Newton and Einstein may have been
autistic. But is their genius an argument
against a screening test?
o Marcel Berlins
o The Guardian, Wednesday 14 January 2009
o Article history
The prospect of a screening test on a pregnant woman predicting her child's autism is
not far away, and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, leader of the Cambridge University
research team that developed the test, has called for an ethical debate on its
desirability. My first reaction was puzzlement. Why a debate? We have had the test
for Down's syndrome for many years. It seems to be generally accepted without
controversy. No expectant mothers are obliged to have it, and many, even those at
some risk because of their age, choose not to. Those that do take it have the choice, if
it proves positive for Down's, between terminating the pregnancy or bearing the child.
It is, of course, an agonising decision, but I'm not sure it raises special ethical issues.
Why should the autism test be treated differently? It is a different kind of condition,
says Professor Baron-Cohen, often linked with talent. "What would we lose if
children with autistic spectrum disorder were eliminated from the population?" It is a
philosophical question, which stakes the claim of society to be involved in the debate,
and not just the parents of the unborn child.
I don't normally like to use the slippery-slope argument, but it is apposite for issues
arising from the bewildering speed of medical advances. Screening for Down's
syndrome has become commonplace; a test for autism is imminent. There is no doubt
that more and more tests will be found for more and more conditions, many of them
far less life-threatening or seriously affecting quality of life than the ones we now give
priority to. Where would we stop in offering pregnant women tests?
Or are we prepared to accept, or even welcome, a less diverse society that has rid
itself of autistic children and, in time, of sufferers from other conditions difficult to
cope with by the sufferer, his or her immediate entourage, or the medical profession?
It's a sustainable argument that losing the tiny proportion of the population made up
of autistic children will not have much effect on diversity; but the slippery slope
results in many other potentially sick children not being born.
What I can not accept is the argument put forward on behalf of autism alone, and no
other condition - that among those autistic children not born, because their mothers
had the test and decided to terminate, there might be brilliant autistic savants who
would make an important contribution to society. It is being asserted - I have yet to
see any supporting evidence - that Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton were autistic;
their mothers, in modern circumstances, might not have had them. The logical
corollary of that approach is to refuse to offer the test to all pregnant women, just in
case they were in danger of bearing an autistic child who would be among the
exceptionally gifted 1% or 2%.
If we take up Baron-Cohen's call for a debate, we will have to decide between three
elements: the autistic person's predicted quality of life (though the test may not be that
precise); the feelings of the parents who may suffer far more than their child; and the
view of society as to its diminished diversity if we continue to prevent the birth of the
imperfect. The last should be the least listened to.
Disorder linked to high levels of
testosterone in womb
Prenatal screening tests could follow ground-breaking research into 235 children
• Sarah Boseley
• The Guardian, Monday 12 January 2009
• Article history
A prenatal screening test for autism comes closer today as new research is published
that links high levels of the male hormone testosterone in the womb of pregnant
women to autistic traits in their children.
The ground-breaking study, published in the British Journal of Psychology by some
of Britain's leading autism researchers, was prompted by the fact that autism is four
times more common in boys than in girls. It is linked with other traits that are found
more commonly in boys, such as left-handedness.
For more than eight years, a team at Cambridge University's autism research centre
has been observing and testing the development of a group of 235 children whose
mothers had an amniocentesis during pregnancy. The procedure involves drawing off
fluid surrounding the baby in the womb using a fine needle and is offered by hospitals
to pregnant women over 35 or 37 to test for Down's syndrome. The age and
circumstances of the women have been taken into account in the research.
Dr Bonnie Auyeung, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues, who publish their
findings today, say they have consistently found a link between higher testosterone
levels in the womb and autistic traits, such as a lack of sociability and verbal skills, in
These are not autistic children, but many of us have traits that are more pronounced in
those who have a medical diagnosis. Autism has been described as a consequence of
an extreme male brain. Those affected do not empathise easily with other people (as
girls tend to do more readily than boys). They cannot guess what other people are
thinking or feeling. They have a much stronger drive towards analysis and
constructing systems and can have a great ability to focus on something that absorbs
them. People with autism include some brilliant, albeit eccentric and reclusive,
mathematicians and musicians, as well as children who are never able to
communicate and may end up in an institution.
In the early years of the study, the scientists could not measure autistic traits in the
children, but they noticed some very early indicators. Male babies with higher
testosterone levels were less likely to make eye contact at 12 months, their vocabulary
was more limited between 12 months and 18 months, and at the age of four they were
less sociable and had narrower interests.
