Autism: The Extremely Male Brain?
Baron-Cohen has been the first to advance and test some groundbreaking ideas in the field. But as for what has caused the increase in reported cases, he doesn't put undiscovered toxins at the top of the list of suspects. "A good part" of the rise, he says, can be explained by better diagnosis and an expanded definition of autism.
Since autism was first described in 1943, the definition has shifted. Doctors have come to agree that autism is characterized by poor social skills, communication difficulties and strong, narrow interests and repetitive behavior. Once upon a time it was understood as categorical: Either you were autistic or you weren't. Starting in the late 1990s, Baron-Cohen advanced the idea of an autism spectrum on which everyone falls, just as we would fall on a spectrum of height. As he sees it, we're all a little bit autistic. ...
Baron-Cohen is responsible for spreading the idea that the autistic brain is basically an extreme version of the male brain. He observed that people with autism were better at things for which men show more aptitude than women (like systemizing) and worse at things for which women show more aptitude than men (like empathizing). It's noteworthy that boys are diagnosed with autism four times as often as girls. "There was this massive clue that nature was giving us that autism might be in some way sex-linked," he says.
Baron-Cohen (his first cousin is Sasha Baron Cohen of Borat fame) doesn't believe we should see autism as an epidemic. "The same genes that make a person good in a systemizing occupation, like math, physics or engineering, may also contribute to autism...Eradicating autism could mean eliminating genes from the gene pool that are probably key to such abilities as doing complex mathematics."
What do you think, should autism be "eradicated" as some parent groups believe or is it simply the result of an extremely male brain that does not require being "fixed?"