Autism & Gender

See also:    Girls & Women   

Internet Resources

Unless the stereotypical view that A.S. are by definition sociopathic, or that men by their nature are proto-rapists is corrected, the fundamental problems in relationships, having been incorrectly framed, will remain unresolved.
Bronwen van der Wal
"My new theory is that it's not just a genetic condition, but it might be the result of two particular types of parents, who are both contributing genes. This might be controversially received. This is because there are a number of different theories out there -- one of which is an environmental theory, such as autism being caused by vaccine damage. Another environmental theory is that autism is due to toxic levels of mercury building up in the child's brain. But the genetic theory has a lot of evidence, and what we are now testing is that if two "systemizers" have a child, this will increase the risk of the child having autism. That's it in a nutshell.
Edge Magazine
I want to discuss a different autism gender gap. It gets much less publicity. While most autistics are male, an overwhelming majority of the people working with autistic kids are female.
Dwight Meredith
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.
Are you empathetic? Or are you a systemizer? Thaïs the fundamental difference between women and men, according to a prickly new theory from psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. To him, autism is a case of the extreme male brain.
Robert Kunzig, Psychology Today
As I wrote to my son Tariq, 'I have tried so hard to change you, and in the end it was you who changed me. Instead of becoming the son I wanted you to be you made me become the man I needed to be.'
Robert Naseef
Crying is for girls, according to the childhood taunt. But boys may be more fragile than girls, suggests new research published in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal.
Charnicia Huggins
The ToM hypothesis has explanatory power in relation to the triad symptoms of autism (social, communication, and imagination abnormalities), but has little relevance to the non-triad symptoms (attention to detail, islets of ability, obsessions).
Simon Baron-Cohen
Extensive list of links about the researcher's work.
Children with autism have a relatively shorter index finger (2D) compared with their ring finger (4D). It is often presumed that the 2D:4D ratio is associated with fetal testosterone levels and that high fetal testosterone levels could play a role in the aetiology of autism. It is unknown whether this effect is specific to autism. In this study, 2D:4D ratios of 144 males aged 6 to 14 years (mean age 9y 1mo [SD 1y 11mo]) with psychiatric disorders were compared with those of 96 males aged 6 to 13 years from the general population (mean age 9y 1mo [SD 1y 10mo]). Psychiatric disorders were divided into autism/Asperger syndrome (n=24), pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS; n=26), attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)/oppositional defiant disorder (ODD; n=68), and anxiety disorders (n=26). Males with autism/Asperger syndrome (p<0.05) and ADHD/ODD (p<0.05) had significantly lower (though not significantly; p=0.52) ratios than males with an anxiety disorder, and males with autism/Asperger syndrome had lower ratios than those in the comparison group. These results indicated that higher fetal testosterone levels may play a role, not only in the origin of autism, but also in the aetiology of PDD-NOS and of ADHD/ODD. Males with anxiety disorders might have been exposed to lower prenatal testosterone levels.
EI deBruin et al
Existing mental health services probably do fall short of minimum standards for reaching men, just as they fail to reach many large minority groups.
Harry Kennedy
In this paper I want to go beyond 'theory of mind' (ToM) to talk about the broader capacity for empathy. I then review the evidence for sex differences in empathy (females developing faster, and showing a stronger drive in this, than males). Finally, I raise the possibility that since language acquisition requires not just decoding heard words in a look-up table but identifying the speaker's intended meanings (i.e., the speaker's mental states), a female advantage in empathy could have driven the female advantage in rate of language acquisition.
S. Baron-Cohen
The amygdala, which plays a critical role in emotional learning and social cognition, is structurally and functionally sexually dimorphic in humans. We used magnetic neuroimaging and molecular genetic analyses with healthy subjects and patients possessing X-chromosome anomalies to find dosage-sensitive genes that might influence amygdala development... We show that the thrombocytic activity of MAOB is proportionate to the number of X-chromosomes, and hypothesize that haploinsufficiency of this enzyme in 45,X females predisposes to their deficits in social cognition.
