Men and women with autism have 'extreme male' scores on the 'eyes test' of mindreading

autism
Quinn, an autistic boy, and the line of toys he made before falling asleep. Repeatedly stacking or lining up objects is a behavior commonly associated with autism. Credit: Wikipedia.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge University have published new results in the journal PLoS ONE from the largest ever study of people with autism taking the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' test. Whilst typical adults showed the predicted and now well-established sex difference on this test, with women on average scoring higher than men, in adults with autism this typical sex difference was conspicuously absent. Instead, both men and women with autism showed an extreme of the typical male pattern on the test, providing strong support for the 'extreme male brain' theory of autism.

The study was led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge University. Almost 400 men and women with or Asperger Syndrome took the test online, which entails looking at a series of photographs of just the eye region of the face, and picking which of 4 words best describe what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling.

The 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' test is known as an advanced 'theory of mind' or empathy test, designed to reveal subtle individual differences in social sensitivity. It particularly measures the 'cognitive' component of empathy, that is, the ability to recognize or infer someone else's state of mind. The test has been used in hundreds of studies worldwide, showing reliable sex differences in typical individuals, with women on average scoring higher than men, and showing that people with autism score lower on average than people without autism.

The team investigated whether men and women with autism perform differently on this test, and used it to evaluate the 'extreme male brain' theory of autism, in the largest study to date. This theory predicts that on tests of empathy, typical females will score higher than typical males, who in turn will score higher than people with autism. The results confirmed this pattern.

Professor Baron-Cohen commented: "We are seeing this pattern not just on the Eyes test but on a number of measures. Last year we saw it on the Empathy Quotient, a self-report measure of social sensitivity, and on the Systemizing Quotient, a self-report measure of one's interest and aptitude in understanding systems. This year we saw it in prenatal testosterone levels, where boys with autism had elevated levels of this hormone compared to typically developing boys, who in turn have higher levels than typically developing girls. And a decade ago we found how much prenatal testosterone you have influences your scores on the Eyes test. Future research needs to delve into what is giving rise to this pattern."

Dr Carrie Allison, Research Manager at the ARC and another member of the team, said: "Imagine looking at people's eyes and not being able to 'read' them effortlessly and intuitively for what the other person may be thinking or feeling. 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. 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."

Dr Meng-Chuan Lai, the William Binks Autism Neuroscience Fellow at the ARC and senior author of the study, added: "There are substantial individual differences in terms of how well a person with autism performs on the Eyes test, but the social difficulties of both are reflected on their test scores. In addition, women with autism differ more from typical women than men with autism differ from typical men. The relationship between autism and sex and gender is becoming an important topic for ."


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Males and females with autism show an extreme of the typical male mind

More information: Baron-Cohen S, Bowen DC, Holt RJ, Allison C, Auyeung B, Lombardo MV, et al. (2015) The "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" Test: Complete Absence of Typical Sex Difference in ~400 Men and Women with Autism. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0136521. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0136521
Journal information: PLoS ONE

Citation: Men and women with autism have 'extreme male' scores on the 'eyes test' of mindreading (2015, September 7) retrieved 23 July 2019 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-09-men-women-autism-extreme-male.html
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Sep 07, 2015
'Extreme Male Brain' is easily discounted.

Both males and females can be stimulated to be more male-like with an artificial increase in testosterone. Autistic people have none of the mental or physical properties of high testosterone males including elevated interest in sex, increased aggression, desire for male company in a competitive environment (everything from sports such as boxing to gangs) and so on.

There is only one trait similar to the male-female difference and that is the socialisation aspect and everything associated with that including reading others emotions. The other symptoms of autism can be traced to a deficit in episodic memory and the associated function. Unlike semantic memory, which can also be used to recall the past (like reading a history book), episodic memory includes the emotional relationship with the past and present, something lacking in Autism.

Better semantic memory is the result of lack of competition with the dysfunctional episodic memory.

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