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The controversial theory that characterizes autism as the result of an ‘extreme male brain’ gets fresh support from a large new survey, published 16 July in PLoS One1. But critics question basic assumptions of the theory and the methods used in the new study.
Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center in Cambridge, U.K., proposed the extreme male brain hypothesis more than a decade ago as an explanation for why four times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with autism2.
The theory holds that men are better ‘systemizers’ — more interested in patterns and quicker to spot them in natural, mathematical or mechanical systems. And women are better ‘empathizers,’ more keenly tuned to the emotional state of others.
Men and women with autism are both keen systemizers, but less able empathizers, Baron-Cohen has proposed. He suggests that autism is related to overexposure to testosterone while in the womb.
His group has previously made this case based on online questionnaires given to small groups of high-functioning adults with autism. The new study includes the largest sample to date — 4,700 adults, including 811 men and women with autism. In the autism group, both men and women scored higher on the systemizing survey, and lower on empathizing, than did their counterparts in the control group.