A pioneering autism researcher at the University of Virginia School of Medicine is spearheading an ambitious effort to understand how autism spectrum disorders differ in boys and girls as part of the National Institutes of Health’s Autism Centers of Excellence Program.

Kevin Pelphrey, of UVA’s Department of Neurology, and a coalition of scientists at UVA and other top institutions are taking a multi-pronged approach to understanding a great mystery of autism: Why are four times more boys diagnosed with the condition than girls?

The lack of information about autism’s manifestation in girls means many are never diagnosed and miss out on beneficial interventions, Pelphrey fears.

Kevin Pelphrey is leading a multidisciplinary study following children into adulthood to shed light on autism spectrum disorders and interventions for boys and girls.
Kevin Pelphrey is leading a multidisciplinary study following children into adulthood to shed light on autism spectrum disorders and interventions for boys and girls. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The researchers, including experts at UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, are following children over the course of many years, all the way to adulthood. They hope their research will shed light on autism spectrum disorders, which affect one in 59 children, and also identify the best interventions for both girls and boys.

“Our goals include providing a much better understanding of the differences in how autism manifests in girls versus boys,” said Pelphrey, the Harrison-Wood Jefferson Scholars Foundation Professor. “We want to use the knowledge we gain to help us get the right treatment to the right individual at the right time.”

Pelphrey’s Approach to Understanding Autism

Pelphrey uses high-tech brain scans to illuminate our understanding of autism spectrum disorders, but his research initiative goes far beyond that. Pelphrey and his collaborators are taking a four-pronged approach that:

  • Identifies sex differences in brain development in children with autism.
  • Uses gene sequencing to link gene variations with degree of brain abnormality.
  • Uses those findings to predict children’s outcomes in adolescence and young adulthood.
  • Validates those findings via collaboration with people with autism spectrum disorders.

The researchers hope to facilitate the transition into adulthood for people with autism spectrum disorders. Shedding light on the disorder in girls is of particular importance, as that is an area of research that has been almost entirely overlooked, Pelphrey said.