About eleven males are diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome for every one female. (Baron-Cohen)
For several reasons. Diagnosing Asperger’s in females can be harder because they are more motivated to be socially aware and engaged, and these characteristics are inconsistent with the core features of Asperger’s.
Also, the diagnostic instruments used to assess Asperger’s may not be sensitive enough to detect the subtle ways it is expressed in females.
In addition, it seems that excessive control over the environment or other people, and self-centeredness, core features of Asperger’s, are channeled in females into other conditions such as Anorexia, Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar Disorder.
Finally, it is likely that Asperger’s Syndrome is the extreme expression of what it is to be male, such that males need only slight psychological and changes to exhibit Asperger’s while females would require more, thus making it more common in men.
Asperger’s and the Empathize-Systemize Dimension
What is it about men, then, that make them more vulnerable to Asperger’s? One intriguing answer is the Extreme Male Brain theory.
This theory proposes that females tend to have a stronger drive to empathize (to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings and to respond appropriately to these), while males have a stronger drive to systemize (to analyze and construct rule-based groups or collection of things).
Some explanation of systemize is needed. Systems follow rules, and someone analyzing or constructing a system is trying to identify the rules that make up the system in order to predict how the system will behave.
There are many kinds of systems, such as mechanical systems (e.g. car engine), natural systems (e.g. farming), social systems (e.g. personnel management), and abstract systems (e.g. mathematics). So, a person focusing on creating and understanding systems is organizing a great deal of their everyday life and the lives around them into an ordered and comprehensive set of facts, principles and rules. Generally, emotions play a little part in this systemizing effort.
Studies have shown that men score higher than women on tests of systemizing while women score higher on tests of empathizing.
In addition, both men and women with Asperger’s score higher on tests of systemizing than typical men and women. Conversely, women with Asperger’s score lower on empathizing tests than typical women.
Asperger’s and Maleness
These results suggest two things. One, Asperger’s Syndrome is heavily associated with a tendency towards systemizing, a trait that is more common among males. And since people with Asperger’s, both males and females, engage in systemizing even more than typical males, Asperger’s might be considered an extreme expression of maleness.
Second, empathy, a trait associated with femaleness, is less common in people with Asperger’s than it is among typical males and females. This reinforces the extreme maleness explanation of Asperger’s.
It pays to be a bit careful, however, not to accept this explanation uncritically. For one, the evidence is limited. Studies of the empathizing vs. systemizing dimension are very few in number and those that do exist use only one measure of this dimension. Perhaps if other measures were employed the results would be different.
Another criticism is that the idea of extreme maleness has been applied mostly to high-functioning individuals with Asperger’s. Those who are less educated and more disabled might not have the same tendency to systemize and would have less inclination to be empathic.
Clearly, more research and understanding is needed to clarify whether Asperger’s Syndrome is an exaggeration of essential male characteristics or a condition that occurs more often in males for other, still unknown, reasons. For now, however, the idea of an extreme maleness origin is an intriguing way to understand the core features of Asperger’s.
Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Asperger’s psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. To ask a question, or schedule an appointment,
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