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Research Roundup: Girls and Genes at the Forefront

In our continued coverage of the trends, breaking news, and the forefront of autism research, we often tend to come back to a similar pool of topics, reporting on the advancements in genetic, neurological, and environmental research. In addition, this year in particular has seen a couple of studies released that urged researchers in the field to start taking a closer look at autism in young girls, a demographic that the prevailing trends have long overlooked.

We’re taking a look at two topics that have received a substantial amount of attention recently in particular: girls and genetics.

First up, in looking at young girls and autism, it’s a widely known fact that boys are four more times likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. This is due to the fact that the symptoms tend to be subtler in girls, who often get through most of elementary school and even high education before they are ultimately diagnosed. As a result of this scarcity of cases, there has been little research of major significance into how girls with autism respond to therapy.

A new study by the Yale Child Study Center is attempting to shed more light into therapy for young girls with autism and are currently recruiting girls aged 6 to 9 who have been diagnosed with autism. Over the course of the four-month study and play-based therapy, the team led by Pamela Ventola hopes to better understand the sex-based differences between boys and girls with autism, how girls respond to treatment, and how the girls in the study perceive and react to social signals.

Over the four months of study, Ventola and her team also are looking to see whether there are genetic differences between boys and girls with autism while testing to see if the supplement oxytocin can be effective in children with autism to socially bond more easily and develop feelings of attachment with others.

“Until now, girls have largely been excluded from research because it’s hard to recruit a meaningful sample of girls,” said Ventola, an assistant professor in the autism program at the Child Study Center.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world of autism research, a new pair of genetic tests have been developed that aim to help parents and doctors better understand the many different challenges that a child diagnosed with autism may face throughout life. A study is being conducted to review the tests, which identified genes that could explain the nature of a child’s susceptibility for autism in almost 16% of cases.

That number actually increased to 38% when researchers utilized cutting-edge tests to assess children with physical abnormalities, which are a sign that these children suffered developmental problems in the womb. Dr. Bridget Fernandez and her colleagues believe doctors may be able to better care for children with autism using these tests, which will give them a basic genetic understanding of the child. With that knowledge, doctors can then plan for, prescribe for, and treat for pending health issues.

To conclude, whether it’s a matter of better understanding how to treat young girls with autism or developing tests that can help doctors to prepare a treatment for autism before a child is even born, both of these developments are positive signs for the treatment of autism.