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Autism Spectrum Disorder Risk Factors and Autistic Traits in Gender Dysphoric Children



Gender dysphoria (GD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are associated. In 49 GD children (40 natal males), we examined ASD risk factors (i.e., birth weight, parental age, sibling sex ratio) in relation to autistic traits. Data were gathered on autistic traits, birth weight, parents’ ages at birth, sibling sex ratio, gender nonconformity, age, maternal depression, general behavioral and emotional problems, and IQ. High birth weight was associated with both high gender nonconformity and autistic traits among GD children. Developmental processes associated with high birth weight are, therefore, likely to underlie the GD–ASD link either directly or indirectly. The present study is the first to provide quantitative data bearing on possible mechanisms that lead GD and ASD to co-occur.
Autism Spectrum Disorder Risk Factors and Autistic Traits
in Gender Dysphoric Children
Doug P. VanderLaan Jonathan H. Leef
Hayley Wood S. Kathleen Hughes
Kenneth J. Zucker
Published online: 11 December 2014
ÓSpringer Science+Business Media New York 2014
Abstract Gender dysphoria (GD) and autism spectrum
disorder (ASD) are associated. In 49 GD children (40 natal
males), we examined ASD risk factors (i.e., birth weight,
parental age, sibling sex ratio) in relation to autistic traits.
Data were gathered on autistic traits, birth weight, parents’
ages at birth, sibling sex ratio, gender nonconformity, age,
maternal depression, general behavioral and emotional
problems, and IQ. High birth weight was associated with
both high gender nonconformity and autistic traits among
GD children. Developmental processes associated with
high birth weight are, therefore, likely to underlie the GD–
ASD link either directly or indirectly. The present study is
the first to provide quantitative data bearing on possible
mechanisms that lead GD and ASD to co-occur.
Keywords Gender dysphoria Autism spectrum
disorder Birth weight Parental age Sibling sex ratio
Gender dysphoria (GD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
are rare conditions. In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) (American
Psychiatric Association 2013), GD is characterized by dis-
tress that accompanies the incongruence between one’s
experienced or expressed gender and one’s assigned gender.
ASD is characterized by persistent deficits in social com-
munication and social interaction as well as restricted and
repetitive behavior, interests, or activities. Both conditions
show low population prevalence rates with between 1 in
10,000 and 1 in 50,000 individuals exhibiting GD (Zucker
and Lawrence 2009) and between 1 in 50 and 1 in 500
individuals exhibiting ASD (Blumberg et al. 2013; Fom-
bonne 2005). Also, both conditions show biased male:
female sex ratios ranging from approximately 2:1 to 4:1
(American Psychiatric Association 2013; Blumberg et al.
2013; Fombonne 2005; Zucker and Lawrence 2009). Despite
being rare conditions characterized by distinct sets of diag-
nostic criteria, it is not uncommon for GD and ASD to co-
Most literature regarding the link between GD and ASD
consists of clinical case reports (e.g., Lande
´n and Rasmussen
1997; Parkinson 2014; Williams et al. 1996); however, some
quantitative data have begun to emerge. In one study, 6.4 %
(7 of 108) of children and 9.4 % (9 of 96) of adolescents
referred for GD were classified as having ASD based on the
Diagnostic Interview for Social and Communication Disor-
ders (de Vries et al. 2010). Similarly, a study of adults with
GD found that 5.5 % (5 of 91) showed traits consistent with
an ASD diagnosis (Pasterski et al. 2014). Both studies con-
cluded that these prevalence rates were significantly higher
than estimated population prevalence rates for ASD.
In addition, two studies hav e examined traits of ASD among
individuals with GD relative to comparison groups. Using item
responses on the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), Vander-
Laan et al. (2014b) examined intense/obsessional interests and
repetitive behaviors, each of which are related to DSM-5 Point
B criteria for ASD (American Psychiatric Association 2013).
D. P. VanderLaan (&)J. H. Leef H. Wood
S. K. Hughes K. J. Zucker
Gender Identity Service, Child, Youth, and Family Services,
Beamish Family Wing, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health,
80 Workman Way, 5th Floor, Toronto, ON M6J 1H4, Canada
K. J. Zucker
Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON,
J Autism Dev Disord (2015) 45:1742–1750
DOI 10.1007/s10803-014-2331-3
In a sample of 534 children clinically referred for GD, their
siblings, and the CBCL clinic-referred and non-referred stan-
dardization samples, GD children showed elevated intense/
obsessional interests relative to all other groups and elevated
repetitive behaviors relative to the sibling and non-referred
samples. In an adult sample, Jones et al. (2012) demonstrated
that female-to-male transsexuals had more traits of ASD on a
self-report measure compared to controls. These studies are,
therefore, also consistent with the notion that the prevalence of
ASD, or traits thereof, is elevated among individuals with GD.
Given this elevation, it is possible that traits of ASD
contribute toward cross-gender behavior and identity
among a subset of children clinically referred for GD. An
alternative hypothesis is that some variable related to ASD
might also underlie cross-gender behavior and identity
albeit via a different mechanism. Some research has been
in line with these hypotheses. In one study, girls with ASD
showed less female-typical play behavior, although a
similar tendency toward sex-atypical play was not found
among boys with ASD (Knickmeyer et al. 2008). In
another study, Strang et al. (2014) compared cross-sex
wishes—as reported on a single CBCL item—in a sample
of 147 children referred for ASD to a non-clinical control
sample and the CBCL non-referred standardization sample.
By maternal report, ASD children were significantly more
likely to exhibit such wishes.
Yet, even though ASD children were more likely to
show cross-gender characteristics in these studies, it is
unclear whether the play behavior or cross-sex wishes
examined were indicative of the extreme and persistent
gender nonconformity exhibited by children clinically
referred for GD. Data suggesting that cross-gender
behavior and identity are associated with early indicators of
ASD among some subset of children clinically referred for
GD would, therefore, provide a more convincing demon-
stration that these hypotheses are tenable. One viable
approach for doing so is to examine traits of ASD and
gender nonconformity in relation to ASD risk factors that
are present early in development among children who are
clinically referred for GD.