Catriona D. Good et al
Phi Kappa Phi Forum 85:23-26
Simon Baron-Cohen
We investigated the genetic aspects of the large sex bias in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder by monitoring changes in linkage when the family set for an affected sibling pair genome scan is subdivided on the basis of the sex of affected children. This produces a significant excess in the total number of linkage peaks (P=1.3×10-8) and identifies a major male-specific linkage peak at chromosome 17q11 (P<.01). These results suggest that sexual dichotomy is an important factor in the genetics of autism; the same strategy can be used to explore this possibility in other complex disorders that exhibit significant sex biases.
Jennifer L. Stone et al
Our observations suggest that there is a genetic locus for social cognition, which is imprinted and is not expressed from the maternally derived X chromosome.
D.H. Skuse et al
Simon Baron-Cohen, Sally Wheelwright, Richard Griffin, Lawson, Hill
but even
Simon Baron-Cohen
In the general population, you find that, on average, males have a stronger drive to systemize and females have a stronger drive to empathize. Those are the 2 cognitive processes we've been focusing on to try to understand autism and why it should be more common among boys than girls. We've found that people on the autistic spectrum show an exaggeration of the male profile.
Randall White, Medscape
Simon Baron-Cohen
S. Lutchmaya, Simon Baron-Cohen, Raggett
R. Knickmeyer, S. Baron-Cohen, P. Raggatt, K. Taylor
The human male is, on most measures, more vulnerable than the female. A typical attitude to boys is that they are, or must be made, more resilient than girls. This adds 'social insult to biological injury.'
Sebastian Kraemer
In conclusion, the sex differences in close relationships revealed by the FQ in the general population may help us understand conditions like autism or AS not as qualitatively different from anything else we are familiar with but, instead, simply as an extreme of the normal quantitative variation we see in any sample.
Simon Baron-Cohen, Sally Wheelwright
Facial expressions reveal emotion, and imitation of these expressions gives the imitator and understanding of how others feel. Are there gender differences in imitation of facial expressions? 61 male and female students participated in this study, where facial imitation was measured. The smiling (zygomatic) and frowning (corrugator) muscle was measured with EMG, as the participants viewed happy and angry faces. A significant result was found between gender, muscle and stimuli at the longest exposure time (2350 ms). This result showed that females responded with increased activity in the zygomatic muscle when viewing happy faces and more corrugator activity when viewing angry faces. The male participants on the other hand had more zygomatic activity (smiling) when viewing both happy and angry faces.
Sara Helland
Rebecca Stowe, David Arnold, Camilo Ortiz
Sex differences in play are apparent in a number of mammalian species, including humans. Prenatal testosterone may contribute to these differences. The authors report the first attempt to correlate gender-typed play in a normative sample of humans with measurements of amniotic testosterone (aT). Testosterone was measured in the amniotic fluid of 53 children (31 boys and 22 girls). A strong sex difference was observed in aT and, at ages 4.75 to 5.8 years, on a modified version of the Child Game Participation Questionnaire. Hierarchical regression analyses on the entire group and within-sex correlations suggested that variations in aT did not contribute to individual differences in game participation as reported by the mother. A critique of explanations for this finding is presented.
R. Knickmeyer, S. Baron- Cohen, S. Wheelwright
Girls might outdo boys at some social skills and be less vulnerable to autism because of a gene they inherit from their fathers, apparently fine-tuning part of the brain involved in social abilities, like interpreting facial expressions and body language
Malcolm Ritter
Thousands of girls who suffer from a recognised medical condition are going untreated and branded as problem children because teachers and health experts are failing to spot their symptoms. Child psychologist Dr Svenny Kopp, a leading expert in the field of developmental disorders in children, has said that a lack of awareness of the prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among girls is damaging the lives of an untold number of young people.
By Baron-Cohen's account, autism is just an exaggerated version of the male profile—an extreme fondness for rule-based systems, coupled with an inability to intuit people's feelings and intentions.
Geoffrey Cowley
The relative sociability and nonviolence of women is not purely cultural in origin. The domination of technology by men is not purely the result of social bias.
Gregory Yates
Thesis: the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems. Includes an interactive empathy quotient test and systemising quotient test.
Simon Baron-Cohen
S. Lutchmaya, Simon Baron-Cohen
Small but statistically significant differences persist on specific psychological tests, between males and females. These differences are not true of every male and female. Far from it. The differences only emerge when group means are compared.
Simon Baron-Cohen, Jessica Hammer
Could autism, which is more prevalent in males, be an extreme version of the male's predilection for rules-based systems coupled with an inability to relate to people? How does this theory about autism fit in with other experts' views?
