sex and age. Adults with autism had significantly increased rates of all major psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and suicide attempts. Nearly all medical conditions were significantly more common in adults with autism, including immune conditions, gastrointestinal and sleep disorders, seizure, obesity, dyslipidemia, hypertension, and diabetes. Rarer conditions, such as stroke and Parkinson's disease, were also significantly more common among adults with autism. Future research is needed to understand the social, healthcare access, and biological factors underlying these observations.

  3. Jacquemont S, Coe BP, Hersch M, Duyzend MH, Krumm N, Bergmann S, Beckmann JS, Rosenfeld JA, Eichler EE. A higher mutational burden in females supports a "female protective model" in neurodevelopmental disorders. Am J Hum Genet. 2014 Mar 6;94(3):415-25.


    Increased male prevalence has been repeatedly reported in several neurodevelopmental disorders (NDs), leading to the concept of a "female protective model." We investigated the molecular basis of this sex-based difference in liability and demonstrated an excess of deleterious autosomal copy-number variants (CNVs) in females compared to males (odds ratio [OR] = 1.46, p = 8 × 10(-10)) in a cohort of 15,585 probands ascertained for NDs. In an independent autism spectrum disorder (ASD) cohort of 762 families, we found a 3-fold increase in deleterious autosomal CNVs (p = 7 × 10(-4)) and an excess of private deleterious single-nucleotide variants (SNVs) in female compared to male probands (OR = 1.34, p = 0.03). We also showed that the deleteriousness of autosomal SNVs was significantly higher in female probands (p = 0.0006). A similar bias was observed in parents of probands ascertained for NDs. Deleterious CNVs (>400 kb) were maternally inherited more often (up to 64%, p = 10(-15)) than small CNVs < 400 kb (OR = 1.45, p = 0.0003). In the ASD cohort, increased maternal transmission was also observed for deleterious CNVs and SNVs. Although ASD females showed higher mutational burden and lower cognition, the excess mutational burden remained, even after adjustment for those cognitive differences. These results strongly suggest that females have an increased etiological burden unlinked to rare deleterious variants on the X chromosome. Carefully phenotyped and genotyped cohorts will be required for identifying the symptoms, which show gender-specific liability to mutational burden.