What Is the ‘Extreme Male Brain’ Theory of Autism?

Autism is a condition characterized by difficulty communicating, low empathy and ’emotional IQ’ and sometimes ‘restricted and repetitive behavior’. It is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it is not ‘binary’ but can instead be experienced to varying degrees. Asperger’s Syndrome for instance is best described as a ‘mild’ case of autism where patients might experience difficulty interacting with others despite otherwise normal abilities in terms of communication and learning.

There are many theories as to what might cause autism but one interesting explanation is known as ‘extreme male brain’. Here we will look at how this idea attempts to explain the condition and whether or not it likely paints an accurate portrayal of the mental health disorder.

What Is Extreme Male Brain?

The ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism is an idea that is born out of Simon Baron-Cohen’s (Sacha Baron-Cohen’s brother!) ’empathizing-systemizing theory’.

The general idea behind ’empathizing-systemizing’ theory is that all of us have a tendency either more towards empathizing and viewing things through an emotional lens, or ‘systemizing’ and categorizing information and data logically.

Those who systemize are more likely to perform well in math tasks and to take a more coldly logical approach to the world around them. Meanwhile, those who empathize are more likely to view the world emotionally, to understand the motivations of others and to be artistic and verbal in their expression.

Interestingly, these traits can be thought of as being either male or female – with systemizing being typically a more male approach and empathizing a more female approach. It is postulated that males are likely to be more ‘interested’ in systemizing, whereas females are more likely to be prone to ’empathizing’. In autism then, it is possible that sufferers have an extremely male approach, characterized very much by systemizing as opposed to empathizing.

This is tied closely to Baron-Cohen’s ‘theory of mind’ explanation, that describes autistic patients as lacking a working hypothesis through which to understand and analyze the behaviors of others. This has been demonstrated to be the case via the ‘Sally-Anne Test’ in which subjects have to make guesses regarding the state of mind of a fictional character; those with autism give atypical and incorrect responses when describing the mental state and motivations of others (1).

It has even been suggested that these differences in approach (systemizing versus empathizing) are the result of fetal exposure to testosterone. Higher amounts of fetal testosterone appear to predict higher scores on the ‘systemizing quotient’ and lower scores on the ’empathy quotient’. All this could also explain why autism is also more common in males.

A Critique of the Theory

While extreme male brain is an interesting theory, there are several problems with it as well as with the ’empathizing/systemizing’ approach more generally.

For one, it can be noted that boys and girls develop in similar ways when it comes to their emotional capabilities. Research also shows a relatively weak negative correlation between empathizing and systemizing – in other words, being good at empathizing does not necessarily mean you will be ‘bad’ at systemizing (2).

It has also been pointed out that the empathizing and systemizing both describe a wide range of different skills rather than single skills and that these skills will not always occur together. In other words, someone might have a good understanding of the emotions of others but not a strong response to them. Likewise, they might be very good at math but not highly organized.

Moreover, ‘extreme male brain theory’ does not really explain how autism might develop or what the underlying structural/neurochemical causes could be. Essentially, it amounts to a unique way of looking at autism – and the male brain – that is imperfect as an analogy.

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