Today's paper is a significant step forward because the children, now between eight
and 10, are old enough to be psychologically assessed using two separate autism
rating tests. Scientists found a clear link, in both tests, between higher testosterone
levels when the child was in the womb and autistic traits.
The study highlights for the first time the association between foetal testosterone and
autistic traits, and indicates that foetal testosterone not only masculinises the body, it
masculinises the mind and therefore the brain, said Baron-Cohen.
The children will continue to be followed for some years, but Baron-Cohen and his
team have at the same time expanded their research to look at the relationship
between testosterone levels in the womb and children with a diagnosis of autism.
They have turned to Denmark, where a biobank has been freezing and storing many
thousands of samples of amniotic fluid from pregnant women since 1990. A new,
collaborative study, which will include autistic children, will be published this year.
The work opens the way for a screening test for pregnant women, which could
potentially involve amniocentesis to draw off fluid from the womb to measure
The work is published on the day the General Medical Council hearing into Dr
Andrew Wakefield and colleagues at the Royal Free hospital resumes. The three
doctors face allegations of serious professional misconduct over their study, published
in the Lancet journal in 1998, which suggested a link between autism and MMR
Their paper came at a time of intense anxiety over soaring autism levels, which
doctors have ascribed partly to better diagnosis but have not completely explained.
More than half a million people are diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder,
including Asperger's syndrome, in Britain. One of the reasons it sparked such a furore
is that parents with an autistic child have no idea what has caused the condition and
are left in a state of bewilderment and worry, wondering if they themselves could
somehow be responsible. Diagnosis is usually delayed and often followed the MMR
vaccinations, given at around 13 months and three to four years.
A prenatal test would have the advantage of giving parents advance warning, so that
they would be able to do everything possible to help their child from birth.
Even if a testosterone test is not developed (scientists may still find that it is not
completely reliable), genetic screening will one day be on the cards. Scientists know
that autism is partly genetic, because it runs in families, although environmental
factors must play a part because there have been occasions where one identical twin
was autistic and the other was not. More than 100 genes have been associated with
autism, but it is not yet clear which are most important.
In numbers: Autism facts
• Autism is a complex developmental disability involving a biological abnormality in
the functioning of the brain. It is not a learning disability or a mental health problem,
although people with autism may also be affected by those conditions.
• The first detailed description of a child with autism was written in 1799 by the
French doctor Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard in his account of the "wild boy of Aveyron".
• People with autism who have an extraordinary talent are known as "autistic savants".
They are extremely rare, with at most one or two in 200 people with an autistic
spectrum disorder thought to be savants.
• It is likely that more than half of those with an autistic spectrum disorder have an
average to high IQ.
• Asperger's syndrome is a form of autism that affects how a person makes sense of
the world, processes information and relates to other people. They may like a fixed
daily routine because the world can seem confusing and uncomfortable. People with
Asperger's are less affected by the syndrome and usually able to lead a normal life.
A prenatal test for autism would deprive
the world of future geniuses
As a new book speculates that 'Britain's Einstein' was autistic, an autism expert warns that a prenatal test
for the condition would prevent brilliant scientists like Paul Dirac from ever being born
Paul Dirac – a pioneer of quantum mechanics – displayed some of the classic signs of
autism. Photograph: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives
A new book on the greatest British physicist since Newton speculates that both his
profound mathematical abilites and his extreme social awkwardness stemmed from
The claims – from a biography of Paul Dirac by Graham Farmelo, The Strangest Man
– tie in with an article on the BBC website from leading autism researcher Prof Simon
Baron-Cohen. Baron-Cohen says we need a public debate about the prenatal diagnosis
of autism. Although such a test is not yet available, it soon could be.
Baron-Cohen points out that the use of embryo selection during IVF to reject babies
with autism genes might have the effect of preventing some individuals with brilliant
mathematical abilities from being born.
More on Baron-Cohen's argument later, but first, Farmelo's book presents a highly
detailed picture of a brilliant but profoundly odd man with an extremely troubled
relationship with his parents. Given Dirac's contribution to science, Farmelo argues
that he is shockingly under-appreciated and largely unknown in the UK, particularly
in his home town of Bristol.
Dirac was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics.
For example, in 1930 he predicted that the electron has an equivalent anti-particle, the
positron – a notion that was greeted with scepticism and derision by some physicists
at the time but was proved correct in experiments two years later.