In a sample of children clinically referred for GD, the
present study examined maternally reported gender non-
conformity and autistic traits in relation to three ASD risk
factors: birth weight, parental age at birth, and sibling sex
ratio. Regarding birth weight, deviations from an average
size at birth (i.e., small size or large size) are associated
with an elevated risk of ASD, although the precise
mechanisms responsible are unclear (Abel et al. 2013).
Advanced parental age at birth is another risk factor for
ASD (Lundstro
¨m et al. 2010; Parner et al. 2012; Sandin
et al. 2012), possibly because older parents are more
likely to have accumulated genetic mutations or encoun-
tered toxic substances that affect gene expression, thus
leading to ASD in offspring (Kondrashov 2012; Sandin
et al. 2012). A testosterone-rich prenatal environment is a
third risk factor for ASD (Knickmeyer et al. 2006) and a
high male-to-female sibling sex ratio, which is a putative
marker of elevated testosterone exposure in utero, is
associated with ASD in children (Mouridsen et al. 2010).
If any of these ASD risk factors are associated with
autistic traits and gender nonconformity among children
clinically referred for GD, then that would provide evi-
dence consistent with hypotheses arguing that ASD has a
direct or indirect association with the emergence of GD in
This study utilized patient data from a chart review approved
by a hospital research ethics board. Beginning in September
2009, information on autistic traits among children less than
or equal to 12 years of age were systematically gathered by
our specialty Gender Identity Service using a psychometri-
cally validated parent-report instrument. Data were col-
lected from 47 consecutive patients at the outset of clinical
assessment for GD as well as 13 outpatients who had been
assessed for GD previously and were continuing to attend
the clinic for therapeutic services. Of these 60 cases, 11
were excluded for various reasons: the required maternal
reports of all study variables were not completed in two
cases; two cases exhibited a co-occurring disorder of sex
development; one case was a twin and another was a
triplet, which may have impacted birth weight; in four
cases, the patients were adopted, in foster care, or under the
guardianship of a child protection agency and information
was not available on birth weight, biological parents’ ages
at birth, or biological sibling sex ratio; and birth weight
information was missing for one case. Of the 49 remaining
cases (40 natal males, 9 natal females) that were retained
for analysis, the mean (SD) age at the time that the study
measures were completed was 7.19 (2.71) years. Data were
collected from 12 cases (11 natal males, 1 natal female)
while they were outpatients and 37 cases (29 natal males, 8
natal females) at the time of the initial assessment. Whether
cases were outpatients or not at the time the study measures
were completed did not vary by sex based on Fisher’s exact
test, p=.42.
For all parent-report measures, the availability of maternal
reports was more consistent across cases compared to
J Autism Dev Disord (2015) 45:1742–1750 1743
paternal reports. As such, the current study focused on
maternal reports with the exception of one measure for one
case (noted below). Paternal reports were used to assess
inter-rater reliability wherever appropriate.
Autistic traits were assessed using the Social Respon-
siveness Scale (SRS; Constantino and Gruber 2005). The
SRS is a 65-item parent-report questionnaire with a one-
factor solution that captures social awareness, social cog-
nition, social communication, social motivation, and
repetitive behaviors. It is a well-validated instrument in
that it distinguishes between samples of children with
ASD, non-ASD clinical controls, and healthy controls. The
SRS also distinguishes among subpopulations of ASD
children, ranging from those with mild, high-functioning
ASD to severe autism. SRS Tscores C60 are defined as
being in the clinical range and indicate the presence of
autistic traits that are likely to create daily social interfer-
ence. Whether a case was in the clinical range on the SRS
based on maternal report was, therefore, the main outcome
measure in the present study. For the present sample,
maternal and paternal reports on the SRS were available for
28 cases and their Tscores showed significant agreement,
r=.62, df =26, p\.001.
Gender nonconformity was assessed using the Gender
Identity Questionnaire for Children (GIQC; Johnson et al.
2004). The GIQC is a 14-item questionnaire in which parents
rate their child’s preferences in domains such as the gender of
preferred playmates, fantasy role-playing or dress-up play,
preferred activities and toys, wishes to be the opposite sex, and
feelings about sexual anatomy. The rating scale ranges from 1
(stereotypically opposite-sex) to 5 (stereotypically same-sex),
but to ease data interpretation the present study reversed the
scores such that higher scores reflected elevated gender non-
conformity. The GIQC has a one-factor solution and, thus,
mean ratings were used to create a gender nonconformity
score. This measure provides good discriminant validity
between GD versus control children and also distinguishes the
magnitude of gender nonconformity within samples of chil-
dren clinically referred for GD. Maternal and paternal reports
on the GIQC were available for 36 cases and their scores
showed significant agreement, r=.56, df =34, p\.001.
(Note: a maternal report for the GIQC was not available for
one case and the paternal report was substituted.)
With respect to data on ASD risk factors, information on
birth weight was available from hospital birth records for 32
cases. For the remaining 17 cases, parent-reported (maternal
or paternal) birth weight was used. Parents reported birth
weight in pounds and ounces or in grams. All birth weights
were converted to kilograms to three decimal places. Hos-
pital-record and parent-reported birth weight information
were available for 25 cases and showed significant agree-
ment, r=.96, df =23, p\.001. This extremely high
correlation, which is consistent with previous studies of the
agreement between hospital records and parent-reported
birth weight (e.g., Blanchard et al. 2002; Gayle et al. 1988;
Gofin et al. 2000; O’Sullivan et al. 2000; Tomeo et al. 1999),
indicates that the parent-reported birth weight used in the
present study is reliable.
Parents’ ages were routinely recorded as part of family
background information gathering during clinical assess-
ment. Maternal and paternal ages at the time of the child’s
birth were calculated by subtracting the child’s age from
each parent’s age at the time of the assessment. Paternal
ages were missing for three cases in which the father’s
identity was unknown.
Information on the numbers and ages of siblings were also
routinely recorded as part of family background information
gatheringduring clinical assessment. Becausesibling sex ratio
is a putativeproxy of a testosterone-rich prenatal environment
(Mouridsen et al. 2010), only siblings who shared the same
mother with the patient were considered. Thus, full- and
maternal half-siblings were considered in the calculation of
the sibling sex ratio whereas paternal half-, step-, and foster-
siblings were ignored. The sibling sex ratio was calculated as:
(number of male siblings ?.5)/(total number of sib-
lings ?1). Thus, lower and higher values reflected female-
and male-biased sibling sex ratios, respectively. Also, pro-
bands without siblings were retained and represented as
having equal proportions of male and female siblings.
