The extreme male brain theory of autism and the potential adverse effects for boys and girls with autism

J Bioeth Inq. 2012 Mar;9(1):93-103. doi: 10.1007/s11673-011-9350-y. Epub 2012 Jan 5.


Autism, typically described as a spectrum neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in verbal ability and social reciprocity as well as obsessive or repetitious behaviours, is currently thought to markedly affect more males than females. Not surprisingly, this encourages a gendered understanding of the Autism Spectrum. Simon Baron-Cohen, a prominent authority in the field of autism research, characterizes the male brain type as biased toward systemizing. In contrast, the female brain type is understood to be biased toward empathizing. Since persons with autism are characterized as hyper-systemizers and hypo-empathizers, Baron-Cohen suggests that, whether they are male or female, most possess an "extreme male brain profile." We argue that Baron-Cohen is misled by an unpersuasive gendering of certain capacities or aptitudes in the human population. Moreover, we suggest that this may inadvertently favour boys in diagnosing children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. If this is correct, it could also have rather serious consequences for treatment and services for girls (and women) on the Autism Spectrum.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Child
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive* / diagnosis
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive* / physiopathology
  • Empathy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Characteristics*