He is the youngest theoretical physicist ever to win a Nobel Prize, and a year earlier in
1932 he was made Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. At 29 he was a
few months older than Sir Isaac Newton when he took up the same position in 1669.
Its current holder is Prof Stephen Hawking.
The physicist Freeman Dyson summed up Dirac's effortless brilliance thus:
His great discoveries were like exquisitely carved marble statues falling out of the sky
one after another. He seemed to be able to conjure laws of nature from pure thought.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Dirac was also an extemely unconventional person
(Farmelo's title is a quotation from Dirac's contemporary Niels Bohr). Even Einstein
found him peculiar. "I have trouble with Dirac," he wrote to a friend. "This balancing
on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful."
Dirac was prone to very long silences and was famous for his apparently emotionless
responses to events. He also often took a very literal interpretation of statements by
other people. All are characteristics of autism.
When Farmelo spoke to Baron-Cohen about the condition he said he was struck by
two things. First, that autistic men often have foreign wives, "perhaps because the
women were more tolerant of unusual behaviour in foreign men than in men from
their own culture." Dirac was married to a Hungarian woman for 50 years.
Baron-Cohen also said that autistic people are often extremely loyal. "When they
believe that a friend has suffered an injustice, they are often so indignant that they will
disrupt or abandon their almost invariable daily routines to rectify it," wrote Farmelo.
Dirac demonstrated great loyalty to his friends the physicists Pyotr Kapitsa and
Werner Heisenberg. There are also signs that Paul's father Charles was autistic and
there was a history of depression and suicide in the Dirac family
Whatever the difficulties in diagnosing autism in a man who died in 1984, Baron-
Cohen's argument is that preventing cases of the condition by screening the genes for
autism out of the population could stop brilliant individuals such as Dirac ever being
Research is not yet at the stage where autism can be detected prenatally using a
biological test, but this may not be far off ... If it was used to 'prevent' autism, with
doctors advising mothers to consider termination of the pregnancy if their baby tested
'positive', what else would be lost in reducing the number of children born with
Would we also reduce the number of future great mathematicians, for example? Or if
this test led to some kind of prenatal treatment, such as the use of drugs to block the
effect of testosterone which is already medically possible, would this be desirable?
Caution is needed before scientists embrace prenatal testing so that we do not
inadvertently repeat the history of eugenics or inadvertently 'cure' not just autism but
the associated talents that are not in need of treatment.
If a prenatal test for autism becomes available, should medical science be used to
'cure' the condition?
Autism test 'could hit maths skills'
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen
Director, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University
The prospect of a prenatal test
for autism, allowing couples to
choose whether to have a baby
with the condition, is coming
closer. And with it also comes
the possibility of a prenatal
drug treatment being
But in this week's Scrubbing Up, leading autism expert
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen warns caution is needed to
ensure associated talents, like numerical abilities, are not
lost if the test or a "cure" become available.
Males, maths and autism. On the face of it, these three things
don't appear to be linked. And yet they are.
Males are much more likely to apply to university to study maths, for
In 2007, three quarters of applicants to read maths at Cambridge
were male, as were 90% of applicants for the computer sciences
Cambridge is not unique in this way. So why are males so attracted
to studying maths?
An ability to understand numbers could
be in DNA
Research is not yet at the
stage where autism can be
Read your comments
And why, in over 100 years of the existence of the Fields Medal,
maths' Nobel Prize, have none of the winners have ever been a
Similarly, people with autism are much more likely to be male.
Among those with classic autism, which includes a developmental
delay in language and a risk of learning difficulties, males outnumber
females by four to one.
And among those with Asperger Syndrome, males outnumber
females by nine to one.
People with the condition talk at a normal age and have at least an
average IQ, but share the social and communication difficulties of
those with classic autism, as well as the narrow - even obsessive -
interests and love of repetition.
It seems as you move to the extremes of mathematical excellence,
autism becomes more common.
The search to understand why led scientists to genetics. Fathers and
grandfathers of children with autism are more likely to work in the
field of engineering, a field that needs good attention to detail and a
good understanding of systems, just like mathematics.
Siblings of mathematicians also have a higher risk of autism,
suggesting the link between maths and autism is genetically
mediated. And parents of children with autism show male-typical
brain function in tests.
But genetics may not be the only explanation.
Research published this year showed a link between higher levels of
the male hormone testosterone in the amniotic fluid surrounding a
foetus and autistic traits when the child was eight.
And animal studies have shown foetal testosterone levels influence
brain development, masculinising it.
