Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor at the University of Cambridge has been one of the forerunners of Autism research over the last 20 years. Over the last five, he has been suggesting and researching a model of understanding Autism as: extreme maleness. He characterizes Autism as, in a nutshell, low empathy with high systemizing tendencies: characteristics he also maps to the two sexes. He attempts to categorize all brain functions as falling on a continuum of EQ-Empathy Quotient, or SQ-Systemizing Quotient, and points out that we all have Autistic tendencies, it’s just a matter of degree.
Baron-Cohen’s theory is controversial because of what it suggests about the difference between male and female brains and relative genetic superiority. People are continually searching for genetic substrates or predispositions for Autism, and this link to the X or Y chromosome, or to the exposure to more or less testosterone would be an answer. Baron-Cohen points out that women overall tend to be better at skills that people with Autism struggle with such as maintaining eye contact and reading facial cues. He goes as far as to state that “female superiority in social ability is in part biological in origin.” He is currently studying the effects of more and less exposure to testosterone in utero by testing amniotic fluid and following children as they develop. Boys exposed to less testosterone than other male subjects are more likely to make eye contact with their parents as infants, but there is no way to design a controlled study that says it’s the exposure to testosterone that makes boys less verbal and more systematic than girls.
Though contraversial, this research is backed up by other strands of current autism research aimed at discovering why there are at least four times as many males with Autism than females. Some scientists, including London's David Skuse, are beginning to link Autism tendencies to sex chromosomes simply because there are so many more males.[((http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn4145))]. Even though this research and Baron-Cohen's hunches are inconclusive so far there are implications to be drawn for working with people with autism (perhaps most obvious with people with aspergers) in terms of understanding their social difficulties and explaining them to students around them in a sensitive, respectful way. Asperger's Syndrome (also on the autism spectrum) used to be called "young professors syndrome" because of the high IQ and verbal skills associated with it, and the stereotype of an absent-minded, socially inept professor. You wouldn't explain to other students in the class that a student with autism was "more male," but you might be able to help them frame their understanding of his differences by pointing out that we all operate along a sepctrum of social responsiveness and that we know people who pick up on every little thing, and some people who can't. An autistic student is an extreme example of someone who can't.
Although this research doesn't tell us much about how to cure or cope with Autism, it does present a framework from which we might try to explain or understand the social challenges of it especially when trying to integrate a student with Autism into a regular education classroom.
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Posted by Rachael Gabriel