Since the 1940's, when the word "autism" was introduced in the US, diagnoses and treatments have skyrocketed in prevalence and normalcy. In fact, the United States now estimates 1 in 54 American children have some form of Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Despite the surge, the differences between people diagnosed makes pinpointing a specific cause nearly impossible.
However, one thing all experts agree on is the fact that autism seems to occur more often in boys than in girls. While many girls with autism may be overlooked due to sex or gender biases, studies have found the prevalence in boys to be four times higher.
Studies have looked at sex hormones, male-specific genes, and male vs. female brains to resolve this difference. And some have turned up answers. However, this disparity in research favoring boys neglects the girls with autism, whose struggles and needs are no less important, regardless of the fact that they are fewer in numbers.
A recent study from the University of Bern decided to instead tackle the question of cause with these girls in mind. The study analyzed certain hormones, particularly androgens such as testosterone, and their levels in teenage girls with autism.
They found that these girls had higher levels of both testosterone and androstenediol. But, they also found that those levels weren’t elevated in their urine. Plus, they had the same or lower levels of enzymes used to process those hormones.
This seems to implicate the brain’s hormone control center – the hypothalamus – in the cause. Their bodies seemed to be unaware of their elevated androgen levels, since they aren’t getting rid of them in urine or processing them with extra enzymes.
Finally, this study also suggests that changes in the levels of androgen hormones may be used as a diagnostic marker for autism. Such a diagnostic tool is an important step forward, as autism diagnosis currently based on behavior, movements, and development in early years, all of which differ significantly between children with and without autism.