New Autism Study Confirms “Extreme Male Brain Theory” (but That Does Not Mean Autistic People are Hyper Male)

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have recently completed the largest-ever study of typical sex (gender) differences and autism. The study tested two long-standing psychological theories—the Empathizing-Systemizing theory of sex differences, and the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism—and confirmed their accuracy and legitimacy.  More than half a million people were tested in the study, which includes 36,000 autistic people.

To clarify, the Empathizing-Systemizing theory predicts women will score higher than men, on average, when tested for empathy. Empathy, of course, is the ability to recognize the thoughts and/or feelings of another person and, more importantly, to appropriately respond to their state of mind.  In addition, the E-S theory predicts men will score higher on tasks that test systemizing, on average. Systemizing, in this case, refers to the drive to analyze and/or build rule-based systems.

Now, the Extreme Male Brain theory predicts that autistic people will demonstrate or exhibit masculinized shifts on both of these dimensions, on average.  In other words, those who have autism will score lower than the average population on empathy tests and will either score the same or higher than the average population on systemizing tests.

This is not the first study to confirm these theories but those studies only looked at moderate samples.  The new findings come out of studying more than 671,600 people; including nearly 37,000 autistic people.  Then, to verify the results, the researchers replicated the second sample of more than 14,000 people.

It is important to also note that these large studies—while effective—are prone to misinterpretations.  For one, some analysts can misinterpret the results by suggesting they mean autistic people have no empathy.  Obviously, that is not the case; they just may process and manifest empathy differently, often not really understanding the feeling or what to do about it.  Secondly, analysts might also misinterpret the results by suggesting autistic people are hyper-male.  Again, it should be obvious, that this is not the case.  While studies definitely show that autistic people do have a masculine shift in profile scores, they do not necessarily exhibit these more extreme male traits in other ways.

The results of this study have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.