Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen is one of the most respected voices in the world today on the subject of Autism. As Vice-President of the National Autistic Society he developed the theory of the Extreme Male Brain in 2002, defining autism as ‘an extreme of the normal male profile.’
General scientific causes given in relation to increased risks of autism include genetic, environmental, low birth weight and being born to older parents, but Baron-Cohen proposed that the male brain has a tendency towards pattern recognition, or ‘systemizing’ while the female brain is better able to read others’ emotional states, or ‘empathise.’ In people with autism, however, both male and female brains tend to be at the systemizing end of the continuum, thereby possessing an ‘extreme male brain.’
It is thought the possible origin of these tendencies is exposure to elevated levels of sex steroid hormones, such as testosterone, in utero. Brain-imaging studies have revealed correlations to this effect, demonstrating how excess testosterone can alter the developing brain in ways that affect thinking patterns. Evidence from a study in 2011 found that giving testosterone to healthy adult females appeared to reduce their ability to read the emotions of others.
However, a new study from the US and Canada challenges suggestions that the male sex hormone testosterone reduces cognitive empathy, or the ability to understand other people’s emotional states, despite lower cognitive empathy being a feature of autism, which is a condition that predominantly affects males. The research proposed it is probably more complex and not as dominating an influence as Baron-Cohen suggests. The study also believes the theory is too reliant on gender stereotypes.
Whatever the outcome of the studies, the extreme male brain theory does not suggest that females with autism have any other male characteristics or tendencies. The Baron-Cohen studies merely show the correlation between a ‘systemizing’ and an ‘empathizing’ brain and that the brains are structurally more similar than those of typical male and female brains. There have been very few studies to date which include transgender and non-binary individuals, and therefore this section of society needs further exploration.
Clearly more research is required, but at the moment, the theory of the extreme male brain has provided at least partial understanding of the potential drivers behind some autistic characteristics.
‘Why fit in when you were born to stand out’
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