'Wise to think ahead'
Research is not yet at the stage where autism can be detected
Autistic traits have been linked to
levels of the male hormone
prenatally using a biological test, but this may not be far off.
Such a test will need to prove itself clinically in terms of whether it is
highly specific (in detecting just autism).
But assuming such a test is developed, we would be wise to think
ahead as to how such a test would be used.
If it was used to 'prevent' autism, with doctors advising mothers to
consider termination of the pregnancy if their baby tested 'positive',
what else would be lost in reducing the number of children born with
Would we also reduce the number of future great mathematicians,
Or if this test led to some kind of prenatal treatment, such as the
FROM THE TODAY PROGRAMME
More from Today programme
The BBC News website is launching the
"Scrubbing Up" weekly column, where
leading clinicians and experts give their
perspectives on issues in health
Each week, you will be able to have
use of drugs to block the effect of testosterone which is already
medically possible, would this be desirable?
If reducing the testosterone in a foetus helped that baby's future
social development, we would all be delighted.
But what if such a treatment reduced that baby's future ability to
attend to details, and to understand systematic information like
Caution is needed before scientists embrace prenatal testing so that
we do not inadvertently repeat the history of eugenics or
inadvertently 'cure' not just autism but the associated talents that
are not in need of treatment.
I don't want to be 'cured' of autism,
Discussion of prenatal testing hasn't included the people it plans to eliminate: society disables us more
than autism ever could
o Anya Ustaszewski
o guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 14 January 2009 10.00 GMT
o Article history
I am not a savant or genius. I'm no good at maths or science, so I don't meet the
criteria of the special gifts that might be lost if prenatal testing enabled parents to
terminate foetuses deemed likely to develop autism. But I find it disturbing that no
one yet seems to have seen fit to seek the opinion of individuals on the autistic
As someone on that spectrum, I strongly oppose any kind of "cure" for autism; I also
oppose prenatal testing and the eugenic elimination of autistics, as well as any
research that could lead to these outcomes.
The autistic rights movement, which is allied to the wider disability rights movement,
believes that people on the autistic spectrum are disabled more by society than by
their autism. Like many members of this movement, I consider autism to be a part of
natural human variation that should be accepted and respected, as with any other
Sadly, autism is often portrayed as a tragedy for both individuals on the spectrum
(who are often said to be "suffering" from autism) and also their families.
Interestingly, the organisations and individuals who disseminate and promote this
image tend to be celebrity-seeking professionals who are seeking a lucrative "cure"
for autism, or families who due to inadequate support and access provision see autism
as the enemy, the cause of all their problems and something that should be minimised
Far more time and attention is given to parent-led organisations (in particular the
National Autistic Society) and very little to user-led groups. The autistic rights
movement is almost completely ignored.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen wrote in a recent article:
Caution is needed before scientists embrace prenatal testing so that we do not
inadvertently repeat the history of eugenics or inadvertently 'cure' not just autism but
the associated talents that are not in need of treatment.
So my autism should be "cured", but the bits that society thinks it can find a use for
should be kept? I find this incredibly insulting. My autism is part of who I am. It is
not something "extra" that can be taken away from me to suit the agenda of an
intolerant society. My abilities, challenges and perception of the world all go hand in
hand. If I were to be "cured" of my autism, the person that I am would cease to exist.
To be frank, it makes me quite angry that little has been done to address the
challenges autistics face. The world can be a frightening, painful, distressing and
confusing place if you are autistic. There are, however, adaptations that can be made
to the built environment, to ways of communicating and to society's attitudes that can
go quite some way to relieving these challenges.
Despite the Disability Discrimination Act, little has been done to help make society
more accessible for autistics. Legislation is mainly aimed at people with mobility
impairments and those who are visually impaired or hard of hearing. When it comes
to the autistic spectrum, the DDA is only of very limited use.
There are many things that can and should be done: they include changes to
legislation to ensure that buildings are "autism friendly" such as a legal requirement
for low arousal design, changes to noise legislation to reduce the sensory overload
that is often experienced by autistics, especially those with hypersensitive hearing.
Less visual clutter, better anti-discrimination laws and a legal right to assistive
technology and communication devices would also help us.
The government has done little to improve access for autistics, or to change negative
attitudes towards us. Instead, officials, professionals and parents alike are ready to
consider eliminating us from existence.
What kind of a message does this send? Conform to neuro-typicality or we will
eugenically wipe you out?
