Autism is a condition that is widely known across most of the world and disorders such as this are an area that many psychologists are studying in detail. It was identified by a psychiatrist named Leo Kanner in 1943 and was later discovered not to refer to just one specific disorder, but actually a spectrum of disorders, also including Asperger’s Syndrome on the lower end of the scale. The potential implications of studying these disorders further may enable us to dramatically improve the learning ability and life quality of those suffering with the disorder, meaning that greater understanding is highly sought after.
Autism itself is centred mainly on problems in social skills and communication. Some show no interest in communicating with others, while some can simply not speak at all. Simon Baron-Cohen recently developed his own theory about the cause of this disorder and why it has the effect it does. This ‘theory of mind’ hypothesis that he suggested has already been highly influential and may hold the key to improving the lifestyle of those with the disorder.
The theory was developed after Baron Cohen’s research on the differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains. These brain types refer to the general brain abilities of those of each gender, however it is perfectly possible for individuals to have the brain type of the opposite gender depending on their abilities. Baron-Cohen showed that around 17% of people have the ‘typical’ brain type of the opposite gender. The ‘typical’ male brain is better at systematising, whereby organisational and structural systems are built with information, and it is easier to understand how things work. On the other hand, the ‘typical’ female brain is better at empathising, whereby it can understand the feelings of others and can sympathise with them, and it is easier to communicate with other people.
Baron Cohen, then realised that those with autism often lack ‘theory of mind’. This refers to the ability to understand the emotions of others. He showed with experiments that autistic people were less able to recognise and identify emotions from pictures of faces. Having noted this, he also realised that those with autism tend to have certain obsessive interests, which often involves some kind of systematisation. They will try to understand the rules of systems intensely and know certain topics in an extreme amount of detail. From these findings, Baron Cohen suggested that autism could perhaps be due to having an extreme male brain. They show the attributes of the male brain very strongly, but the attributes of the female brain are almost completely invisible, not being balanced out by this as most male brains are. This also explains why the vast majority of those with autism are male.
Baron-Cohen’s ideas on the topic have enabled better treatment and care for those with the disorder and further research will hopefully still improve upon this. The fundamental cause of the disorder is still unknown, but it is now thought to have both genetic and developmental roots. Though it seems to have some relation with other disorders, in around 90% of cases, a specific cause can still not be identified. Understanding where the disorder comes from could vastly improve the lives of thousands.
Image from: http://www.speechbuddy.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/speech91.jpg