A number of control variables were also considered.
Given the relevance of age to social skills development, the
effect of the patient’s age (in years to two decimal places) at
the time the SRS was completed was evaluated. IQ scores
based on the Wechsler Intelligence Test for Children, Fourth
Edition (Wechsler 2003) were included to control for the
effect of general intelligence on social skills. (Note: IQ
testing was not completed for one case and the sample mean
IQ of 111 was imputed to retain the case without biasing
effects toward statistical significance.) To control for forms
of psychopathology other than ASD (e.g., depression,
anxiety) that might also impact social functioning, maternal
reports on the CBCL were used. The CBCL is a gold-stan-
dard measure for general behavioral and emotional problems
in children (Achenbach 1991). Maternal and paternal reports
on the CBCL were available for 38 cases and their Tscores
showed significant agreement, r=.50, df =36, p=.001.
Maternal depression has also been associated with SRS
scores (Bennett et al. 2012) and maternal depression was,
therefore, taken into account using the mothers’ self-reported
Symptom Checklist-90-Revised Tscore on the Depression
factor (Derogatis 1994).
Statistical Analyses
All statistical analyses were conducted using SPSS Version
20. Patients were divided into those who did versus did not
1744 J Autism Dev Disord (2015) 45:1742–1750
have clinically significant autistic traits as indicated by the
presence versus absence of a clinical range score on the SRS.
These two groups were initially compared on the control and
focal variables using independent ttests. Also, zero-order
correlations among the continuous variables were evaluated
across the entire sample. These initial analyses identified
relevant variables to consider in subsequent multiple logistic
regression analyses comparing the two groups. The regres-
sion analyses assessed whether any focal variables that dis-
tinguished the groups based on the ttests still did so after the
control variables were taken into account. The a priori pre-
diction that ASD risk factors, gender nonconformity, and
autistic traits would overlap was evaluated directly by
examining the interaction between ASD risk factors and
gender nonconformity toward the prediction of clinical-
range autistic traits. A conventional alpha value of .05 was
used for making decisions about statistical significance.
It is important to note that none of the patients in our
sample exhibited markedly low birth weight (the lowest
birth weight in the current sample was 2.27 kg). Thus, even
though both small and large size at birth are associated with
increased ASD risk (Abel et al. 2013), it was not possible
to evaluate whether both low and high birth weight were
associated with increased odds of exhibiting clinically
significant autistic traits in this sample. Rather, the analyses
presented below examined the linear effect of high birth
weight on the presence of autistic traits.
Based on maternal-report SRS Tscores, 44.9 % (n=22;
17 natal males, 5 natal females) of the 49 cases were in the
clinical range. The probability of being in the clinical range
did not vary by sex based on Fisher’s exact test, p=.71.
The mean (SD) Tscore was 71.05 (9.79) for those cases in
the clinical range and 47.78 (5.06) for those in the non-
clinical range. Thus, the children in the clinical range
exhibited autistic traits ranging from mild to severe with
moderate levels on average; the non-clinical range children
showed scores that were consistent with unaffected popu-
lations (Constantino and Gruber 2005).
Table 1presents descriptive statistics and summarizes
the results of independent ttests. Patients in the clinical
range were significantly older, had significantly lower IQ
scores, had significantly more behavioral and emotional
problems based on CBCL total Tscores, had significantly
higher birth weights, and showed significantly greater
gender nonconformity. Table 2presents the zero-order
correlations among continuous variables across the entire
sample. Of note given the focus of the present study was
the significant positive correlation between birth weight
and gender nonconformity.
Based on these group and correlation effects, a series of
multiple logistic regression analyses were conducted in which
the patient’s age, sex (dummy coded as natal females =0and
natal males =1), IQ, and CBCL total Tscore were entered as
control variables. Maternal Depression scores were not con-
trolled given the lack of effects found for this variable
(Tables 1,2). Three separate models examined focal vari-
ables and their potential interaction with sex (Table 3). The
first and second models showed that high birth weight and
elevated gender nonconformity, respectively, were signifi-
cant predictors of clinical-range autistic traits even after
accounting for the control variables. The third model
showed that an interaction of high birth weight and ele-
vated gender nonconformity significantly predicted the
presence of clinical-range autistic traits. Thus, this latter
finding confirms the a priori prediction of an overlap
between high birth weight, elevated gender nonconformity,
and autistic traits.
In a sample of children clinically referred for GD, the present
study examined autistic traits in relation to gender noncon-
formity and three variables that serve as proxies for early-life
exposure to ASD risk: high birth weight, advanced parental
age, and high sibling sex ratio. These latter two risk factors
were not associated with autistic traits or gender noncon-
formity; however, effects were found for birth weight. Even
though both groups showed mean birth weights in the normal
range, GD children with clinical-range autistic traits
weighed 372 g (11.5 %) more at birth on average, corre-
sponding to a large effect size (Cohen’s d=.76). Relatively
higher birth weight was associated with elevated gender
nonconformity and these two factors in combination were
associated with clinical-range autistic traits. Thus, relatively
speaking, higher birth weight serves as a physical marker of
ASD in statu nascendi among highly gender-nonconforming
children clinically referred for GD. The present findings
regarding birth weight were, therefore, consistent with
hypotheses suggesting that traits of ASD are associated with
the development of the extreme and persistent cross-gender
behavior and identity that is characteristic of GD in children.
The present findings also highlight high birth weight as
an important clue for helping refine hypotheses regarding
the GD–ASD link. Elevated maternal weight prior to and/
or during pregnancy might be especially relevant because
it is associated with large size at birth (Haugen et al. 2014;
Kirchengast and Hartmann 2013) and elevated cognitive
and psychiatric problems in offspring (for review, see Van
Lieshout 2013), including ASD (Dodds et al. 2011).
Although information on maternal pre-pregnancy weight
and weight gain during pregnancy were unavailable, the
J Autism Dev Disord (2015) 45:1742–1750 1745
CBCL and SRS data from the present sample were con-
sistent with this literature. GD children with higher birth
weights tended to show more behavioral and emotional
problems on the CBCL as well as elevated autistic traits.
