two men and two womenPeople with autism spectrum disorders are sometimes characterized as having an “extreme male brain.” A large study from the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge finds that adults with autism—both men and women—have minds that are typically or extremely male. The study is the largest ever to study the differences between the sexes in people with autism.

The participants were 811 adults with autism (454 female and 357 male) and 3,096 typical adults (2,562 female and 534 male). The participants completed three online questionnaires: the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), which tallies the number of autistic traits an individual has; the Empathy Quotient (EQ), which measures how an individual exhibits social sensitivity; and the Systemizing Quotient (SQ), which determines how interested an individual is in systems like maps, machines, or collections. The researchers reviewed the participants scores, analyzing the participants’ “brain types,” which are calculated based on the difference between an individual’s EQ and SQ.

Among the participants without autism, the females scored higher on the EQ and the males scored higher on both the AQ and SQ. There was a difference between males and females with autism, but the difference between the two sexes was much smaller. Both males and females with autism exhibited an extreme of the typical male—scoring high on the AQ and SQ. Females with autism scored higher than males with autism on the EQ.

The two brain types, Type E and Type S, indicate a higher score on the Empathy Quotient or Systemizing Quotient, respectively. Typical females most commonly have a Type E brain, while typical males are most commonly Type S. In contrast, both the males and females with autism were most commonly Type S. Some of the participants with autism manifested an extreme version of Type S, in which the EQ is below average and the SQ is average or above average.

“In this new study, typical sex differences were reduced in autism, but not abolished. In addition, females with autism as a group show greater variation on these measures, compared to males with autism. We need more research into the differences between males and females, and how these affect the identification of autism, and what support they need,” commented Dr. Meng-Chuan Lai, co-leader of the study.

This research is published in the journal PLOS One.

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