An "extreme male brain" theory of autism

News & Politics

Any scientific theory positing innate biological differences between men and women always makes me a little nervous -- and reminds me of how little intellectual work I've done on figuring out where I stand on the issue of gender differences. The crass and absurdly sexist generalizations of Larry Sumner aside, Simon Baron-Cohen's essay in the Times offers a provocative and far more nuanced view of the male and female brain, including a related hypothesis about autism:


In my work I have summarized these differences by saying that males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize. Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those feelings with an appropriate emotion of one's own. ...
It has also been found that the amount of prenatal testosterone, which is produced by the fetus and measurable in the amniotic fluid in which the baby is bathed in the womb, predicts how sociable a child will be. The higher the level of prenatal testosterone, the less eye contact the child will make as a toddler, and the slower the child will develop language. That is connected to the role of fetal testosterone in influencing brain development.
Males obviously produce far more prenatal testosterone than females do, but levels vary considerably even across members of the same sex. In fact, it may not be your sex per se that determines what kind of brain you have, but your prenatal hormone levels. From there it's a short leap to the intriguing idea that a male can have a typically female brain (if his testosterone levels are low), while a female can have a typically male brain (if her testosterone levels are high). ...
What does all this have to do with autism? According to what I have called the "extreme male brain" theory of autism, people with autism simply match an extreme of the male profile, with a particularly intense drive to systemize and an unusually low drive to empathize. [LINK]

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