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Science Fair: Confirming Common Sense

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Science Fair

An occasional column about science news pertaining to autism

Compiled by Robert B. Waltz

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Experimental Confirmation: Girls with Autism Are Better Socially

Autism researchers have long been of the opinion that women with autism have (on average) better social skills than men. This is thought by many to be one of the reasons why men are diagnosed more often than women: women are better at hiding the condition. Now there is significant experimental support for this hypothesis: a study involving children at risk for autism shows that the girls in the high-risk group are much more socially aware than the boys:

Commentary: I don't think this is much of a surprise; many experts have said that this is their experience. I've known quite a few women with many, many symptoms of autism who nonetheless were were much more socially capable than their male counterparts. (Hang around a college physics department long enough and this will be very obvious!) Insofar a there is anything new here, it's that the difference appears to start very early -- in other words, it's not just a matter of social learning. Women -- even autistic women -- are just plain better socially. 

The one caution here is a sample size problem. Having 101 children at risk for autism sounds like a significant set, but it means only about 50 of each gender, and not all of those 50 will in fact prove autistic. Taking that into account, the sample size is just barely statistically significant (if it's significant at all). But the fact that it's minimally significant doesn't mean it's wrong; it just means that we need to do more work to confirm it. Given all the secondary evidence pointing the same way, this result seems very likely to be right.

Digestive Troubles in Autism Not Due to a Single Cause

Because so many people with autism have digestive problems, a study tried to find out if all the problems were similar -- and found that they weren't:

Commentary: Note that this study is not claiming that people with autism don't have digestive troubles. There is a lot of evidence that people with autism are more likely to have such problems. What this study shows is simply that there is no single cause of such problems. So you can't just assume that all kids with autism have (say) lactose intolerance and try to treat them by cutting milk out of their diets. All the individual cases will have to be treated individually. 

So why do so many people with autism have digestive problems? My guess is that some of it is in the brain (it's not sending the right signals to the stomach), and some of it is diet (if your kid eats nothing but spaghetti from ages two to sixteen, of course he's going to have stomach problem!), plus probably some people with autism have heightened sensitivity to digestive upset. That's only a guess, though.

Stags and Risks

This article (or, rather, video) never mentions autism -- but I suspect the results may be significant for people with autism anyway. The connection is this: It's a study about willingness to take risks and the brain mechanisms related to it. People with autism are very reluctant to change a routine -- very risk-averse, especially in social settings. And we have indications that people with autism have unusual reactions to the "social hormone" oxytocin, and there are indications that they may have unusual responses to the closely related hormone vasopressin. And here we have a study linking vasopressin to socially risky behavior. So: We have a group of people (those with autism) who are socially risk-averse and have an unusual way of dealing with a chemical involved in social risk-taking. It is, at most, a double correlation (and my suggested correlation, not the authors'), and correlation is not causation, but maybe it leads somewhere.

Commentary: Given how much explanation I had to give for why I even included this story, I won't make a long commentary. What little I know I've already said. I will only note that the game in the video, "Stag Hunt," is one of the classic "2x2 games" of the mathematical field known as "game theory" -- second only to the so-called "Prisoner's Dilemma" in level of study. And I don't think the video describes it very well. If the methods of this study interest you at all, it's worth looking up, or I can try to bore you deeply with my understanding of game theory.

We Are the 1%

An estimated 1% of humans with autism have a defect in a gene called Shank3. Researchers have now shown that knocking out this gene in mice causes them to display autistic symptoms, and repairing it causes the symptoms to go away.

Commentary: One story on this actually claimed that this was a cure for adults with autism. This story is at least a little more restrained, although I note a great many errors in the story. But it's the headline that counts: a seeming cure for autism. Of course, the usual cautions apply: It's only in mice, and who knows if it works in people? More to the point, it's one gene, and we know with absolute certainty that most cases of autism are not caused by a single gene. As the story admits, only 1% of people with autism have a defective Shank3 gene. So this probably has no significance at all for the other 99% of us.

RNA Recipe

New research seems to link so-called "microRNA" with a number of conditions including autism. There are two stories explaining the links.

Commentary: There are two obvious cautions about this one, and at least one other that is less obvious. One is that it's based on work in fruit flies, not humans. The significance to humans is purely hypothetical at this point, as is the link to a specific human gene. Also keep in mind that the study finds a link to a gene that is defective in some people with autism, not all, so -- just as in the previous item -- it's not the whole story. The third point is that, forty-odd years ago, there was a finding that RNA was closely associated with memory (science fiction fans may remember Larry Niven using that idea extensively). But it didn't work out. Now, we have another fruit-flies-and-memory-RNA story. So we'll see if it stands up in confirmation studies.

Author bio: AuSM member Robert B. Waltz was diagnosed with autism in 2012. He earned his B.A. in physics and mathematics from Hamline University in 1985. He is the author of three books on folklore, the editor of the online folk music database The Traditional Ballad Index, and recently has been informally studying the biology of autism.

Photo Credit: Grace