Aspergers: not just ‘extreme male brain’ syndrome

If you have done some reading up on Aspergers, you have likely come across the description of it as ‘an extreme male brain’ syndrome.  It is a ‘quick and easy’, one-phrase explanation that ‘makes sense’ to some people.  I’ve often wondered if this theory is based more on the ‘men are bad at social skills, women are bad at math’ stereotype than on anything actually particular to Aspergers itself. 

It seems I am not alone in being a little uncomfortable describing aspergers as ‘extreme male brain’…to the contrary, many suggest that this description of Aspergers arose because it was only studied in males.  And only in a particular type of males, to boot!

Here is an extremely good rebuttal of that idea, written by Felinophile, a young woman who also happens to be an Aspie:


This theory that people with Aspergers have an extreme male brain is sexually-discriminatory, as it is based on studies of Aspergers males and people who fit the Asperger-male sterotype. It completely ignores the way Aspergers manifests in women, which is part of the reason it is seen as controversial.

Like a lot of Aspergers girls, though, I don’t fit the Asperger-male stereotype; while I have difficulty interpreting and expressing body language and facial expressions I have learnt over time to mimic others behaviour and responses, and to form a rough checklist for interpreting other people’s behaviour. While I have good spatial abilities, and do better than non-Aspergers girls in some areas of maths, I never had a gift for mathematics; instead, it was for language, as it is for some other Asperger girls


Read the rest here.

12 Responses to “Aspergers: not just ‘extreme male brain’ syndrome”

  1. Ace Says:

    Thanks for the link. 🙂

    It just really annoys me. Among other things, looking at Asperger means you ignore a whole segment of the Asperger population, and so how do you gain an accurate understanding of how it manifests, or possibly hope to understand why? It’s detrimental to understanding the disorder, as well as being sexist. The worst part is, the guy they talked to is an ‘expert’ who studies Aspergers.

  2. Caroline Says:

    It sounds to me like you’ve already decided in advance that the “extreme male brain” theory is sexist. A truly unbiased person would at least allow that some mental differences between men and women may be based on biology rather than dismissing such a possibility outright. Science shouldn’t let itself get hijacked by political correctness and fears of being offensive.

    Perhaps my commentary did not make this as clear as I had hoped… I do agree that there are most definitely some biological differences between the male and female brains. For example, we do know that the communication between the two hemispheres of the brain is much stronger in women than in men. That is not in question.

    What is being criticized here is that by identifying and concetrating on the external manifestations of symptoms of only a small portion of Aspies – and mostly male ones, the very biological differences between male and female brains are not being addressed by the ‘specialists’ who subscribe to the ‘extreme male brain syndrome’ of Aspergers. Therefore, the symptoms experienced by female aspies – specifically because our brain IS structured a little bit differently – are not being addressed….or, at times, even acknowledged.


  3. Daughter of the Ring of Fire » Blog Archive » Sex-Segregated Classrooms Says:

    […] recess or lunch. Then again, my Aspergian tendencies mean that some people would class me as having a manly brain, which to me seems like just another way of dismissing whole classes of women who don’t fit […]

  4. Vichy Says:

    “This theory that people with Aspergers have an extreme male brain is sexually-discriminatory”
    This is asinine political correctness.

    Xanthippa says:

    I am extremely allergic to ‘political correctness’, in all its forms. And, while I agree that the way this sentence is phrased utilizes the language of ‘political correctness’, the message carried behind it is important.

    The point this is trying to make is that many of the assumptions made by ‘professionals’ ABOUT people with Asperger syndrome are just WRONG…. They are based on not being able to interpret ‘Aspie behaviour’, in a similar way that Aspies have trouble interpreting ‘neurotypical’s behaviour’.

    It is this ‘surface reading’ of some of the ‘outward presentation’ of Aspergers which has lead to diagnostic definitions which under-diagnose the occurrence of Aspergers in females. Thus, female Aspies do not receive the help they need to succeed in life… and THAT is a bad thing.

    Plus, it sets up a circular, self-reinforcing system which, in the long run, ends up hurting all Aspies because it promotes serous misunderstandings of the condition.

    Unfortunately, this is the reality we live with… and something I’d like to change!

    Please, look past the language and to the message itself.

  5. Aspergers: not just ‘extreme male-brain’ syndrome « Xanthippa on Aspergers Says:

    […] Aspergers: not just ‘extreme male-brain’ syndrome REPOSTED FROM Xanthippa’s Chamberpot: […]

  6. Pie Says:

    I think that before you dismiss the ‘extreme male brain’ theory that you actually read Simon Baron-Cohen’s work. In full.

    To claim it’s sexist is astoundingly stupid and demonstrates a profound ignorance of Simon’s work.

  7. Terry Says:

    PC has no place in the arena of science. Still, I think that characterizing Asperger’s as the extreme male brain is misguided. Extreme male types who are neuro-typical (NT) tend to like to play or watch team sports, hunt, or do other stereotypically masculine things; Aspies I know don’t like sports at all. NTs resort to agression as a masculine response; I always did so only when backed into a corner or as part of a meltdown and my level of response was way out of proportion to what the situation called for. I would rather have avoided the whole situation.
    My experience with AS makes me wonder if it might better be understood in terms of a hormonal imbalance in the brain. I took Tamoxifen, an androgen and anti-estrogen, for a problem completely unrelated to AS. I took 2 courses of trearment (3 mos. each) and have been off it for several mos. and am still reaping benefits from it. I have never felt so normal in my life. So much so that I joke that I am afraid they are going to take my diagnosis away. I have since seen that my symptoms still show up in new and stressful situations. I think that complete hormonal workups ought to be looked into as a potential part of the screening process.

    Xanthippa says: what an neat perspective! Thank you.