Autistics have not been listened to or given a proper chance to be accepted,
understood and to thrive. Let's face it, it's much easier (and probably cheaper) to get
rid of us than to support, help and (dare I say it) embrace us. So I think it imperative
that individuals on the autistic spectrum are involved at all levels in the debate on pre-
This should include people at various points on the spectrum, from "high functioning"
to so-called "low functioning" autistics such as Amanda Baggs, who also supports the
autistic rights movement.
In his excellent and moving essay Don't Mourn for Us, Jim Sinclair writes:
When parents say, 'I wish my child did not have autism', what they're really saying is,
'I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child
This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell
us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we
will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.
Rather than pursuing a "cure", or subjecting autistics to "therapies" whose goal is to
make them appear and act as neuro-typical as possible, the government professionals
and parents should devote time, effort and funds towards supporting autistic
individuals in developing strategies to manage the difficulties they face, to improve
their skills and to make progress and fulfil their true potential.
It is also important to work towards curing the sometimes-distressing co-morbidities
of autistic spectrum differences, such as intestinal disorders and epilepsy.
Most of all, society's attitude towards autism needs to change. Our communication
style and any non-harmful autistic behaviours should be respected and
accommodated. The physical environment should be adapted to be more accessible in
order to allow us realistic opportunities for inclusion, and to enable us to be as
independent as we can.
Listen to us. Get to know us. Respect us. Include us. Don't put all the onus on us to fit
in to your world – meet us half way. And most of all, don't eliminate us just because
Research links testosterone levels to
13 January 2009
Research at Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre (ARC)
has found that exposure to high levels of testosterone in the womb
is related to the development of autistic traits.
The findings, published in yesterday's British Journal of Psychology
(January 12), show that levels of testosterone in amniotic fluid were
linked to children's autistic traits up to ten years later.
Dr Bonnie Auyeung, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and their
colleagues at the ARC measured the levels of foetal testosterone in
the amniotic fluid of 235 women who underwent amniocentesis (a
test of the amniotic fluid to determine genetic defects in the foetal
DNA) during pregnancy. Years later these mothers completed
questionnaires that measured their child's autistic traits. By this
time, the 118 boys and 117 girls were aged between 6 and 10.
High levels of foetal testosterone were found to be associated with
high scores on two separate measures of autistic traits (the Child
Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ-Child) and the Childhood Autistic
Spectrum Test (CAST)) for both boys and girls. High scores on
these measures of autistic traits reflected poorer social skills and
imagination but good attention to, and memory for detail.
Professor Baron-Cohen said: "The study highlights for the first time
the association between foetal testosterone and autistic traits. We
all have some autistic traits - these are a spectrum or a dimension
of individual differences, like height."
He added: "It is a shame that this research was inaccurately
reported in some sections of the media that suggested the study
demonstrated that elevated foetal testosterone is associated with a
clinical diagnosis of autism or Asperger Syndrome. Our study has
not yet shown that. To do that would need a sample size of
thousands, not hundreds. Our ongoing collaboration with the
Biobank in Denmark will enable us to test that link in the future.
"Reports also linked this research with prenatal screening for autism
that was not the objective of this study. This study was not a
screening study and was conducted purely to understand the basic
neurobiological mechanisms underlying individual differences in
Dr Auyeung commented: "This research goes further than previous
studies which have found that higher levels of foetal testosterone
are associated with less eye contact in the child's first year, slower
language development by their second birthday, more peer
difficulties at four years old and more difficulties with empathy by
the time they're six. This new study also links higher foetal
testosterone to autistic traits such as excellent attention to detail,
and a love of repetition, as well as social and communication
This unique longitudinal project was funded by the Medical Research
Council and the Boston-based Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation.
The published paper as a pdf is available from the Autism Research
Centre's website, follow the link on the right.
What is the link between
autism and testosterone?
Controversial theory of autism makes headlines, but leaves scientific community
Talk of diagnosing autism in the womb, say researchers.Alamy
Children who are exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb show similar results in psychological tests to people with autism. The
findings provide support for a contentious theory of the condition's cause, researchers say.
But while the media anticipate autism screening, researchers in the field urge caution, both about the importance of the findings and of the
case for screening.
At least four times as many males as females develop autistic disorders. For Asperger's syndrome, the ratio is nine to one1.
Simon Baron-Cohen, a developmental psychologist at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, UK, believes that this is
because traits associated with autism — such as a difficulty in empathizing and enhanced abilities to analyse, explore and extract the rules
that underlie complex systems — are extreme manifestations of normal male behaviour.
