It is well known that that males are four times more likely to be autistic than females. An article in this weekend’s NYT Magazine contends that this has led to an overly masculinized definition of the disorder. Because autistic girls are rare, they are excluded from psychological studies and often go undiagnosed. Emily Bazelon writes that autistic girls make more social efforts than boys, but seem less capable of overcoming their deficits and pursuing independent living, education and stable employment. Frustrated by their stymied attempts, they face a higher risk of mood disorders such as depression.
These findings challenge Cambridge Professor Simon Baron Cohen’s extreme male theory of autism. His research suggests that males are generally better at cognitive tasks that involve systemetizing and females are better at tasks that involve empathizing. He conceptualizes these skills as two ends of a spectrum. Extreme systemetizers are classified as autistic, and since men are concentrated at that end of the spectrum already, they are more likely to exhibit the disorder.
Accoding to Baron-Cohen’s theory, we would expect autistic females to have extreme male brains. But given the gender-specific manifestations of autism cited in Bazelon’s article, this seems like an oversimplification.