Importantly, high birth weight was associated with
autistic traits even after statistically controlling for gen-
eral behavioral and emotional problems by covarying
CBCL scores. Our results suggest, therefore, that high
birth weight has a unique association with autistic traits
that cannot simply be explained as part of a more general
pattern of psychopathology.
Little is known about the precise mechanisms that link
birth weight with ASD risk. Brain overgrowth in particular,
as opposed to large size at birth in general, may be
responsible. Infants later diagnosed with ASD show greater
rates of growth in head circumference during the first year
of life (Fukumoto et al. 2011). Furthermore, ASD has been
associated with early-life (i.e., prior to age 4) overgrowth in
several brain regions, including the amygdala, cerebellum,
cingulate cortex, prefrontal cortex, and temporal lobe (for
review, see Alley et al. 2014). The amygdala might be
particularly relevant because enlarged size and functional
abnormalities in the amygdala appear to contribute to def-
icits in social functioning (for review, see Chasson et al.
2011). Whether these brain regions contribute to GD in
children remains to be examined.
It is possible that traits of ASD and/or their neurobio-
logical underpinnings have a direct influence on the emer-
gence of cross-gender behavior and identity. To begin with,
the premise that early-onset traits of ASD can lead to a later-
emerging GD is tenable given that high birth weight sug-
gests an early predisposition toward ASD. VanderLaan
et al. (2014b) suggested that such a developmental sequence
could unfold if ASD-based intense/obsessional interests in
cross-gender activities or objects gave rise to a cross-gender
self-schema and identity. Social communication deficits
may also contribute. Robinow (2009) suggested that
neurobiological abnormalities associated with reduced
Table 1 Comparisons of
children according to whether
they were in the clinical range
for autistic traits
Father’s age was missing for
three cases (one non-clinical
range case and two clinical
range cases)
Non-clinical range
Clinical range
tvalue df p value
Control variables
Age 6.20 2.47 8.41 2.53 -3.09 47 .003
IQ 115.93 12.82 104.55 14.41 2.92 47 .005
CBCL total Tscore 53.30 7.30 68.55 7.44 -7.21 47 \.001
Maternal Depression Tscore 56.15 8.26 59.82 10.84 -1.35 47 .185
Focal variables
Mother’s age at child’s birth 34.07 5.51 32.82 6.72 .72 47 .476
Father’s age at child’s birth
36.00 5.07 35.20 5.61 .51 44 .615
Birth weight (kg) 3.22 .45 3.59 .52 -2.65 47 .011
Gender nonconformity 3.34 .68 3.69 .50 -2.02 47 .049
Sibling sex ratio .52 .22 .45 .19 1.02 47 .312
Table 2 Correlations among
continuous variables across the
entire sample
*p\.05; ** p \.01;
***p \.001
1. Age
2. IQ -.417
3. CBCL total Tscore .449
-.261 –
4. Maternal Depression
-.027 .020 .324
5. Mother’s age at child’s
-.204 .417
-.018 -.112 –
6. Father’s age at child’s
-.195 .187 -.045 -.038 .689
7. Birth weight (kg) .052 .064 .307
.176 .034 -.041 –
8. Gender nonconformity .140 -.039 .214 .185 -.080 -.124 .344
9. Sibling sex ratio .132 .055 .001 .172 -.007 -.144 .041 .079
1746 J Autism Dev Disord (2015) 45:1742–1750
social functioning in ASD, such as those found for frontal
and temporal regions, might make it difficult for some
children to acquire concepts regarding gender norms. Social
communication deficits might, therefore, underlie the cog-
nitive ‘‘lag’’ that many GD children exhibit in terms of their
gender constancy development (Wallien et al. 2009; Zucker
et al. 1999). Further, Strang et al. (2014) posited that social
communication deficits limit a child’s awareness of social
cues in response to his or her gender role enactment. If such
awareness was limited, a child may not adjust his or her
behavior toward more stereotypically masculine or femi-
nine behavior. In concert, these processes may increase the
likelihood of cross-gender behavior and identity.
If ASD does influence the emergence of cross-gender
behavior and identity in this manner, then the question
arises as to why only a particular subset of children
showing traits of ASD exhibit marked gender noncon-
formity. One possibility is that traits of ASD lead to
gender nonconformity in a stochastic fashion whereby
children with ASD form intense preoccupations with
cross-gender activities or objects due to chance. Another
possibility is that factors increasing the likelihood of GD
are elevated among those ASD children who are gender
nonconforming. Cross-gender behavior and identity has a
familial (Go
´mez-Gil et al. 2010; VanderLaan et al. 2013a,
b), possibly genetic (Alanko et al. 2010; Heylens et al.
2012), component. It is also associated with excesses of
older brothers in natal males and excesses of older sisters
in natal females (Blanchard et al. 1995; Schagen et al.
2012; VanderLaan et al. 2014a; Zucker et al. 1997). With
respect to psychological correlates, GD is frequently
comorbid with internalizing problems such as depression
and anxiety (for review, see Zucker et al. 2014). Regarding
this last point, in a sample of children with neurodevel-
opmental disorders (ASD or Attention-Deficit Hyperac-
tivity Disorder), internalizing problems were indeed
elevated among those who expressed cross-sex wishes
compared to those who did not (Strang et al. 2014).
Similarly, in the present study, those GD children with
clinical-range autistic traits had elevated behavioral and
emotional problems, as indicated by CBCL total Tscores.
Future research should, therefore, continue to consider
whether these factors characterize the backgrounds of
ASD children who exhibit marked gender nonconformity
as well as those of GD children who exhibit traits of
Rather than ASD contributing to GD in a direct fashion
as described above, an alternative hypothesis is that high
birth weight is a proxy for some process that indirectly
influences both gender nonconformity and traits of ASD.
That is, high birth weight might be associated with ASD for
reasons such as those noted above while its association
with GD is due to some other circumstance(s). For exam-
ple, high birth weight is inversely associated with prenatal
testosterone exposure (Carlsen et al. 2006). In males, lower
levels of prenatal testosterone exposure are associated with
decreased gender-typical play behavior (Lamminma
et al. 2012), possibly because low testosterone exposure
leads to less masculinization and/or defeminization in
neural regions that influence sexually dimorphic behavior.
