The extreme male brain theory of autism, is yet another of Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories that has been so damaging to autistic people for over 20 years. Baron-Cohen, always a huge fan of quantitative testing in the form of self-report questionnaires – the AQ (autism spectrum quotient)undertook a study on a grand scale as part of a Channel 4 documentary Are You Autistic in 2018. Nearly 700,000 people, including over 36,000 autistic people, completed these questionnaires. Their responses suggested that women showed greater social (warm, cuddly) skills and men showed greater systemising (technical, analytical) skills. Except the autistic women. The autistic women’s results showed far less social skills and were closer to the results of all men – analytical, technical, stereotypically male.

Baron-Cohen took this to indicate that neurotypical women show stronger ability to empathise and all men and autistic women show better technical skills that don’t require emotion. From here, he made the leap that autistic women’s brains more closely resemble men’s brains – he described them as ‘masculinised’ – you can read a summary of his findings here. In this article, he claims that he is not saying that we lack empathy, he says we lack cognitive empathy (the ability to understand what people are thinking and feeling). He then uses this to support the very traditional theory of mind.

He does warn that we shouldn’t then assume that autistic women show other ‘masculine’ traits – such as aggression – he says we “tend to be gentle individuals”*** but defences such as this, given 16 years after his original theory, don’t do much to offset his claims that autistic people may have been exposed to too much testosterone in the womb! Not to mention the dreadful name for his theory. In the Channel 4 research, apparently his AQ questions were updated, but were still rife with stereotypical assumptions about masculinity and femininity.

If this area interests you there is now plenty of research out there that undermines this theory and plenty that continues to support it. Psychology is built on theories, not fact.

The glossary entries on empathy, the double empathy problem, the autism spectrum quotient and theory of mind all tie in with this page, if you have the incentive and the spoons!

 

***It’s worth clarifying here that this website – The Gentle Autistic – is not named after Baron-Cohen’s stereotype of what it means to be autistic – that we “tend to be gentle individuals'” It’s simply a way of saying to late-diagnosed and newly diagnosed autistics that the communities attached to this site are gentle, welcoming and non-judgemental. Many newly diagnosed autistics comment that some established communities can be tough to join for newbies testing the water.