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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Spotted A roundup of autism papers and media mentions you may have missed.

Female focus; mouse missteps; disturbing disparity

by  /  4 March 2016

February 29th

Female focus

After being long underrepresented in research studies, girls and women with autism are beginning to get the attention they deserve.

A story published this week in Scientific American Mind highlights how autism manifests differently in girls than it does in boys. Author Maia Szalavitz begins by describing Frances, a 12-year-old girl with autism whose long journey to a diagnosis was anything but straightforward. Frances’ younger brother, Lowell, by contrast, was diagnosed in a fraction of the time.

“Everything we thought was true of autism seems to only be true for boys,” the children’s father, autism researcher Kevin Pelphrey, told Szalavitz.

The story echoes many of the same points in “The lost girls,” part of Spectrum’s special report on sex and gender in autism that ran last fall.

Scientific American / 01 Mar 2016
Mouse missteps

Old mice are different from young ones, and male mice are unlike their female counterparts. But only half of all research studies report the age and sex of lab animals, according to a new analysis in eLife highlighted in Nature.

The study, which reviewed more than 15,000 papers published between 1994 and 2014, also revealed some interesting sex biases in animal research. Surprisingly, mice are more likely to be female (when their sex is reported at all). But sex varies according to research focus, even within a particular field, the researchers found. Although diabetes studies skew male overall, investigations into the role of the immune system favor female mice.

The study is an important reminder that sex matters in mouse studies. It may be especially critical in autism studies, as Brooke Borel notes in “Of mice and women.”

To help researchers sidestep these biases and plan well-thought-out animal studies, U.K. researchers have launched an online tool called Experimental Design Assistant. Researchers can plug their hypothesis, method and planned analysis into the tool and get instant feedback about potential flaws or guidance on getting enough statistical power.

Experimental Design Assistant
Disturbing disparity

Membership among 69 different scientific academies is 88 percent male, according to a report released Monday by the Academy of Science of South Africa and the newly formed InterAcademy Partnership.

The report comes on the heels of a slightly lighter take on science’s gender problem, in which researchers calculated the ‘moustache index’ of 50 top U.S. medical schools. Long story short: men with mustaches outnumber women as department heads — a sad fact considering that mustaches, while making a comeback, are still relatively rare.

The new findings are particularly sobering, as scientific academies play a crucial role in advising governments on scientific policies. “They should make sure their panels and reports are reflective of the diversity of our world,” study coordinator Dorothy Ngila told Nature. “You cannot provide advice to government using only half the team.”

Academy of Science of South Africa / 29 Feb 2016
C. elegant

We had to call out this surprisingly beautiful image of tens of thousands of tiny roundworms feasting on bacteria.

The picture, shot by Adam Brown, a graduate student in David Biron’s lab at the University of Chicago, won a Bioart award from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, posted it on his blog yesterday.

National Institutes of Health / 03 Mar 2016
Feeling honored

Speaking of awards, this week the Association of Health Care Journalists honored Spectrum’s very own Apoorva Mandavilli and Jessica Wright for their stories about autism. “The lost girls” explores how women with autism are often misunderstood or misdiagnosed and lack the help they need. “The missing generation” spotlights the legions of adults on the spectrum who were neglected or forgotten for decades.

Association of Health Care Journalists / 01 Mar 2016