Thus, in natal males of relatively high birth weight, GD
may be a consequence of lower prenatal testosterone
Because high birth weight is associated with lower tes-
tosterone (Carlsen et al. 2006), and lower testosterone is
associated with greater female-typical play behavior in
females (Lamminma
¨ki et al. 2012), it seems unlikely that
the GD–ASD link in females would be similarly owing to
prenatal testosterone exposure. Instead, some alternate
explanation should be sought. For example, research has
shown male biases for both ASD (e.g., Blumberg et al.
2013; Dodds et al. 2011; Fombonne 2005) and relatively
higher birth weight (e.g., Co
´et al. 2003). When present in
natal females, these traits may reflect a pattern of male-
typical prenatal development. Indeed, higher birth weight
in females has been associated with masculinized somatic
features such as greater anogenital distance (i.e., the dis-
tance between the anus and the fourchette) (Avidime et al.
2011). If such masculinization extends to neural regions
that underlie sexually dimorphic behavior, then that might
help explain elevated gender nonconformity among high
birth weight natal females with GD.
Table 3 Multiple logistic regression comparing clinical versus non-
clinical range cases
BSE ßtvalue pvalue
Control variables
Age .005 .022 .03 .25 .805
Sex .012 .131 .01 .10 .925
IQ -.007 .004 -.21 -1.91 .062
CBCL total Tscore .031 .005 .66 5.76 \.001
Model 1: birth weight
Birth weight .398 .174 .41 2.29 .027
Sex 9birth weight -.301 .206 -.83 -1.47 .150
Model 2: gender nonconformity
Gender nonconformity .752 .366 .93 2.06 .046
Sex 9gender
-.672 .377 -1.49 -1.79 .082
Model 3: birth weight 9gender nonconformity
Birth weight 9gender
.102 .041 .57 2.48 .017
Sex 9birth
weight 9gender
-.079 .046 -.64 -1.73 .091
J Autism Dev Disord (2015) 45:1742–1750 1747
Future Directions
It is important to note that the various hypotheses described
above to account for the GD–ASD link are not necessarily
mutually exclusive. The processes related to these
hypotheses may interact with one another. Another possi-
bility is that each of these hypotheses applies to some
subset of children who exhibit traits of ASD and GD.
Future research may help discern which is the case.
Interestingly, our data showed a marginally significant
interaction between birth weight, gender nonconformity,
and sex in the prediction of autistic traits. Specifically, this
interaction suggested that the relationship between birth
weight, gender nonconformity, and autistic traits might be
stronger among natal females. If so, then different pro-
cesses might influence the GD–ASD link in natal males
versus females. Alternatively, the GD–ASD link in natal
males and females might be underpinned by the same or
similar processes, but the magnitude of the effects of high
birth weight on gender nonconformity and autistic traits
might be greater among natal females. This speculation is
based on a small sample of nine natal females clinically
referred for GD and future research on larger samples of
such females is needed before firm conclusions can be
In addition to examining the sexes separately, future
research regarding the GD–ASD link should consider using
dimensional metrics of autistic traits such as the SRS as
well as formal diagnostic criteria. To date, only the study
by de Vries et al. (2010) considered formal diagnostic
criteria of both conditions. In that study, many of the 16
youth referred for GD who were classified as having ASD
were only subthreshold for a diagnosis of Gender Identity
Disorder, the formal DSM-IV diagnosis that preceded GD
in DSM-5. Even though it is based on a small number of
cases, this tendency appears to be somewhat at odds with
the current study, which showed that traits of ASD were
associated with greater gender nonconformity. As such, it
is necessary to question whether the present findings
regarding high birth weight would hold in the context of
formal diagnoses. If so, then the various hypotheses
described above regarding the significance of high birth
weight for the GD–ASD link would be tenable across the
autism spectrum. If not, then it might be the case that
processes related to high birth weight contribute to an
association between gender nonconformity and autistic
traits, but alternate explanations must be sought for cases
in which patients satisfy a formal diagnosis of ASD. Such
an examination was not possible in the current study given
sample size limitations; however, future studies employing
larger samples may be better able to address these issues.
Lastly, the existing studies examining the GD–ASD link
either lacked a clinical comparison group (present study; de
Vries et al. 2010; Jones et al. 2012; Pasterski et al. 2014)or
did not employ comprehensive measures of GD (Strang
et al. 2014) or ASD (VanderLaan et al. 2014b). Further
understanding may, therefore, be gained by examining
comprehensive measures of ASD in a comparison group of
children clinically referred for reasons unrelated to GD or
ASD. Such a comparison group would help establish
whether increased prevalence of ASD is unique to the GD
population. Also, a comparison group would make it pos-
sible to evaluate whether an increased presence of ASD
risk factors such as high birth weight among GD individ-
uals accounts for any potential group differences in autistic
Clinical Implications
There is currently no consensus regarding best practice
when treating children with GD (Zucker 2008); however,
one’s clinical formulation regarding the bases of GD in a
given child may help direct treatment approaches (Van-
derLaan and Zucker in press). This article outlined
hypotheses that may account for GD among children who
show traits of ASD and, thus, may also have implications
for therapeutic strategies. For example, in the course of
psychological therapy, one may wish to explore whether
traits of ASD such as intense/obsessional interests or social
communication deficits contribute to a child’s gender
schema and, ultimately, his or her cross-gender behavior
and identity. If so, it would be useful to evaluate the
likelihood that such ASD traits will continue to do so,
especially in light of case studies reporting the desistence
of GD among ASD youth (Robinow 2009; Parkinson
2014). Alternatively, if the presence of traits of ASD is
reflective of exposure to factors that affected prenatal
sexual differentiation of neural areas influencing sexually
dimorphic behavior, then traits of ASD may have little or
no impact on co-occurring GD. In such a circumstance,
ASD may be a treatment consideration, but not necessarily
the focus. Instead, one may focus more directly on
addressing the lack of congruence between the experienced
gender identity and the one assigned at birth.
