Two long-standing psychological theories – the empathising-systemising theory of sex differences and the extreme male brain theory of autism – have been confirmed by our new study, the largest of its kind to date. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used data on almost 700,000 people in the UK to test the theories.
The first theory, known as the empathising-systemising theory of typical sex differences, posits that, on average, females will score higher on tests of empathy than males, and that, on average, males will score higher on tests of systemising than females.
Empathy is the drive to recognise another person’s state of mind and to respond to another person’s state of mind with an appropriate emotion. Systemising is the drive to analyse or build a system where a system is defined as anything that follows rules or patterns.
The second theory, known as the extreme male brain theory of autism, extends the empathising-systemising theory. It posits that autistic people will, on average, show a shift towards “masculinised” scores on measures of empathy and systemising. In other words, they will score below average on empathy tests, but score at least average, or even above average, on systemising tests.
The data on the almost 700,000 people in our study (including over 36,000 autistic people) came from an online survey carried out for the Channel 4 documentary, Are you autistic?Our analysis of this data robustly confirmed the predictions of these two theories
Beware of misinterpretations
The first misinterpretation is that the results mean that autistic people lack empathy, but this isn’t the case. Empathy has two major parts: cognitive empathy (being able to recognise what someone else is thinking or feeling) and affective empathy (having an appropriate emotional response to what someone else is thinking or feeling).
The evidence suggests that it is only the first aspect of empathy – also known as “theory of mind” – that autistic people on average struggle with. As a result, autistic people are not uncaring or cruel but are simply confused by other people. They don’t tend to hurt others, rather they avoid others.
They may miss the cues in someone’s facial expression or vocal intonation about how that person is feeling. Or they may have trouble putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, to imagine their thoughts. But when they are told that someone else is suffering, it upsets them and they are moved to want to help that person.
So autistic people do not lack empathy.
The second misinterpretation is that autistic people are hyper-male. Again, this is not the case. While our latest study shows that autistic people, on average, have a shift towards a masculinised profile of scores on empathy and systemising tests, they are not extreme males in terms of other typical sex differences. For example, they are not extremely aggressive, but tend to be gentle individuals.
So autistic people are not hyper-male in general.