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Professor says women’s changing roles to blame for rise in autism


Summary of story from The Daily Mail, November 23, 2011

The rise of autism rates across the developed world has led to numerous theories and debates, including the now discredited idea that it has been caused by combinations of childhood vaccines.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen has put forward the latest theory: that women’s changing role in society is to blame.

His theory centres around his much-publicised belief that autism is simply a case of ‘extreme maleness’, and suggests that autism rates were low in the past because extremely intelligent ‘systematic thinking’ women were unlikely to marry – either because they knew that they would lose any rights to property and work, or because clever women were unattractive to men.

In recent decades, however, a more equal, changing society has allowed these women to breed with their intelligent male counterparts, producing a higher likelihood of even more ‘male’ (ie. intelligent, systematic) children.

Cambridge University’s Autism Research centre is asking people who are graduates and parents to take part in studies to investigate Baron-Cohen’s proposed link between intelligent parents and autistic children.

WVoN comment: Essentially, he’s saying the women’s liberation movement is to blame for the rise in autism – I wonder what his solution would be… women back to the sink? And if you’re clever, don’t have kids?

  1. MezzoPiana says:

    The more I read of Simon Baron-Cohen the more I despise him.

  2. Cordelia Fine’s brilliant Book ‘Delusions of Gender’ has all the information in it you need to show that Professor Simon Baron-Cohen is not a credible source of evidenced based science. His form of sexist ‘science’ is skewed.

    • Yes, I thought about linking to that wonderful book in the article. It’s almost as if he thinks we shouldn’t be fighting for women’s rights because it’s all biology’s fault anyway!

  3. shockedmum says:

    what does it take to be a professor because it obviosly isnt brains

  4. To be fair, I don’t think that was really Simon Baron-Cohen’s theory… his theory is that two smart parents, such as doctors or engineers, are more likely to produce a child with Autism. That’s it.

    It was the Daily Mail that put the spin on it to blame the mom. I have read the same news story from over a dozen different news sources and the Daily Mail was the only one to put this particular spin on it.
    (see other news sources here:

    In my opinion, it’s far more likely to assume that the parents (either or both) have some level of undiagnosed Autism either themselves or in their family tree… which is why they are so smart and why they are producing children with Autism.

    That’s another spin (my personal spin) and in my opinion, makes far more sense.

    I’m not trying to defend the guy exactly, but it really wasn’t his intention to attack women’s lib (I don’t think)… just that smart people in smart places (think Silicon Valley) are producing higher than average rates of Autism in children.

    • MezzoPiana says:

      Sure. It’s mostly done by implication, but Baron-Cohen is notorious for throwing women under the bus in the name of his own peculiar brand of science. Personally I’m more irritated by his completely wacky idea that autism = extreme maleness (backed up, in his mind, by the completely unsubstantiated claims that men are less empathetic, more intelligent, more systematic, etc. than women).

      This current offering seems a particularly absurd hypothesis anyway when you realise that the only measurable difference here is the actual education of women, not their inherent intelligence. Which would say that it’s educating people that is the culprit, not intelligence per se. Unless someone would like to speculate that all those previous high-flying males married complete bimbos, of course. And the intelligent women were stuck with the trademen. Unlikely, I’d say.

      • “Personally I’m more irritated by his completely wacky idea that autism = extreme maleness (backed up, in his mind, by the completely unsubstantiated claims that men are less empathetic, more intelligent, more systematic, etc. than women).”

        1) Surveys, behavioural studies and neuroscience studies do suggest that men are less empathic. It’s not unsubstantiated.
        2) How systemazing is defined, there is a clear and statistically significant difference.
        3) Psychometric data says that there is no mean difference in the g-factor (what IQ tests measure.) There is however an average difference in some of the IQ subtest scores, e.g. females score higher on tests of verbal ability, males higher on spatial ability. There is also a difference in variance (i.e. in the spread of the scores.)

        Either way he never said it was exactly related to intelligence – because you don’t need to be intelligent to be a systemizer.

  5. TungstenV says:

    Yeah. Um, where did all those highly intelligent, ‘systematic thinking’ women come from in the first instance, and was remaining Un-Married (gasp) an available/tolerable lifestyle choice for them? (In the bad old days when women weren’t liberated, and being unattractively clever was effective protection against impregnation).

    A veritable crock of misogynistic pseudo-science.

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