The present findings identified relatively high birth weight
as an important clue that may help explain the link between
GD and ASD in children. This study is the first to inves-
tigate and identify somatic features (i.e., birth weight) that
circumscribe the set of mechanisms that might account for
this link. Specifically, a number of factors associated with
relatively high birth weight could plausibly influence both
GD and ASD either directly or indirectly. Such factors
1748 J Autism Dev Disord (2015) 45:1742–1750
include neuropsychological abnormalities that influence
ASD behaviors; these behaviors may then subsequently
contribute to GD. It is also possible that while high birth
weight affects brain areas related to ASD, it also reflects
exposure to low levels of prenatal testosterone in natal
males and somatic masculinization in natal females. It is,
therefore, also reasonable to speculate that these latter
processes contribute to GD among the subset of children
who exhibit both GD and traits of ASD. Detailing which of
these hypotheses, or similarly plausible hypotheses, pro-
vides an adequate explanation for the GD–ASD link has
important clinical implications in terms of informing
treatment approaches. Thus, future research is needed to
discern whether these hypotheses are indeed accurate.
Acknowledgments D.P.V. was supported by a Canadian Institutes
of Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship. We thank two anony-
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... But in Leef et al. (2019), the same parent-report measure of emotional and behavioral symptoms was correlated with measures of ASD symptoms in both a gender diverse and a control group, meaning that social impairment was associated with emotional and behavioral problems across groups of school-aged children (Leef et al., 2019). While not a focus of the study itself, Vanderlaan et al. (2015) also found more parent-reported emotional and behavioral problems among gender diverse youth with clinical-range symptoms of ASD (Vanderlaan et al., 2015), affirming this link when symptoms of ASD are assessed, rather than an actual diagnosis. ...
... But in Leef et al. (2019), the same parent-report measure of emotional and behavioral symptoms was correlated with measures of ASD symptoms in both a gender diverse and a control group, meaning that social impairment was associated with emotional and behavioral problems across groups of school-aged children (Leef et al., 2019). While not a focus of the study itself, Vanderlaan et al. (2015) also found more parent-reported emotional and behavioral problems among gender diverse youth with clinical-range symptoms of ASD (Vanderlaan et al., 2015), affirming this link when symptoms of ASD are assessed, rather than an actual diagnosis. ...
... In summary, gender diverse youth and youth with ASD both appear to experience elevated rates of anxiety, and social deficits worsen with anxiety, with and without an ASD diagnosis. Over half of the aforementioned studies indicated a clear relationship between anxiety and social impairment among gender diverse youth, regardless of whether youth (Mahfouda et al., 2019;van der Miesen et al., 2018b) or parents (Leef et al., 2019;Vanderlaan et al., 2015) reported anxiety symptoms. The same was true whether participants had an ASD diagnosis (Mahfouda et al., 2019;van der Miesen et al., 2018b) or ASD symptoms (Leef et al., 2019;Vanderlaan et al., 2015). ...
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... There were four mentions of this theory and no claims of evidence for or against it. All four papers (Janssen et al., 2016;Nabbijohn et al., 2019;van der Miesen et al., 2018a, Zucker et al., 2017 cited the same study by Vanderlaan et al. (2015). In this study, Vanderlaan et al. (2015) found that high birth weight was associated with high autistic traits and high gender nonconformity. ...
... All four papers (Janssen et al., 2016;Nabbijohn et al., 2019;van der Miesen et al., 2018a, Zucker et al., 2017 cited the same study by Vanderlaan et al. (2015). In this study, Vanderlaan et al. (2015) found that high birth weight was associated with high autistic traits and high gender nonconformity. ...
... Still, several authors made their arguments based on other studies. For example, Zucker et al. (2017) argued for the role of prenatal hormones by referring to Vanderlaan et al. (2015), who suggested that risk factors for ASC were associated with lower prenatal testosterone levels in trans AMABs. In contrast with this, George and Stokes (2018) with ASC traits. ...
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... Mechanisms leading to the co-occurrence of ASD and GV are unclear. Some research suggests that ASD and GV might be simultaneously influenced by developmental processes related to high birth weight (VanderLaan, Leef, Wood, Hughes, & Zucker, 2015). Other research indicates the GV may be associated with neurodevelopmental and childhood psychiatric disorders more generally, rather than with ASD specifically (May, Pang, & Williams, 2016). ...
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... Indeed, it has been estimated that under 30% of people with ASC are actively and exclusively heterosexual [44.45]. This is no great surprise given the fact that many people with ASC struggle with their identity in many areas from an early age, and many feel rejected by main-stream society for one reason or another by adulthood [46]. EDs are extremely frequent among people with ASC and gender fluidity, which has now been suggested as a further specific factor in the development of food-related issues [47]. ...
Introduction: Eating Disorders (EDs) are increasingly recognised as a common comorbid condition in autistic spectrum condition (ASC). The diagnosis of ASC may be delayed in those who present with EDs, especially in females who account for 90% of such presentations. They often mask autistic symptoms by copying their neurotypical peers. This can have adverse consequences, as standard therapeutic approaches to the management of EDs are often ineffective at achieving complete recovery in those with ASC, even among those whose body weight is restored. Methods: We reviewed the recent literature to explore the common factors defining ED’s in ASC and illustrated this with examples from those with lived experience to define potential for therapeutic strategies. Results: Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is the commonest subtype of ED in ASC and is contributed to by a high prevalence of associated gastrointestinal disorders. Anxiety over sensory issues with taste and smell are often a significant factor. Biosocial factors such as cognitive rigidity, obsession, compulsion and rigidity are also important. The role of specific issues such as alexithymia, hyperactivity, rejection sensitive dysphoria, personality disorder and gender dysphoria has been previously understated. EDs are likely to be less to do with body image and more to be a consequence of rigid or ritualistic behaviour patterns driven by ASC. Conclusions: Treatment approaches must account for the unique challenges faced by this group. Art and drama therapy may be of help. Cognitive Remediation Therapy, dietitian-led interventions and clinician/carer/patient education have been proposed but have not yet been trialled extensively. We recommend that involvement of those with lived experience of these conditions is an essential part of treatment planning
... Mechanisms leading to the co-occurrence of ASD and GV are unclear. Some research suggests that ASD and GV might be simultaneously influenced by developmental processes related to high birth weight (VanderLaan, Leef, Wood, Hughes, & Zucker, 2015). Other research indicates the GV may be associated with neurodevelopmental and childhood psychiatric disorders more generally, rather than with ASD specifically (May, Pang, & Williams, 2016). ...
