The words we use to make sense of the #autistic world

Google Scholar (No Citations) Term Trends Compare Volume Of All Children
Google Scholar (No Citations) Term Trends – Compare Volume Children vs. Boys vs. Girls (with autism and autistic) – only for these terms – plurals

Ever since I sat down to look at what words are being used by researchers to describe autistic people, I’ve been both amazed and unsurprised by the results. I’m amazed at the amount of research that’s been done that talks about “children”, versus explicitly calling out girls and boys. Look at the graphic above — there is just so much research about “children”, whereas research which explictly mentions boys and girls is absolutely dwarfed by the overwhelming volume of “children”-oriented studies. Looking at 2016, when there was an all-time high of 168 papers published about girls on the autism spectrum (with no citations listed), papers about “children” exceeded 20,000. That’s a huge difference.

Now, to be fair, it’s entirely possible that researchers are including explicit mentions of boys and girls in their “children” research. Let’s take a look at the numbers for that.

In 2016, there were 3,959 papers in Google Scholar which included references to “children with autism” +boys+girls, “children with Asperger +boys+girls, and “autistic children” +boys+girls. Take out those numbers, and you still have still 16,061 papers vs. 706 and 164 that are specific to boys and girls on the spectrum, respectively.

The digits look big, but when you look at the volume in a visualization, it tells an even more striking story.

It seems to me, as I mentioned yesterday, that there may very well be a perception that autistic kids can be studied as a whole, with generalizations made about how (what researchers perceive as) “autism” affects kids — and what can be done about it.

But wait – there’s more.

When I change the parameters for the search, and I put the terms in singular, rather than plural (e.g., “boy” and “girl” instead of “boys” and “girls”), I get a different view of things.  Suddenly, the research jumps up about 100-fold.  Instead of 202 papers on “autistic girls”, there are 2,550 papers on “+autistic+girl”. And the same thing happens for boys, as well.

When I expand my search about “children” references to include “+autistic+child” and “+child+with+autism”, it explodes the numbers for children, as well — up to 62,720 studies.

Google Scholar (No Citations) 2016 Research Volume (Boys / Girls / Children)
Google Scholar (No Citations) 2016 Research Volume (Boys / Girls / Children) – Keep in mind that the “children research” can also include references to boys and girls, so there may be some overlap.

So, in the end, it all depends how you look at things — what terms you use to define the discussion, what words you use to explore what others are thinking and prioritizing. And it’s important to dig deeper and not just jump to conclusions about what’s what.

My initial numbers indicated that research on boys was 4x as frequent as research on girls. But if you change the words from plural to singular, you get a very different view. So, as with anything, it’s important to dig deeper, give things more thought, and be open to surprises. What would science be, without its surprises?

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