Welcome to day 24 in the A to Z Challenge on autism. Today, I have cheated a little because my word for the X post doesn’t really start with an X. Then again, many bloggers participating in the challenge choose words for their X posts that start with “ex”. Today’s topic is the extreme male theory of autism. I might even try to find something on genetics so that the X and Y chromosomes, which determine a person’s sex, will be involved.
As I said yesterday, autism spectrum disorders are thought to be more common in boys and men than women and girls. Leo Kanner concluded this already in his initial study of autism in 1943, and Hans Asperger initially thought that the condition he described only affects males.
Not only is autism, and particularly Asperger’s Syndrome, still thought to occur more commonly in males than females, but researchers also believe that there is something “male ad then some” about autism. Asperger himself wrote that the boys he described might display something that is akin to a more extreme variant of male intelligence. Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism researcher in Cambridge, has therefore developed a theory by which autism is described as an “extreme male brain”.
Compared to females, even typically developing males have strengths in mathematical and spatial reasoning and weaknesses in social judgment, empaty and imaginiative play. They are also at a higher risk for delayed language development.
Baron-Cohen and his colleagues have developed a model to test their theory which divides the way the brain operates into two major areas: systemizing and empathizing. Systemizing refers to the drive to analyze or construct systems, whereas empathizing refers to the drive to understand other people’s emotions and thoughts.
The extreme male theory of autism views people with autism spectrum disorders ans hyper-systemizers. They are very much interested in non-human, rule-bound systems. This might seem like an idea that only applies to higher-functioning autistics, but it is thougth that in lower-functioning autisticcs, hypersystemizing might show itself in for example collecting and organizing buttons or suchlike.
On the other hand, autistic people would show weaknesses in social judgment, such as figuring out social cues, understanding what another person is feeling and grasping social hierarchies.
There is a theory that says that higher testosterone (male sex hormone) levels while in the womb lead to a more male-like profile on the systemizing-empathizing dichotomy, ie. higher systemizing scores and lower empathizing scores. Lower testosterone levels in the womb are thought to lead to a more empathizing-oriented brain style. This however has not been proven to explain autism. Further research in this area is needed.
Do you want to know whether you’re more of an empathizer or a systemizer? There is a test which gives you a score on both of these scales. My own empathizing score was 20 while my systemizing score was 30. Both are below-average.