Simon Baron-Cohen
Two big scientific debates have attracted a lot of attention over the past year. One concerns the causes of autism, while the other addresses differences in scientific aptitude between the sexes. At the risk of adding fuel to both fires, I submit that these two lines of inquiry have a great deal in common. By studying the differences between male and female brains, we can generate significant insights into the mystery of autism.
Simon Baron-Cohen, New York Times
S. Lutchmaya, S. Baron-Cohen, P. Raggatt, J. T. Manning
Previous studies have suggested gender differences in how the brain works, but the results have been inconsistent. Researchers say many of those studies failed to match male and female participants in terms of performance ability or used different tasks. In the study, published in Brain and Language, researchers attempted to overcome those problems by evaluating the brain utilization patterns of 15 men and 15 women who performed equally well on the same language and visual-spatial tasks. The language task consisted of determining which of two four-letter nonsense word strings rhymed. The visual-spatial task consisted of determining if a pair of yellow lines was in alignment with two highlighted yellow lines displayed among blue lines in a fan pattern. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers found distinct differences between men and women in which parts of the brain were used to complete the tasks.
Jennifer Warner, Medscape
It is Mr. Baron-Cohen's theory about empathy, in particular, that is generating a buzz among researchers and the public alike. His new work, The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain (Perseus Publishing, 2003), suggests that the capacity for empathy is the critical cognitive difference between men and women. He goes on to speculate that the empathy gap between genders could provide a key for understanding autism, which afflicts one in every 250 American children -- the vast majority of them boys, including this reporter's 4-year-old son.
David Cohen
While the notion that autism is some sort of extreme male cognitive style is not entirely new, Simon has sharpened the subject, crystallizing what the particular attributes are when it comes to the autism spectrum, says Ms. Tager-Flusberg.
David Cohen
The gender segregation of autism shows boys are 4 times as likely to be autistic as girls. There are no clear evidential paths that can account for this yet and bearing this in mind, it seems puzzling that mercury could be used as a scapegoat for all incidences of autism as claimed by Generation Rescue and its proponents. Or could it? Does mercury affect boys more than girls?... Seems pretty clear cut though -- there's no gender favouring from mercury. And bearing that in mind, how do we account for all the autistic boys? Where are all the girls?
Kevin Leitch
In the general population, you find that, on average, males have a stronger drive to systemize and females have a stronger drive to empathize. Those are the 2 cognitive processes we've been focusing on to try to understand autism and why it should be more common among boys than girls. We've found that people on the autistic spectrum show an exaggeration of the male profile.
Randall F. White, Medscape
Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University professor of psychology and psychiatry specializing in sex differences and autism, is painfully aware that his theory might alarm some of his readers, causing them to reject it out of hand.
Amy Reiter
One needs to be extremely careful in advancing a cause for autism, because this field is rife with theories that have collapsed. Nonetheless, my hypothesis is that autism is the genetic result of "assortative mating" between parents who are both strong systemisers. Assortative mating is the term we use when like is attracted to like... In order to fully test this theory, we still need to do a lot of work. The specific genes involved must be identified. It is a theory that may be controversial and perhaps unpopular among those who believe the cause of autism is largely or totally environmental. But controversy is not a reason not to test it - systematically, as we might say.
Simon Baron-Cohen
You can't reverse evolution in a 45- minute lesson. If boys do display characteristics associated with the spectrum of autism, there is one element of their propensity for obsession we should encourage. Autistic people have been recorded to have near super-human powers in specific areas: the story of the "idiot savant" who cannot relate well to other humans, but who is able to draw a technically accurate picture of Chartres cathedral from memory is well known. There is an argument that within each boy there is a bit of the "idiot savant". As an English teacher you are aware of nouns (idiot) being stolid, unchangeable labels and adjectives (savant) as fluid, therefore more optimistic. With boys, our focus should be on celebrating and developing the adjective, rather than punishing the noun.