... To examine the prevalence of ASD caseness in GD/GI cohorts, researchers have relied on cutoff scores from ASD screening questionnaires. Studies have shown that the positive rates for ASD range from 14.5 to 68% in GD/GI children and adolescents (Akgül et al., 2018;Leef et al., 2019;Mahfouda et al., 2019;Shumer et al., 2016;Skagerberg et al., 2015;VanderLaan, Leef, et al., 2015;van der Miesen, de Vries, et al., 2018) and from 1.2 to 40.3% in GD/GI adults (Heylens et al., 2018;Jones et al., 2012;Kristensen & Broome, 2015;Lehmann et al., 2020;Murphy et al., 2020;Nobili et al., 2018;Nobili et al., 2020;Pasterski et al., 2014;Stagg & Vincent, 2019;Vermaat et al., 2018). However, the incidence of ASD caseness ranges widely depending on the cutoff scores used. ...
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The suggested overlap between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and gender dysphoria/incongruence (GD/GI) has been much disputed. This review showed a relationship between ASD traits and GD feelings in the general population and a high prevalence of GD/GI in ASD. Our meta-analyses revealed that the pooled estimate of the prevalence of ASD diagnoses in GD/GI people was 11% (p < .001) and the overall effect size of the difference in ASD traits between GD/GI and control people was significant (g = 0.67, p < .001). Heterogeneity was high in both meta-analyses. We demonstrated that the chances that there is not a link between ASD and GD/GI are negligible, yet the size of it needs further investigation.
The common intersection of autism and transgender identities has been described in clinical and community contexts. This study investigates autism-related neurophenotypes among transgender youth. Forty-five transgender youth, evenly balanced across non-autistic, slightly subclinically autistic, and full-criteria autistic subgroupings, completed resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine functional connectivity. Results confirmed hypothesized default mode network (DMN) hub hyperconnectivity with visual and motor networks in autism, partially replicating previous studies comparing cisgender autistic and non-autistic adolescents. The slightly subclinically autistic group differed from both non-autistic and full-criteria autistic groups in DMN hub connectivity to ventral attention and sensorimotor networks, falling between non-autistic and full-criteria autistic groups. Autism traits showed a similar pattern to autism-related group analytics, and also related to hyperconnectivity between DMN hub and dorsal attention network. Internalizing, gender dysphoria, and gender minority-related stigma did not show connectivity differences. Connectivity differences within DMN followed previously reported patterns by designated sex at birth (i.e. female birth designation showing greater within-DMN connectivity). Overall, findings suggest behavioral diagnostics and autism traits in transgender youth correspond to observable differences in DMN hub connectivity. Further, this study reveals novel neurophenotypic characteristics associated with slightly subthreshold autism, highlighting the importance of research attention to this group.
Gender diversity appears to have a bimodal presentation. For many individuals, understanding of gender identity evolves in early childhood and for others, in adolescence—often spurred by unwanted pubertal changes. Some individuals with gender diversity may experience gender dysphoria that leads to or exacerbates depression and anxiety. The role of the mental health professional is to support and assist individuals to develop the skills necessary to thrive during gender transition.KeywordsGender dysphoriaMental health professionalsAutism spectrum disorderDepressionAnxietySuicide
Some Christians are anxious and uncomfortable about gender diversity and transition. Sometimes, they understand these issues as a rejection of God's intention for creation. Gender diversity has also been assumed to entail self-deception, mental ill-health, and dysphoria. Yet, humans are inherently transformative creatures with a vocation to shape their own worlds and traditions. Transformative creaturely theology recognizes the capacity of gender to shape humans even as we also question it. In this book, Susannah Cornwall reframes the issues of gender diversity and transition in constructive Christian theological terms. Resisting deficit-based discourses, she presents gender diversity in a way that is positive and non-oppositional. Her volume explores questions of the licit limits of technological interventions for human bodies, how gender diversity maps onto understandings of health, and the ethics of disclosure of gender diversity. It also brings these topics into critical conversation with constructive Christian theologies of creation, theological anthropology, Christology, and eschatology.
Gender transition may be figured as part of a broader creaturely process of being partners in our own becoming. Gender transition is explored through the lenses of transformation (including comparisons with theosis and with religious conversion) and neurodiversity. Humans are transformative creatures; trans and gender‐variant people, like others, have the power to curate their own identities and are on a journey toward perfection. Our nature as humans, including our sexed and gendered nature, is not over‐and‐done‐with. In this sense, our active building and shaping of our identities and body‐stories is not a rejection of a divine blueprint for human existence, nor an exercise of illegitimate human hubris, but rather a licit creaturely form of generativity.
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Background. Despite the widely-held understanding that the biological changes that lead to autism usually occur during prenatal life, there has been relatively little research into the functional development of the brain during early infancy in individuals later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Objective. This review explores the studies over the last three years which have investigated differences in various brain regions in individuals with ASD or who later go on to receive a diagnosis of ASD. Methods. We used PRISMA guidelines and selected published articles reporting any neurological abnormalities in very early childhood in individuals with or later diagnosed with ASD. Results. Various brain regions are discussed including the amygdala, cerebellum, frontal cortex, and lateralised abnormalities of the temporal cortex during language processing. This review discusses studies investigating head circumference, electrophysiological markers, and interhemispheric synchronisation. All of the recent findings from the beginning of 2009 across these different aspects of defining neurological abnormalities are discussed in light of earlier findings. Conclusions. The studies across these different areas reveal the existence of atypicalities in the first year of life, well before ASD is reliably diagnosed. Cross-disciplinary approaches are essential to elucidate the pathophysiological sequence of events that lead to ASD.
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This chapter reviews empirical data on the extent to which children and adolescents with gender dysphoria show other types of psychopathology or behavior problems. It then reviews several models that have attempted to account for this psychopathology when it is present. Several factors have been reasonably established as accounting for at least some of the variance in general psychopathology, including peer social ostracism, cultural factors, and generic risk factors for psychopathology in the family. Surprisingly, little empirical attention has been given to the possibility that gender dysphoria is inherently distressing and thus is another source of the socioemotional problems that children and adolescents with this diagnosis experience.