Baron-Cohen and his colleagues now report in the British Journal of Psychology that children who had been exposed to high concentrations of
testosterone as a fetus are more likely to exhibit autistic traits1. And as high fetal testosterone concentrations have been associated with
some aspects of male cognitive ability, they say that their findings provide support for the 'extreme male brain' theory of autism.
But two commentaries23 published in the same issue of the journal show that not everyone agrees about the value of this study, or even on
the theory in general.
For more than a decade, Baron-Cohen's team has looked at how fetal testosterone concentrations — measured in pregnant women who had
the amniotic fluid that surrounded their fetuses tested for medical purposes — correlate with development in 235 children without autism.
The researchers had already found that those children who were exposed to high concentrations of fetal testosterone exhibited some
characteristics of adults with autistic disorders, such as making less eye contact, developing fewer interests and having poorer quality
Now that the children are on average nine years old, Baron-Cohen and his colleagues have used two questionnaires to look for subtler
aspects of autism. The questionnaires asked the mothers about factors such as their children's attention to detail (which is usually high in
people with autistic disorders) and ability to know what others are thinking (usually low in people with autism).
Again, they found that the higher the testosterone concentration in the womb, the more similar the results were to those seen in people with
A special brain?
Psychologist Kate Plaisted Grant, also from the University of Cambridge, calls the study "intriguing", but says that "it doesn't establish a link
between fetal testosterone and the cognitive profile of autism". For instance, she says, it does not show a correlation between testosterone
and visuospatial skills, in which patients with autism are usually very proficient.
She also isn't convinced that the findings support the underlying theory. "The broader scientific community hasn't accepted the idea of the
extreme male brain," she says. Fetal testosterone "may create a special brain, but it doesn't necessarily create a male brain".
Psychiatrist Laurent Mottron, from the University of Montreal in Canada, and an author of one of the commentaries, raises other concerns. In
particular, he says that just because males and people with autistic disorders score similarly in autism questionnaires, this does not mean
that autistic traits are the same as male traits. Rather, he argues, it just shows that the test cannot discriminate between maleness and
"For me, it's exactly the same as saying that two things that weigh the same are both made of the same stuff," he explains.
Everyone does agree on one thing, however — that the British media has over interpreted the data.
"The Guardian [newspaper] is focusing on the issue of screening. The study is not about screening and it is not motivated by trying to
develop the screening test. It was motivated by trying to understand possible causal factors in autism," says Baron-Cohen.
And even if a biological marker for autism is found, many feel that the question of screening is a moral, rather than a scientific, question.
"Individuals with autism are remarkable individuals who have fantastic skills and who are a huge asset to our society," says Plaisted Grant.
"The thought that there would be genetic screening so that these individuals wouldn't be born, I find abhorrent."
1. Auyeung, B. et al. Br. J. Psychol 100, 1– 22 (2009).
2. Barbeau, E. B., Mendrek, A. & Mottron, L. Br. J. Psychol 100, 23–28 (2009).
3. Klin, A. Br. J. Psychol 100, 29– 32 (2009).
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• Dr Kate Plaisted-Grant says that our 2009 study in the British J. Psychology has not established a link between foetal testosterone (FT) and the
cognitive profile of autism. However, this study did not set out to test that link, as it does NOT study children with autism. This is a common
misunderstanding. The study focuses on typically developing children. To test for a link between FT and autism per se would require a sample
size of thousands, not hundreds, as autism is only 1% of the population. We are pleased to see that she acknowledges that FT creates a 'special
brain', though she refrains from using the term 'male brain'. For us, this special brain is, as your journalist describes, one that has a stronger
drive to systemize but a weaker drive to empathize. Prof Laurent Mottron also makes a common error, namely, saying that males and people
with autism score the SAME on autism questionnaires. In fact, there are no studies that show this, but there are many that show that people
with autism show an extreme of the male score on autism questionnaires. And nor do male and autistic brains weigh the same, if we take
Mottron's comment literally. The average male brain weighs more than the average female brain, and the average autistic brain weighs even
more than the average male brain. The citations supporting the above statements can be found in Baron-Cohen, S, Knickmeyer, R, & Belmonte,
M (2005) Sex differences in the brain: implications for explaining autism. Science, 310, 819-823. The extreme male brain theory of autism
remains to be tested using MRI, and the FT theory of autism also remains to be tested in large enough samples. Finally, I too would oppose
prenatal screening for autism (which the Guardian (January 12th 2009) confused with our study) with a view to prevention or termination, on
moral grounds. Though if such a test existed (which it does not yet), parents are of course free to exercise their legal right to choose. Simon