Philip Beadle, The Guardian
Brain development during childhood and adolescence is characterized by both progressive myelination and regressive pruning processes. However, sex differences in brain maturation remain poorly understood. Magnetic resonance imaging was used to examine the relationships between age and sex with cerebral gray and white matter volumes and corpus callosal areas in 118 healthy children and adolescents (61 males and 57 females), aged 6–17 years. Gender groups were similar on measures of age, handedness, socioeconomic status and Full Scale IQ. Significant age-related reductions in cerebral gray and increases in white matter volumes and corpus callosal areas were evident, while intracranial and cerebral volumes did not change significantly. Significant sex by age interactions were seen for cerebral gray and white matter volumes and corpus callosal areas. Specifically, males had more prominent age-related gray matter decreases and white matter volume and corpus callosal area increases compared with females. While these data are from a cross-sectional sample and need to be replicated in a longitudinal study, the findings suggest that there are age-related sex differences in brain maturational processes. The study of age-related sex differences in cerebral pruning and myelination may aid in understanding the mechanism of several developmental neuropsychiatric disorders.
Michael deBellis et al
J. Connellan, Simon Baron-Cohen, Sally Wheelwright, Ba'tki, Ahluwalia
The amygdala is a structure in the temporal lobe that has long been known to play a key role in emotional responses and emotional memory in both humans and nonhuman animals. Growing evidence from recent neuroimaging studies points to a new, expanded role for the amygdala as a critical structure that mediates sex differences in emotional memory and sexual responses. This review highlights current findings from studies of sex differences in human amygdala response during emotion-related activities, such as formation of emotional memories and sexual behavior, and considers how these findings contribute to the understanding of behavioral differences between men and women. Clinical implications for the understanding of sex differences in the prevalence of affective and anxiety disorders are discussed, and future directions in the study of the amygdala's role in human sex differences are outlined.
Stephan Hamann
We have paid little attention to gender differences in developmental disabilities aside from the purpose of establishing prevalence. Yet, studying sex differences in the incidence and presentation of developmental disability and mental health disorders may contribute to our understanding of the neural circuitry and neurochemistry of both the normal and the abnormal brain. Furthermore, investigation into gender difference may have practical implications, as we may need to design sex-specific interventions for persons with developmental disability. In this article, we first review sex differences in typically developing children as well as some of the literature on the biology proposed to explain those differences. We then explore differences in prevalence and presentation of several developmental and mental health disorders as they may relate to biological mechanisms–with special attention to autism. Finally, we look at research needs as they relate to sex in developmental disability.
Travis Thompson et al
Observations confirmed that children have same-sex preferences. Children's gender-typed cognitions about play partners correlated with play partner preferences: the more gender-typed the belief, the more children preferred same-sex playmates.
Carol Lynn Martin, Richard A. Fabes, Stephanie M. Evans, Heidi Wyman
We report a new self-report questionnaire, the Systemizing Quotient (SQ), for use with adults of normal intelligence... The SQ reveals both a sex difference in systemizing in the general population and an unusually strong drive to systemize in AS/HFA.
Simon Baron-Cohen, Jennifer Richler, Dheraj Bisarya, N. Gurunathan, Sally Wheelwright
Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, Vol. 10, No. 1., 77.
Simon Baron-Cohen
My theory is that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems. I call it the empathising-systemising (E-S) theory.
Simon Baron-Cohen, Guardian Unlimited (UK)
"You hard-wire in self-confidence that is not based on bluster, a self-confidence that is genuine and doesn't need to be constantly asserted. In other words you will have a more confident but less aggressive male," (Dr. Sebastian Kraemer) said.
Celia Hall, Telegraph U.K.
By almost every benchmark, boys across the nation and in every demographic group are falling behind. In elementary school, boys are two times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and twice as likely to be placed in special-education classes. High-school boys are losing ground to girls on standardized writing tests. The number of boys who said they didn't like school rose 71 percent between 1980 and 2001, according to a University of Michigan study. Nowhere is the shift more evident than on college campuses. Thirty years ago men represented 58 percent of the undergraduate student body. Now they're a minority at 44 percent. This widening achievement gap, says Margaret Spellings, U.S. secretary of Education, "has profound implications for the economy, society, families and democracy."
This might be because the diagnostic criteria for Asperger syndrome are based on the behavioural characteristics of boys, who are often more noticeably 'different' or disruptive than girls with the same underlying deficits.
National Autistic Society
Autism demonstrates what is true of many, if not most, mental illnesses: that such pathologies are just extreme expressions of traits that all normal humans have.
Kevin Baldeosingh

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