Both men and women with autism tend to score on the extreme male side of the spectrum on an empathy test that determines how well one can read another’s emotions through the eyes.

The study, conducted by scientists at the University of Cambridge University, provides strong support for the “extreme male brain” theory of autism.

This theory predicts that on tests of empathy, typical females will score higher than typical males, who in turn will score higher than people with autism. The results confirmed this pattern.

“There are substantial individual differences in terms of how well a person with autism performs on the Eyes test, but the social difficulties of both men and women are reflected on their test scores,” said Dr. Meng-Chuan Lai, the William Binks Autism Neuroscience Fellow at the Autism Research Centre (ARC) and senior author of the study.

“In addition, women with autism differ more from typical women than men with autism differ from typical men. The relationship between autism and sex and gender is becoming an important topic for autism research.”

The research was led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the ARC at Cambridge University. Almost 400 men and women with autism or Asperger’s syndrome took the test online.

Called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” exam, it involves viewing a series of photographs of just the eye region of the face, and picking which of four words best describe what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling.

While typical adults showed the predicted and now well-established sex difference on this test, with women on average scoring higher than men, in adults with autism this typical sex difference was notably absent.

“Imagine looking at people’s eyes and not being able to ‘read’ them effortlessly and intuitively for what the other person may be thinking or feeling,” said Dr. Carrie Allison of the ARC and another member of the team.

“This research has the potential to explain why children with autism, from the earliest point in development, avoid looking at people’s eyes, and become confused in rapidly changing social situations, where people are exchanging glances without words all the time.”

Said Allison, “This disability may be both a marker of the early-onset empathy difficulties in autism, and contribute to exacerbating them. Teaching children with autism how to read emotional expressions non-verbally should become an important clinical focus for future research and practice.”

The findings are published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Source: University of Cambridge