Both parents of autistic children tend to be strongly systematic thinkers (“male brain”) who score low on empathetic thinking (“female brain”), writes Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge autism researcher, in the New York Times.
. . . males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize. Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those feelings with an appropriate emotion of one’s own.
. . . According to what I have called the “extreme male brain” theory of autism, people with autism simply match an extreme of the male profile, with a particularly intense drive to systemize and an unusually low drive to empathize. When adults with Asperger’s syndrome (a subgroup on the autistic spectrum) took the same questionnaires we gave to non-autistic adults, they exhibited extreme Type S (systemizing) brains. Psychological tests reveal a similar pattern.
And this analysis makes sense. It helps explain the social disability in autism, because empathy difficulties make it harder to make and maintain relationships with others. It also explains the “islets of ability” that people with autism display in subjects like math or music or drawing – all skills that benefit from systemizing.
“Assortative mating” — the tendency of men and women with similarities to marry each other — could lead to more children with autism, Baron-Cohen believes. He is dubious about the role of environmental factors, though unwilling to rule anything out.
It may be that systemizing women are more likely than in the past to be working in technical jobs where they meet systemizing men. I suspect Silicon Valley’s rise in children with various forms of autism has something to do with the high concentration of nerds.
Unfortunately, Baron-Cohen takes an unfair swipe at Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, who did not say women are “innately less suited than men to be top-level scientists.”
It’s true that scientists have documented psychological and physiological differences between male and female brains. But Mr. Summers was wrong to imply that these differences render any individual woman less capable than any individual man of becoming a top-level scientist.
Summers understands the distinctions between averages and individuals just as well as Baron-Cohen, and said nothing of the kind. When I was an op-ed editor, I caught this sort of error.