A test designed to show differences in social sensitivity between males and females shows that those with autism, regardless of sex, tend to score more in line with typical male scores, lending credibility to the “extreme male brain” theory of autism.
Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University England, and colleagues, and colleagues enrolled 400 men and women with either autism or Asperger Syndrome who took an online test called the “Reading the Mind of the Eyes.” The test measures one’s ability to recognize or infer someone else’s state of mind.
The exam has been widely used, and has shown that women, on average score higher than men, and those with autism score lower than those without the condition. In the test, a series of photos of just the eye region of the face is shown, and participants must select four words that best describe what the person in the photo is feeling or thinking.
The “extreme male brain” theory of autism posits that on tests of empathy, typical females will score higher than typical males, who in turn will score higher than people with autism. The new study, the results of which were published in PLoS One, confirmed this.
“This research has the potential to explain why children with autism, from the earliest point in development, avoid looking at people’s eyes, and become confused in rapidly changing social situations, where people are exchanging glances without words all the time,” Carrie Allison, PhD, a researcher manager at the Autism Research Center, said in a statement. “This disability may be both a marker of the early-onset empathy difficulties in autism, and contribute to exacerbating them.
“Teaching children with autism how to read emotional expressions non-verbally should become an important clinical focus for future research and practice,” she added.
Baron-Cohen S, et al. The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test: Complete Absence of Typical Sex Difference in ~400 Men and Women with Autism. PLoS One. 2015; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0136521.