Autism Biomedical Information Network

NEWSWEEK Magazine: Boys, Girls and Autism

The fact that more boys than girls are affected with autism is well known. An article in the September 8, 2003 issue of NEWSWEEK magazine ("Boys, Girls and Autism. What Science Tells Us About How Our Brains Work," by Geoffrey Cowley) comments on a recently published book, "The Essential Difference," (which I have not yet seen) by Simon Baron-Cohen, a cognitive psychologist at Cambridge University in the U.K. According to the article, there is a gender difference that predisposes females in the direction of empathy ("Type E") and males toward systemization ("Type S"). Females have better "people skills" and are more adept at interpersonal communication and networking. Males generally tend to have highly developed visual-spatial abilities and a curiosity about how things work. Basically, boys are little engineers. As a corollary, according to this view, males have less interest in people and in being part of a social network. Dr. Baron-Cohen proposes that autism is at the extreme end of the spectrum of this style of male behavior.

Of course, these are exceedingly broad generalizations and caricatures which belie the neurocognitive complexity of autism. Autism is one of the most highly genetic of neuropsychiatric disorders. The consensus view is that multiple genes (perhaps up to 20 or so) are implicated, which makes for enormous combinatorial complexity as the effects of each gene, in varying dosages, interact, ultimately determining the individuality of the behavioral phenotype. The article suggests that these gender differences in "mental style" are hard-wired and predestined by the genes of the "neurocognitive genome".

It is common knowledge that each of us and, likewise, each individual with autism, is "different" in a unique way. In the "real world" men and women are not polar opposites. There is a balance of qualities of empathy and systemization in each of us. The basic point of the article is that males tend to drift more toward one end of the spectrum and females tend to move away from the "average" toward the opposite end. If there is an extra "push" in the form of autism susceptibility genes inherited by a male, then this push carries the person over the boundary of "typical" behavior into the autism spectrum.

The unique personality structure of an individual represents the complex interaction of both genetics and environment (the cumulation of day to day life experiences). Genetic endowment certainly plays a role in temperament, since differences can be seen in very young infants even before major environmental influences have been brought to bear. Despite the theoretical implications of gender differences on behavior and temperament, the practical impact of Baron-Cohen’s thesis is that it may be possible to "train" an individual to develop social skills that were not highly developed because of the genetic "push" away from empathy. The article describes research on methods for training an individual to recognize the feelings represented by facial expressions. This is not new and similar research is in progress at the Yale Child Study Center and elsewhere. There is particular interest in the affective content of facial expressions around the eyes and the ability to direct the "gaze vector" toward the eyes. It is hoped that this will lead to more effective social interaction. However, as we have learned from high-functioning persons with autism, their "internal image" of a feeling can be qualitatively different than that of a typical person. For example, a feeling that we might recognize as sadness may be processed quite differently by a person with autism. Higher functioning persons with autism do not instinctively intuit the feelings of others. However, it may be possible to put labels on facial expressions and then connect them with a set of rules that a person with autism could use in a rote way to self-regulate their behavior accordingly, even though the "feeling" within the other person remains mysterious. However, it is unlikely that this type of training would be effective for lower functioning individuals with autism. Moreover, research is needed to show that such training actually results in more adaptive behaviors in the "real world."

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Commentary by Ronald J. Kallen, M.D.
This page last updated on 10/02/2003