Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 45, Issue 2, pp 589–599 | Cite as

Sex Differences in Social Perception in Children with ASD

  • M. C. Coffman
  • L. C. Anderson
  • A. J. Naples
  • J. C. McPartland
Original Paper


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is more common in males than females. An underrepresentation of females in the ASD literature has led to limited knowledge of differences in social function across the sexes. Investigations of face perception represent a promising target for understanding variability in social functioning between males and females. The current study analyzed electrophysiological brain recordings during face perception to investigate sex differences in the neural correlates of face perception and their relationship to social function. Event related potentials (ERP) were recorded from children with ASD while viewing faces, inverted faces, and houses. Relative to males, females showed attenuated response at an ERP marker of face perception, the N170. Among females, but not males, atypical face response was associated with symptom severity. Observed sex differences reflect influential differences in social information processing, and impairment in these features correlates with deficits in social information processing in females, but not males, with ASD. These findings hold significance for future treatment protocols, which should account for differences in males and females with ASD in clinical presentation and neural phenotypes.


Autism spectrum disorder Sex differences ERP N170 Face perception 



This research was supported by NIMH R03 MH079908, NICHD PO1HD003008, CTSA Grant Number UL1 RR024139, NIMH K23MH086785, NARSAD Atherton Young Investigator Award, NIMH R21 MH091309, NIMH R01 MH100173 and R01 MH100028. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official view of the NIH. We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the funding sources that made this research possible, the parents and children who participated in this study, and several other people who made significant contributions to this research, including Linda Mayes, Robert Schultz, Ami Klin, Danielle Perszyk, Cora Mukerji, Jeffrey Eilbott, Jia Wu, Kevin Pelphrey, and Christopher Bailey.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR (4th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
  2. Baio, J. (2012). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders: Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 14 Sites, United States, 2008. Morbidity and mortality weekly report. Surveillance Summaries, 61(3), 0738–1546.Google Scholar
  3. Bauer, D., Goldfield, B., & Reznick, S. (2002). Alternative approaches to analyzing individual differences in the rate of early vocabulary development. Applied Psycholinguistics, 23(3), 313–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bentin, S., Allison, T., Puce, A., Perez, E., & McCarthy, G. (1996). Electrophysiological studies of face perception in humans. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 8(6), 551–565.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Benton, A., Sivan, A., Hamsher, K., Varney, N., & Spreen, O. (1994). Contributions to neuropsychological assessment. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Bryson, S., & Smith, I. (1998). Epidemiology of autism: Prevalence, associated characteristics, and implications for research and service delivery. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 4(2), 97–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cahill, L. (2006). Why sex matters in neuroscience. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7, 477–484.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Carter, A., Black, D., Tewani, S., Connolly, C., Kadlec, M., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2007). Sex differences in toddlers with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 86–97.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Eisenberg, N., & Lennon, R. (1983). Sex differences in empathy and related capacities. Psychological Bulletin, 94(1), 100–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Elliott, C. D. (2007). Differential Ability Scales: Second edition (DAS-II). San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
  11. Elsabbagh, M., Mercure, E., Hudry, K., Chandler, S., Pasco, G., Charman, T., et al. (2012). Infant neural sensitivity to dynamic eye gaze is associated with later emerging autism. Current Biology, 22(4), 338–342.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Fombonne, E. (2003). Epidemiological surveys of autism and other pervasive developmental disorders: An update. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33(4), 365–382.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gadow, K., & Sprafkin, J. (1994). Child symptom inventories manual. Stony Brook, NY: Checkmate Plus.Google Scholar
  14. Happé, F. (1995). The role of age and verbal ability in the theory of mind task performance of subjects with autism. Society for Research in Child Development, 66, 843–855.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Hartley, S., & Sikora, D. (2009). Sex differences in autism spectrum disorder: An examination of developmental functioning, autistic symptoms, and coexisting behavior problems in toddlers. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 1715–1722.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Herlitz, A., & Rehnman, J. (2008). Sex differences in episodic memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(1), 52–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Holtmann, M., Bolte, S., & Poustka, F. (2007). Autism spectrum disorders: Sex differences in autistic behaviour domains and coexisting psychopathology. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 49, 361–366.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Huttenlocher, J., Haight, W., Bryk, A., Seltzer, M., & Lyons, T. (1991). Early vocabulary growth: Relation to language input and gender. Developmental Psychology, 27(2), 236–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Itier, R. J., & Taylor, M. J. (2002). Inversion and contrast polarity reversal affect both encoding and recognition processes of unfamiliar faces: A repetition study using ERPs. Neuroimage, 15(2), 353–372.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Joliffe, T., & Baron-Cohen, S. (1997). Are people with autism and Asperger syndrome faster than normal on the embedded figures test? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38(5), 527–534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kansaku, K., Yamaura, A., & Kitazawa, S. (2000). Sex differences in lateralization revealed in the posterior language areas. Cerebral Cortex, 10, 866–872.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kanwisher, N., McDermott, J., & Chun, M. M. (1997). The fusiform face area: A module in human extrastriate cortex specialized for face perception. Journal of Neuroscience, 17(11), 4302–4311.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Key, A., & Stone, W. (2012). Same but different: 9-month-old infants at average and high risk for autism look at the same facial features but process them using different brain mechanisms. Autism Research, 5(4), 253–266.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Koenig, K., & Tsatanis, K. (2005). Pervasive developmental disorders in girls. In D. Bell, E. Foster, & E. Mash (Eds.), Behavioral and emotional problems in girls. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.Google Scholar
