A new study suggests that there are significant differences in how male and female children with high autistic traits process visual information.

Andrew Silva and colleagues asked 381 nine-year-old children who exhibited a range of autistic traits on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) to perform tests involving dorsal or ventral processing of visual input to the brain. The dorsal stream is involved in motion and visuo-motor processing, while the ventral stream is involved in object recognition.

The researchers found that both male and female children with high autistic traits exhibited difficulties on tests of dorsal stream processing. “These associations were observed in a large group of children with a range of AQ scores,” they say, “demonstrating a range of visual function across the full spectrum of autistic traits.” However, only males tended to do worse on tests of ventral stream processing. Silva comments, “The part of the visual system that handles object recognition is also connected to face recognition, recognizing nonverbal communication and facial expressions. The fact that this system was not impacted in our sample of females with high autistic traits is consistent with the idea that this system allows females to better navigate social situations and mask neurodivergence.” However, he says, it is not clear whether this visual processing difference is innate or stems from differences in how male and female children are raised.

He adds, “In the end, these results highlight that human neurodiversity is not a singular concept—different sexes, and indeed different people, express autistic traits in their own unique way.”

This article originally appeared in Autism Research Review International, Vol. 37, No. 4, 2023

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