Sex Differences in Social Cognition, Executive Functioning and Restricted and Repetitive Behaviours across Development in ASD
Objectives: The present study characterized sex differences in everyday executive functioning, social cognition and restricted and repetitive behaviours across three age cohorts, children, adolescents and young adults, with ASD.
Methods: We recruited 187 children and adolescents with ASD (N=96, M=10.54+2.3 years, IQ=100.9+15.4; females only: N=14, M=11.07+2.2 years, IQ=99.3+15.4), typically developing children and adolescents (N=91, M=11.02+2.5 years, IQ=113.4+12.2; females only: N=23, M=10.39+2.2 years, IQ=114.0+14.7) and 16 adults with ASD (mean = 27.9+4.6; IQ = 112.4+19.7; 8 females). Informants filled out measures of executive functioning, social cognition and repetitive behaviour, as assessed by the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF; Parent/Relative/Other Form), Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS; Parent Rating Scale), and Repetitive Behaviour Scale – Revised (RBS-R), respectively.
Results: To investigate overall group effects on executive functions, social responsiveness and repetitive behaviours, MANCOVAs were conducted with all BRIEF, SRS and z-scored RBS-R subscales, controlling for IQ. Informants rated males and females with ASD as having greater difficulty in executive functioning, social responsiveness and repetitive behaviours relative to their typically developing peers. Preliminary analyses further indicated that female children and adolescents with ASD had more difficulty with the ability to interpret social cues (p = 0.03) and stereotypical behaviours or highly restricted interests (p = 0.006).
Conclusions: Difficulty with the ability to interpret social cues carries profound implications in terms of the ability to successfully engage in social interactions. Our preliminary results suggest that impairment in social cognition, specifically the interpretation of social cues and stereotypical behaviours or highly restricted interests, is particularly heightened in female children and adolescents with ASD, relative to their male counterparts. Thus, females with ASD may exhibit greater impairment in social cognition to meet diagnostic criteria for ASD, particularly in terms of cognitive-interpretive aspects of reciprocal social behaviour. Furthermore, these differences are present in early childhood. Data analyses are ongoing to further explore sex differences in executive functioning, social skills and repetitive behaviours in children, adolescents and adults with and without ASD.