Young boy with autism

Males and autism

Is autism linked to an ‘extreme male brain’, as proposed by Cambridge scientist Simon Baron-Cohen?

Many conditions affect men and women equally, though autism is markedly more common in males. Its causes are unknown.

People with autism and associated disorders, such as Asperger’s syndrome, usually relate poorly to others and show characteristic behaviours, such as avoiding eye contact, becoming anxious in social situations and performing repetitive tasks.

Professor Baron-Cohen’s ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism is based primarily on the differences seen between boys and girls in two areas: the ability to empathise (identify someone else’s thoughts or feelings and respond appropriately) and to systemise (construct systems, allowing prediction and control of how these systems behave). A ‘female brain’, he suggests, is better at empathising, while the ‘male brain’ is superior at systemising.

Individuals with autism score poorly in tests of empathy (eg reading emotions from eye expressions), yet show superior systemising (eg mathematical calculation skills) – a phenomenon Baron-Cohen calls the ‘extreme male brain’. Although this idea has received a lot of media attention, it is controversial. For example, a study of children’s skills on various tests of empathy shows only small sex differences, and only on certain tests. So young boys are slightly less able to identify particular emotions on faces, but the difference is not huge.

Lead image:

Anthea Sieveking/Wellcome Images CC BY NC ND


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Sex and Gender’ in January 2006 and reviewed and updated in October 2014.

Genetics and genomics, Statistics and maths, Ecology and environment, Psychology
Sex and Gender
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development