The characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were associated with elevations in gender variance (GV) in a nonclinical population of children age 6 to 12 years, according to a study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Gender variance describes an individual’s variation in gender role behaviors that diverge from accepted gender norms. This is in contrast to gender dysphoria (GD), which refers to the significant levels of distress associated with the disparity between a person’s gender assigned at birth and their experienced gender. Although not all GV becomes GD, high levels of GV predict later GD. Data indicate that the prevalence of both GD and ASD have been increasing independently in the general population, and in clinical populations, GV and ASD co-occur frequently.

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A. Natisha Nabbijohn, department of psychology, University of Toronto, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, and colleagues studied the association between GV and ASD and other developmental or mental health conditions. They recruited parents of children ages 6 to 12 years online using Facebook and Kijiji to participate in the study. The final sample included parent reports on 2445 children. Gender variance was measured using the Gender Identity Questionnaire for Children with the normal scoring reversed so that a higher score indicated greater GV. The refined version of the Children’s Social Behavior Questionnaire was used to assess ASD.

The mean Gender Identity Questionnaire for Children score of girls was significantly higher than that of boys. The investigators found a positive association between characteristics of ASD and GV, indicating an association beyond clinical populations. The orientation and stereotyped subscales of the Children’s Social Behavior Questionnaire were found to be unique predictors of increased GV. These 2 scales indicate difficulty orienting one’s attention to social cues as well as atypical responses to sensory input.

The correlational and cross-sectional design of the study limited the ability to control for confounding variables and to draw conclusions regarding causation or time-related developmental pathways.

The authors noted that the study found higher levels of GV in children with parent-reported diagnoses of ASD, oppositional defiance disorder, and sensory processing disorder. They suggest that GV may not be unique to ASD populations and may also occur in other clinical populations.

Reference

Nabbijohn AN, van der Miesen AIR,  Santarossa A, et al. Gender variance and the autism spectrum: an examination of children ages 6-12 years [published online December 13, 2018]. J Autism Dev Disord. doi: 10.1007/s10803-018-3843-z