  25. Lai, M., Lombardo, M., Pasco, G., Ruigrok, A., Wheelwright, S., Sadek, S., et al. (2011). A behavioral comparison of male and female adults with high functioning autism spectrum conditions. PLoS ONE, 6, e20835.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lang-Takac, E., & Osterweil, Z. (1992). Separateness and connectedness: Differences between the genders. Sex Roles, 27(5/6), 277–289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Leeb, R., & Rejskind, G. (2004). Here’s looking at you, kid! A longitudinal study of perceived gender differences in mutual gaze behavior in young infants. Sex Roles, 50(1/2), 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lord, C., Risi, S., Lambrecht, L., Cook, E. H., Jr, Leventhal, B. L., DiLavore, P. C., et al. (2000). The autism diagnostic observation schedule-generic: A standard measure of social and communication deficits associated with the spectrum of autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30(3), 205–223.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lord, C., Rutter, M., & Le Couteur, A. (1994). Autism diagnostic interview-revised: A revised version of a diagnostic interview for caregivers of individuals with possible pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24(5), 659–685.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lord, C., & Schopler, E. (1985). Brief report: Differences in sex ratios in autism as a function of measured intelligence. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 15(2), 185–193.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lord, C., Schopler, E., & Revicki, D. (1982). Sex differences in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 12(4), 317–330.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lutchmaya, S., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). Human sex differences in social and non-social looking preferences, at 12 months of age. Infant Behavior and Development, 25, 319–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Mandy, W., Chilvers, R., Chowdhury, U., Salter, G., Seigal, A., & Skuse, D. (2011). Sex differences in autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from a large sample of children and adolescents. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(7), 1304–1313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. McLennan, J., Lord, C., & Schopler, E. (1993). Sex differences in higher functioning people with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 23(2), 217–227.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. McMahon, W., & Ritvo, A. (1989). The UCLA-University of Utah epidemiologic survey of autism: Prevalence. American Journal of Psychiatry, 146, 194–199.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. McPartland, J., Cheung, C. H., Perszyk, D., & Mayes, L. C. (2010). Face-related ERPs are modulated by point of gaze. Neuropsychologia, 48(12), 3657–3660.Google Scholar
  37. McPartland, J., Dawson, G., Webb, S. J., Panagiotides, H., & Carver, L. J. (2004). Event-related brain potentials reveal anomalies in temporal processing of faces in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(7), 1235–1245. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00318.x.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. McPartland, J. C., Wu, J., Bailey, C. A., Mayes, L. C., Schultz, R. T., & Klin, A. (2011). Atypical neural specialization for social percepts in autism spectrum disorder. Social Neuroscience, 6(5–6), 436–451. doi:10.1080/17470919.2011.586880.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Moore, T. (1967). Language and intelligence: A longitudinal study of the first eight years. Human Development, 10(2), 86–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. O’Connor, K., Hamm, J. P., & Kirk, I. J. (2005). The neurophysiological correlates of face processing in adults and children with Asperger’s syndrome. Brain and Cognition, 59, 82–95.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Pavlova, M., Guerreschi, M., Lutzenberger, W., Sokolov, A., & Krageloh-Mann, I. (2012). Cortical response to social interaction is affected by gender. Neuroimage, 50, 1327–1332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Piefke, M., Weiss, P., Markowitsch, H., & Fink, G. (2005). Gender differences in the functional neuroanatomy of emotional episodic autobiographical memory. Human Brain Mapping, 24(4), 313–324.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Proverbio, A., Brignone, V., Matarazzo, S., Del Zotto, M., & Zani, A. (2006). Gender differences in hemispheric asymmetry for face processing. BMC Neuroscience, 7(1), 44.Google Scholar
  44. Pugh, K., Shaywitz, B., Shaywitz, S., Constable, T., Skudlarski, P., Fulbright, R., et al. (1996). Cerebral organization of component processes in reading. Brain, 119, 1221–1238.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Rossion, B., Campanella, S., Gomez, C., Delinte, A., Debatisse, D., Liard, L., et al. (1999). Task modulation of brain activity related to familiar and unfamiliar face processing: An ERP study. Clinical Neurophysiology, 110, 449–462.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Schneider, W., Eschman, A., & Zuccolotto, A. (2002). E-prime user’s guide. Pittsburg: Psychology Software Tools Inc.Google Scholar
  47. Scott, F., Baron-Cohen, S., Bolton, P., & Brayne, C. (2002). Brief report: Prevalence of autism spectrum conditions in children aged 5–11 years in Cambridgeshire, UK. Autism, 6(3), 231–237.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sparrow, S., Cicchetti, D., & Balla, D. (2005). Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (2nd ed.). Bloomington: Pearson.Google Scholar
  49. Taylor, M. J., Batty, M., & Itier, R. J. (2004). The faces of development: A review of early face processing over childhood. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16(8), 1426–1442.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Tsai, L. Y., & Beisler, J. M. (1983). The development of sex differences in infantile autism. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 142(4), 373–378.Google Scholar
  51. Tucker, D. (1993). Spatial sampling of head electrical fields: The geodesic sensor net. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 87(3), 154–163.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Volkmar, F., Szatmari, P., & Sparrow, S. (1993). Sex differences in pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 23(4), 579–591.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Wechsler, D. (1997). Manual for the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (3rd ed.). San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
  54. Wing, L. (1981). Sex ratios in early childhood autism and related conditions. Psychiatry Research, 5, 129–137.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Yeargin-Allsopp, M., Rice, C., Karapurkar, T., Doernberg, N., Boyle, C., & Murphy, C. (2003). Prevalence of autism in a US metropolitan area. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 289(1), 49–55.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. C. Coffman
    • 1
  • L. C. Anderson
    • 1
  • A. J. Naples
    • 1
  • J. C. McPartland
    • 1
  1. 1.Yale Child Study CenterNew HavenUSA

Personalised recommendations