Researchers have discovered a link between high levels of testosterone in babies still in the womb and autistic traits in children. Babies exposed to high levels of the sex hormone testosterone in the womb appear to be at greater risk for these autistic characteristics.
While the researchers are careful to note that although they cannot prove testosterone exposure in the womb causes autism, they strongly believe it may one day be implicated as one of the main factors related to autism.
Simon Baron-Cohen, the lead researcher, discussed the study yesterday at the British Association Festival of Science at York University, “The idea that fetal testosterone may play a causal role in autism is an existing hypothesis. There’s no evidence that it’s a causal factor, but this research is certainly consistent with that hypothesis.”
The study followed 235 mothers and their children over eight years. At the onset of the study, the mothers had an amniocentesis, a regular womb test during pregnancy, that determined testosterone levels present. The children were closely monitored in the following eight years and tested for autistic-like behavior at regular intervals during their development.
Researchers found that high levels of testosterone in the amniotic fluid of the womb were significantly correlated with autistic-like behavior. Hormones within the amniotic fluid are a product of the baby, not the baby’s mother. “We don’t know if the fetal testosterone is causing the autistic traits or is a by-product of them,” noted the researchers.
Autism and autism-related disorders are characterized by difficulties in socializing and social interactions with others, even loved ones. They may also be less empathetic and generally display less emotional responses than children without the disorder. People with autism or autistic -related disorders sometimes are fascinated with numbers and logical systems of order.
“Children with autism seemed to have an exaggeration of the typical male profile because they have a very strong interest in systems, like numbers, but have difficulties with empathy,” Baron Cohen said.
Baron Cohen is a pioneer in the “extreme male brain” theory. This theory suggests that autism is at one end of a spectrum of social behaviors more typical of boys than girls.
“The extreme male brain theory was originally developed at a psychological level,” said Baron Cohen. “Children with autism seem to have an exaggerated male profile. Now we’re moving from the psychological level to the biological level.”
The researchers also suggested that autism should be recognized as an atypical form of development, like left-handedness, a preference that can be helped but not “cured.”