  8. ANA Says:

    Well, I took an Asperger’s Syndrome test and I scored 50/50, I have to say that I have some difficulties reading people’s facial expressions and am also socially awkward, insensitive, highly verbal and intelligent, loner with developed spatial intelligence. So as a female I also have a male brain. I was always told that I was different.

    Xan says: Thanks for sharing!

    • Juggernaut Says:

      Being born autistic (neither severe nor mild), having Aspergers but improving so much that I could relate to people, I think I do have something to say about this.

      The extreme male brain syndrome is something that is a cute metaphor but not something that ought to fit within the standards of real scientific academic research.

      A person with Asperger’s CAN be someone who is LIKE an extreme version of what traits are most commonly found in males. Doesn’t mean they are, though they may share some traits.

      A person with Asperger’s CAN be someone who is LIKE a person who had too much to drink during a social interaction. Doesn’t mean that is a sufficient definition on what Aspergers is.

      It’s a metaphor – not to be taken literally.

      As for the sexist charge, there are common traits that more males have than females. There is enough deviation from that to make generalizations ignorant, but enough common ground to predict the probability of how a man would behave on some occasions.

      • Eduardo Says:

        Hi just wanted to say I found your site while vitising scrambled not fried’, had to tell you how much I appreciate/love your blog banner, the Morrison quote. thank you!

  9. Anonymous Says:

    I have this whole article printed out but my scanner is not working. Some Aspie women, like myself, have high free testosterone. Mine is triple. I have insulin resistance as well. This is caused by PCOS or polycystic ovarian syndrome they say even though I have no little cysts on the ovaries they have changed the criteria. All my life I was told it was idiopathic. I am on a low carb diet to lower the testosterone. My total testosterone in my body is elevated as well. I am very feminine in appearance, probably thru nurture as my mother was very beauty oriented but I am a researcher at heart, a loner and prefer solitude over parties. i can interact with people up to a point but don’t do it often. I have had more Male friends in my lifetime than women but have had maybe a handful of friends over the years, I am 62 and look very yourthful. I do have a daughter with the same condition so she is my friend and confidante. Alice does not want to deal with parenthood due to her low stress tolerance. I just found out 7 years ago I had Aspergers. I look maybe 15 years younger due to my hormonal makeup but I have severe hirsutism since puberty. I have been married 5 times and basically many men were 10 years younger. Due to the high testosterone levels all my life, I have better muscle tone and bone structrure with few wrinkles for my age but a lifetime of hair removal. My hirsutism is severe. But i know I have an extreme male brain. I was not a nurturing or empathetic mom. I did not know what empathy really was until I was about 40. When I went on meds 7 years ago, I started to feel empathy… a lot. Going thru the change made my Asperger’s symptoms worse because I lost my female hormones, estrogen and progesterone. It was a horrible time. Now I take low dose estradiol and progesterone. I am somewhat altruistic now mostly financially not by volunteering. I lived at the library most of my life and with the Internet being available to me for many years, I found this article and new that my daughter and I were experiencing Asperger’s symptoms from our high testosterone. I have found other articles on some women with PCOS experiencing Asperger’s as well. My daughter and I have high I,Q.s. I sell insurance from home, she works from home as well for Allstate as we do no do well with office politics and social interactions. Something always happens because we are very systematic and highly proficient and expect others to do the same. We are honest to a fault and impulsive at times as well. i do miss some interaction with others. I am married but he is an engineer with highly functioning autism as well and we live separate lives after 10 years. He is like my roommate. With high testosterone, sexuality is increased so living like this is difficult. Oh well, there are other perks and I am at the time in my life where financial security is paramount.

    Hope this helps regarding your interest in the extreme male brain in females. Rae

    Original Article
    Molecular Psychiatry 16, 1213-1220 (December 2011) | doi:10.1038/mp.2010.102

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    Search Pubmed for
    E Schwarz
    P C Guest
    H Rahmoune
    L Wang
    Y Levin
    E Ingudomnukul
    more authors of this article
    Sex-specific serum biomarker patterns in adults with Asperger’s syndrome
    E Schwarz, P C Guest, H Rahmoune, L Wang, Y Levin, E Ingudomnukul, L Ruta, L Kent, M Spain, S Baron-Cohen and S Bahn

    AbstractAutism spectrum conditions have been hypothesized to be an exaggeration of normal male low-empathizing and high-systemizing behaviors. We tested this hypothesis at the molecular level by performing comprehensive multi-analyte profiling of blood serum from adult subjects with Asperger’s syndrome (AS) compared with controls. This led to identification of distinct sex-specific biomarker fingerprints for male and female subjects. Males with AS showed altered levels of 24 biomarkers including increased levels of cytokines and other inflammatory molecules. Multivariate statistical classification of males using this panel of 24 biomarkers revealed a marked separation between AS and controls with a sensitivity of 0.86 and specificity of 0.88. Testing this same panel in females did not result in a separation between the AS and control groups. In contrast, AS females showed altered levels of 17 biomarkers including growth factors and hormones such as androgens, growth hormone and insulin-related molecules. Classification of females using this biomarker panel resulted in a separation between AS and controls with sensitivities and specificities of 0.96 and 0.83, respectively, and testing this same panel in the male group did not result in a separation between the AS and control groups. The finding of elevated testosterone in AS females confirmed predictions from the ‘extreme male brain’ and androgen theories of autism spectrum conditions. We conclude that to understand the etiology and development of autism spectrum conditions, stratification by sex is essential.

    To read this article in full you may need to log in, make a payment or gain access through a site license (see right).

  10. airda6 Says:

    Ironically, I happen to be a female with autism who is a tomboy. I prefer math over language. I took viagra once (for shuts and giggles) and had the common side effects, a headache and stuffy nose.

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