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Background Excessive gestational weight gain (GWG) is associated with pregnancy complications, and Norwegian Health Authorities have adopted the GWG recommendations of the US Institute of Medicine and National Research Council (IOM). The aim of this study was to evaluate if a GWG outside the IOM recommendation in a Norwegian population is associated with increased risk of pregnancy complications like hypertension, low and high birth weight, preeclampsia, emergency caesarean delivery, and maternal post-partum weight retention (PPWR) at 6 and 18 months. Methods This study was performed in 56 101 pregnant women included in the prospective national Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa) in the years 1999 to 2008. Women who delivered a singleton live born child during gestational week 37 to 42 were included. Maternal prepregnant and postpartum weight was collected from questionnaires at 17th week of gestation and 6 and 18 months postpartum. Results A weight gain less than the IOM recommendations (GWG < IOM rec.) increased the risk for giving birth to a low weight baby among normal weight nulliparous women. A weight gain higher than the IOM recommendations (GWG > IOM rec.) significantly increased the risk of pregnancy hypertension, a high birth weight baby, preeclampsia and emergency cesarean delivery in both nulliparous and parous normal weight women. Similar results were found for overweight women except for no increased risk for gestational hypertension in parous women with GWG > IOM rec. Seventy-four percent of the overweight nulliparous women and 66% of the obese women had a GWG > IOM rec. A GWG > IOM rec. resulted in increased risk of PPWR > 2 kg in all weight classes, but most women attained their prepregnant weight class by 18 months post-partum. Conclusions For prepregnant normal weight and overweight women a GWG > IOM rec. increased the risk for unfavorable birth outcomes in both nulliparous and parous women. A GWG > IOM rec. increased the risk of a PPWR > 2 kg at 18 months in all weight classes. This large study supports the Norwegian Health authorities’ recommendations for normal weight and overweight women to comply with the IOM rec.
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In adult male samples, homosexuality is associated with a preponderance of older brothers (i.e., the fraternal birth order effect). In several studies comparing gender dysphoric youth, who are likely to be homosexual in adulthood, to clinical or non-clinical control groups, the findings have been consistent with the fraternal birth order effect in males; however, less is known about unique sibship characteristics of gender dysphoric females. The current study investigated birth order and sibling sex ratio in a large sample of children and adolescents referred to the same Gender Identity Service (N = 768). Probands were classified as heterosexual males, homosexual males, or homosexual females based on clinical diagnostic information. Groups differed significantly in age and sibship size, and homosexual females were significantly more likely to be only children. Subsequent analyses controlled for age and for sibship size. Compared to heterosexual males, homosexual males had a significant preponderance of older brothers and homosexual females had a significant preponderance of older sisters. Similarly, the older sibling sex ratio of homosexual males showed a significant excess of brothers whereas that of homosexual females showed a significant excess of sisters. Like previous studies of gender dysphoric youth and adults, these findings were consistent with the fraternal birth order effect. In addition, the greater frequency of only children and elevated numbers of older sisters among the homosexual female group adds to a small literature on sibship characteristics of potential relevance to the development of gender identity and sexual orientation in females.
Gender Dysphoria (GD) is a complex and most probably multifactorially caused condition and it is increasingly a matter of interest in the media and scientific literature. In particular, it is expressed by a significant discomfort that is usually associated with the incongruence between natal sex and gender identity and it represents a dimensional phenomenon that can occur with different degrees of intensity. The most extreme form of GD is usually accompanied by a desire for gender reassignment (GR). GD can have an early onset, since preschool age, with extremely variable and hard to predict clinical outcomes. Etiopathogenic theories are still uncertain and no specific etiological factor determining atypical gender development has been found to date, but there seems to be an increasing evidence of a biologic and/or genetic component involved. Professionals that deal with this kind of issues need to be able to recognize gender variant youth in order to perform an early assessment, to support awareness and structuring of sexual identity dimensions, to prevent associated psychopathology (if present), and consequently to improve the quality of life. Despite international guidelines being available, treatment of gender dysphoric children and adolescents is still controversial and there is currently poor consensus on psychological and medical intervention. Specialized GD services appear to be important in order to prevent suffering and distress and ensure psychosocial wellbeing of gender variant children/adolescents and their families. Aim of this chapter is to deal with psychological, medical and ethic aspects related to GD in children and adolescents, and to provide an overview of current debates and clinical options available internationally.
The purpose of this review is to summarize studies that have examined associations between maternal adiposity prior to and during pregnancy and cognitive and psychiatric problems in offspring. Of the 11 studies published since a 2011 systematic review, four examined cognitive outcomes alone, four assessed psychopathology exclusively, and three reported on both cognitive and psychiatric endpoints. Ten studies provided evidence of a link. These data suggest that the offspring of women who are overweight or obese during pregnancy are at increased risk for cognitive deficits, externalizing problems (particularly attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), and internalizing psychopathology in childhood and adolescence; however, the effect sizes were small to medium and a definitive causal association remains to be proven.
Objectives: This report presents data on the prevalence of diagnosed autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as reported by parents of school-aged children (ages 6-17 years) in 2011-2012. Prevalence changes from 2007 to 2011-2012 were evaluated using cohort analyses that examine the consistency in the 2007 and 2011-2012 estimates for children whose diagnoses could have been reported in both surveys (i.e., those born in 1994-2005 and diagnosed in or before 2007). Data sources: Data were drawn from the 2007 and 2011-2012 National Survey of Children's Health (NSCH), which are independent nationally representative telephone surveys of households with children. The surveys were conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics with funding and direction from the Health Resources and Services Administration's Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Results: The prevalence of parent-reported ASD among children aged 6-17 was 2.00% in 2011-2012, a significant increase from 2007 (1.16%). The magnitude of the increase was greatest for boys and for adolescents aged 14-17. Cohort analyses revealed consistent estimates of both the prevalence of parent-reported ASD and autism severity ratings over time. Children who were first diagnosed in or after 2008 accounted for much of the observed prevalence increase among school-aged children (those aged 6-17). School-aged children diagnosed in or after 2008 were more likely to have milder ASD and less likely to have severe ASD than those diagnosed in or before 2007. Conclusions: The results of the cohort analyses increase confidence that differential survey measurement error over time was not a major contributor to observed changes in the prevalence of parent-reported ASD. Rather, much of the prevalence increase from 2007 to 2011-2012 for school-aged children was the result of diagnoses of children with previously unrecognized ASD.