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Extreme male brain theory of autism: extremely smart or extremely sexist?

The “extreme male brain” theory of autism sounds like the setup for a men-are-from-Mars-type joke, and sometimes it is. At the Geneva Centre’s autism symposium in Toronto two weeks ago, speaker Peter Gerhardt prompted a few chuckles from his mostly female audience just mentioning this idea: that autism, a developmental disorder characterized by social and communication impediments, is an amplification of typical male brain behaviour.

It’s more than a punchline, though. A notable autism researcher, Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge, described the idea in a 2002 paper which has since been cited 688 times, according to Google Scholar. He’s also authored a book called “The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism.”

In the paper, Baron-Cohen defines empathizing as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion.” Systemizing, meanwhile, is “the drive to analyse the variables in a system, to derive the underlying rules that govern the behaviour of a system," plus the drive to construct systems and control them.

On tests that measure ability to read facial expressions and discern emotions – empathize – women score best, men score worse, and people with autism score the lowest, says Baron-Cohen. But people with autism often have specific abilities in fields like math or chess, and prefer rule-based information – systemizing.

In an article in The Guardian, Baron-Cohen wrote that a “key feature” of the theory is that a person’s sex doesn’t necessarily determine what kind of brain they have: men can have empathizing brains, and women can have systemizing brains. But, he says, on average, more men have the “male” type of brain than women, and vice-versa.

He cites as evidence the anecdotal impression that “Men are more likely to spend an hour happily engaged in motorbike maintenance, light aircraft piloting, sailing,” and other hobbies that involve systems. “Women are more likely to spend hours happily engaged in coffee morning or pot-luck supper, advising friends on relationship problems,” or caring for loved ones and pets. In the 2002 paper, he also cites several studies, including one that supposedly showed women value reciprocal relationships while men value “power, politics, and competition.” That study, however, is more than three decades old, as are several others he cites to prove the brain-gender divide.

A lot of this is probably making feminists scream, and Baron-Cohen does say that culture and socialization play a role in determining why the male and female brains are the way he says they are. But he thinks that biology partially determines it too.

The theory is not without its scientific detractors. “What are the implications for women with autism – that they’re really men?” says Susan Bryson, who holds the Craig Chair in Autism Research at the IWK Health Centre and Dalhousie University in Halifax. The current ratio of boys diagnosed with autism vs girls is 4:1.

Bryson says there is very little evidence to support the extreme male-brain theory.

“It’s sexy. It captures the attention of people. That doesn’t mean it’s sensible,” she says. 

Whatever your feelings, the theory throws up a lot of questions about women on the autism spectrum. 


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  • Welcome to the Toronto Star's autism blog, a daily amalgam of breaking news stories, features, trends and ideas flowing from our Autism Project. The blog is written by Star reporters: Kate Allen, Andrea Gordon, Laurie Monsebraaten, Kris Rushowy, Leslie Scrivener, and Tanya Talaga.

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