Autism Theory on Brains Sparks Debate

More on Baron-Cohen’s work.
By Ron Todt of the Associated Press

Cambridge University professor Simon Baron-Cohen thinks he knows why autism strikes four times as many boys as girls, but his theory of general differences between male and female brains has generated quite a bit of debate.

Baron-Cohen theorizes that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems – although he is quick to note that
the rule doesn’t always hold true.

According to his “empathizing-systemizing” theory, autism – a neurological disorder that affects social interaction and communication – and the possibly related Asperger syndrome are extreme male versions of the brain.

“What seems to be core (to autism) is an empathy problem alongside a
very strong drive to systemize,” he told an audience of about 150 people
Wednesday at an autism conference by the Bancroft Neuroscience Institute.
Baron-Cohen cites evidence from questionnaires, psychological tests and observations of very young children showing early sex differences. Even
day-old baby boys, for example, are more likely to look longer at a mechanical mobile, while girls look longer at a person’s face.

Autistic-type disorders, he said, appear to be an extreme version of the male brain. What causes such a shift is unclear, he said, but possible candidates include genetic differences and prenatal testosterone. High levels of fetal testosterone mean less eye contact on the part of infants, and Canadian researchers have found that such levels mean better scores on systemizing tests, he said.

Baron-Cohen said his ideas and his new book “The Essential Difference:
The Truth About the Male and Female Brain,” had been greeted with interest
rather than the hostility he feared after “decades of political correctness”
in which the idea of any biological sex differences was anathema.

“Some individuals have contacted me to say that this kind of work is
politically dangerous, so that reaction is still there,” he said.

“Typically the individuals who are worried by this approach haven’t actually looked at the details of the science.”

He emphasized that the male and female brains exist only on average.
“It would be a great shame if people took home the idea that all males
think one way and all females think the other way,” he said. Instead,
educators should assess each individual child to see if, for example, they
are good at math but may have trouble on the playground, he said.
Researchers have come up with educational software to try to help raise the emotional abilities of autistic children, and a study of the approach should be finished in the next few months, he said.

Martha R. Herbert, an assistant professor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, said Baron-Cohen’s observations were interesting, but still had not identified a biological process responsible for autism.

“As to whether there’s some core thing about male or femaleness that’s
related to autism, I doubt it,” she said. “I think that it just distracts attention from getting at some of the more core issues of how the disorder works both psychologically and biologically.”

A British researcher, for example, has found that the sex ratio was equal in autistic blind children, and that there is a different sex ratio in high IQ versus low IQ people with autism. “So it’s not just a male thing; there’s something else going on,” she said.

Work focusing on high levels of testosterone may be more revealing, but is still not the end of the story, Herbert said.

“The testosterone may be facilitating something rather than causing it,” she said.

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