In a recent study conducted by the Universities of Cambridge and Utrecht, researchers tested the idea of autism being the result of an “extreme male brain.”

Autism, according to BBC News Health, “is a disorder that affects the ability of children and adults to communicate and interact socially.”  The rate of autism is much higher among boys than girls.

According to Psychology Today, “The male brain tends toward systemizing and mechanistic thinking, treating other people as if they were logical systems or machines.  If you take this tendency to an extreme, you would treat everyone as if they were machines without minds or feelings.”

Mindblind people (Those affected with autism), a term coined by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen one of the lead researchers involved with this study, “are blind to other people’s minds or emotions…they don’t even realize that other people have minds separate from their own.”

Dr. Baron-Cohen has been attempting to uncover the link between autism and fetal over exposure to testosterone.  For over a decade, Dr. Baron-Cohen, who has Asperger’s syndrome, and his team have studied 235 children and their development as it correlates with the amount of testosterone found in the amniotic sac that surrounded them when they were just fetuses.

He discovered that “those who had been exposed to higher testosterone levels in the womb — measured via amniocentesis during pregnancy — had a greater chance of displaying autism-associated traits such as poor social skills, imagination and empathy and high aptitude in certain memory-retention exercises.”

While the evidence is intriguing, is it enough to draw a strong correlation between high testosterone and low ability to empathize?

Dr. Uta Frith, an autism researcher at University College London, believes that the findings need to be treated with caution:  “The testosterone theory is interesting, but it is still just one of many theories about the origins of autism.  [Her] hope [is] that these results can be reproduced by other research teams, as the number of women involved [in the Cambridge and Utrecht study] is quite small.”

The article goes on to state that to prove that more fetal testosterone is what makes boys less verbal and less interested in faces you need to exclude the possibility that some other biological difference between the sexes is responsible.  For instance, you need to show not just that male fetuses have more testosterone than female fetuses and that boys are less verbal than girls but that the correlation holds within the sex as well.  That a boy with more testosterone will tend to have a less-evolved vocabulary than a boy with less testosterone.

While researchers are attempting to draw a correlation between high testosterone levels and a lower-than-average ability to empathize with others, Baron-Cohen’s approach to understanding autistic people and how they fit in with the rest of us is not a new idea but is intriguing to say the least.

Asperger’s Video Courtesy of PBS:

Watch the full episode. See more This Emotional Life.

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