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But they have a surfeit of something different—what Baron-Cohen calls “systemizing ability.” They are lousy at understanding people but relatively good, he says, at making sense of the world. Some of them have a disablingly low IQ, and in such cases the systemizing may take the form of a seemingly purposeless obsession—they may stare for hours, say, at the veins of a leaf, or they may memorize train schedules or license plates. But in others, such as a mathematician Baron-Cohen knows at Cambridge who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome—a disorder at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrumthat same systemizing ability can lead to work that is rewarded with fame. (Asperger’s is a mild form of autism in which individuals are able to function normally, but have difficulty reading the emotions of others.)

Low-empathizing, high-systemizing: That, in a nutshell, is Baron-Cohen’s theory of what characterizes autism. Those traits span the autism spectrum, from people who are mute and unable to function to people who find a niche in society. Moreover, Baron-Cohen’s theory embeds this autism spectrum firmly in a much larger two-dimensional continuum—one that includes all of us. The essential difference between men and women, according to Baron-Cohen, is that women are better at empathizing and men at systemizing—on average, he stresses. There are plenty of male brains in female bodies, and vice versa. There are even female autistics, but there are many more male ones: In Baron-Cohen’s theory, autism is a case of the “extreme male brain.”

In the back of Baron-Cohen’s book, The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain, you can fill out questionnaires that allow you to determine your Empathy Quotient (EQ) and Systemizing Quotient (SQ). Baron-Cohen himself can’t take the empathizing and systemizing tests, because he wrote them. But from all appearances he may be one of those fortunate individuals with a brain that is equally balanced between male and female. People who know him place him far up on the empathizing axis. “When you go into a meeting with him, you always feel good afterward,” says one graduate student. Says another, “On the one hand, he’ll coach us very closely, but on the other, he leaves us lots of space to do what we like.” Yet Baron-Cohen is pushing a theory that attempts to capture the full diversity of human brain types in a single X-Y graph—and if that isn’t male systemizing, what is? “We all have some autistic traits,” he says. “It’s just a matter of degree.”

“I am interested in knowing the path a river takes from its source to the sea. Strongly agree? Slightly agree? Slightly disagree? Strongly disagree?”—from the Systemizing Quotient questionnaire

Baron-Cohen—born in 1959—grew up in Golder’s Green, a middle-class and strongly orthodox Jewish neighborhood in North London. His father worked in the family menswear business; his mother taught dance. His first cousin, Sacha Baron-Cohen, is Ali G, the notorious assault comedian and on-air deflator of pompous windbags. Simon, in contrast, seems like he would be polite even to windbags. He is around six feet tall, with narrow, sloping shoulders and short, sandy hair that is beginning to show a male pattern; on the day we met he wore a blue short-sleeve shirt over khaki pants and sensible black shoes. The photo on his book jacket shows him without his wire-rim glasses, but he looks more natural with them on. His voice is mild and measured. Nothing in his bland and tidy little office—a Cezanne print, a few framed book covers—provides any obvious clues to where he is coming from.

Baron-Cohen himself offers one: He grew up with an older sister who is severely disabled, both mentally and physically. Today she lives in an institution, is confined to a wheelchair and has a very low IQ. “Yet despite that,” says Baron-Cohen, “as soon as you walk into the room, she makes eye contact, her face lights up. Even though she has no language, you feel like you’re connecting to another person.”

In other words, she is the opposite of autistic. Autism is perfectly compatible with a high IQ—yet some degree of social disconnectedness, of extreme self-centeredness, has been a core feature of the disorder ever since it was first described in the 1940s and given a name derived from the Greek word for self. Baron-Cohen first encountered it when, fresh out of Oxford with an undergraduate degree in developmental psychology, he went to work teaching autistic children one-to-one at a small school in London. It was then he realized that autism is fascinating as well as sad. “I was struck by this dissociation between intelligence and social development,” he says. “It became glaringly obvious that they are two different things.”

Thanks in part to Baron-Cohen, that understanding of autism is now widely shared—which is one reason the number of children diagnosed as autistic has risen so dramatically in the past decade. Autism was once almost invariably associated with a below-normal IQ, and its prevalence was said to be around 4 in 10,000. Nowadays, it is ten times that. Many children are diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder, many of them at the high-functioning Asperger’s end. With the explosion in diagnoses there has been an explosion in research. Geneticists are looking for genes linked to autism, which surely exist; the disease has been known to run in families. Neuroscientists are looking for the anatomical or physiological irregularities in the brain that must result from the anomalous genes.

Baron-Cohen is engaged in genetics and neurobiology, too, as codirector of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University. But his background is in cognitive psychology; he seeks to identify the basic mental processes that are common to all cases of autism and that link autistic behavior to its biological roots. In 1985, while still a graduate student at University College London, he made a breakthrough discovery of one such process. With his advisers Uta Frith and Alan Leslie, he presented autistic children with dolls named Sally and Anne, and the following story: Sally puts a marble in her basket and leaves the room. Anne takes the marble and hides it in her own box. Sally comes back and looks for her marble—where does she look?

A normal 4-year-old child says that Sally will look for the marble where she left it, in her basket. The child may even giggle at the joke on Sally. A kid with Down’s syndrome will get it right too. But autistic children don’t get it right. They say Sally will look in Anne’s box—because after all, that’s where the marble really is. They have no notion, Baron-Cohen discovered, of where Sally might think the marble is. They lack a “theory of mind”—abstract jargon for the simple realization, which the normal child comes to at around age 4, that other people have thoughts and intentions that may differ from his own. And that figuring those thoughts out helps him to understand what those people say and do.

Baron-Cohen later coined a term for this deficit: “mindblindness.” In 1989, Uta Frith proposed that autistic people’s inability to derive a theory of mind from their experience of the world was just one aspect of a broader deficit: the inability to draw together information so as to derive coherent and meaningful ideas. Frith’s weak central coherence theory explained why people with autism remember strings of nonsense words almost as well as they do sentences, or why they do jigsaw puzzles without the picture: They just don’t seek the pattern in a mass of details. “Their information-processing systems, like their very beings, are characterized by detachment,” Frith wrote. A rival theory, which has proponents today, attributes the narrow interest in details, as well as other symptoms of autism, to executive dysfunction, a very broad inability to plan, to control impulses and to switch attention as needed to solve a problem.

Neither weak central coherence nor executive dysfunction, though, explain why some autistic people do so well. And in the 1990s, after Baron-Cohen had moved to Cambridge and begun seeing adult Asperger’s patients, including many high achievers, at his own clinic, he became increasingly aware of that gap. Furthermore, he says, nobody seemed to be addressing another key fact: Autism affects far more boys than girls. At the Asperger’s end of the spectrum, the ratio is about 10 to 1. The sex difference, says Baron-Cohen, is “one puzzle that has been completely ignored for over 50 years. I think it’s a very big clue. It’s got to be sex-linked.”

Read in Full:  http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200401/autism-whats-sex-got-do-it?page=2



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