Fact sheet on controversies around causes and diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders


Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, MPhil is a professor of developmental psychopathology in the departments of psychiatry and experimental psychology, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom. He is best known for his work on autism, including his early theory that autism involves degrees of 'mindblindness' (or delays in the development of theory of mind), and his later theory that autism is an extreme form of the 'male brain', which involved a major reconceptualization of typical psychological sex differences in terms of empathy and systemizing.



Baron-Cohen earned degrees in Human Sciences from New College, Oxford, a PhD in Psychology from University College London, and an Master of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London.


Research areas

Baron-Cohen's first research paper on autism was published in 1985, with Uta Frith and Alan Leslie.[1] It proposed that children with autism show social and communication difficulties as a result of a delay in the development of a theory of mind. Tested using the false belief experiment, this result has been replicated innumerable times.


In his 1995 book Mindblindness (MIT Press), he suggested that an individual's theory of mind depends on a set of brain mechanisms that develop in early childhood, including the eye direction detector (EDD), the shared attention mechanism (SAM), and the intentionality detector (ID). Baron-Cohen singled out SAM as a key precursor to theory of mind, giving rise to the first early screening test for autism, the CHAT (Checklist for Autism in Toddlers).[2] This quick test is used at 18 months old to check if the child is showing behaviours such as pointing and gaze following as examples of shared (or joint) attention. Absence or delays in joint attention is one marker of risk for a later diagnosis of autism. The CHAT remains the only screening instrument for autism in infancy that has been tested at a population level, and a revised version of the instrument is under evaluation to detect Asperger Syndrome also.


In 1994, with his colleague Howard Ring, he published the first evidence that theory of mind relied on the orbito-frontal cortex, and in 1999 they published further evidence that theory of mind was also strongly dependent on the amygdala, a key region in the brain involved in decoding and responding to others' actions and mental states. These studies also demonstrated that in autism there is under-activity in these regions, while the person is thinking about other minds.


His later theory, outlined in his 2003 book "The Essential Difference" (Penguin/Basic Books), was the first serious attempt to link the fields of typical sex differences in psychology with the field of autism. He proposed that on average, females develop faster in empathy and on average males develop faster in systemizing. People with autism, he argued, show an extreme of the typical male profile in having a disability in empathy alongside intact or even superior systemizing. Much of the empirical work testing this theory was in collaboration with his colleague Sally Wheelwright (See also EQ SQ Theory.)


In a major program of research, summarized in his 2005 book "Prenatal Testosterone in Mind" (MIT Press), with his doctoral students Svetlana Lutchmaya, Rebecca Knickmeyer, Bonnie Auyeung, and Emma Chapman, he demonstrated that foetal testosterone (FT) levels (measured in the amniotic fluid) inversely predict social behaviour (e.g., eye contact at 12 months old), language development (e.g., vocabulary size at 24 months old), quality of social relationships at 4 years old, and empathy at 8 years old. FT levels also positively predict systemizing at 8 years old. A single biological mechanism (FT) thus appears to influence both empathy and systemizing, in opposite ways. He is currently testing if autism is associated with elevated FT. This link remains to be fully tested. (See also Sexual differentiation.)


His prenatal androgen (FT) theory of autism is not at odds with a genetic theory, and Baron-Cohen has argued that whilst people on the autism spectrum are strong "systemizers" (showing a strong attraction to systems, and a drive to identify lawful or regular patterns within a system, as a way of understanding and predicting systems), so are their parents. His most recent idea is that autism may be the result of assortative mating of two strong systemizing parents. Evidence for this includes the finding that both mothers and fathers of children on the autism spectrum have excellent attention to and memory for detail (as measured on the Embedded Figures Test), and that the grandfathers of children with autism, on both sides of the family, are more likely to have worked in the field of engineering (which demands good systemizing skills)


As a psychologist, Baron-Cohen's work has had far reaching influences in the fields of developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, primatology, philosophy of mind, as well as clinical psychology and psychiatry. In addition to basic research into the biomedical causes of autism, Baron-Cohen and his colleagues have produced practical tools for people with autism, including Mind Reading: An Interactive Guide to Human Emotions,[3] which is educational software for helping to improve emotion-recognition skills. More recently, his original ideas led to creation of The Transporters,[4] a children's animation series which superimposed real human faces showing emotions onto animated vehicles, as a way of harnessing the strong interest in systems (vehicles being an example of a system) that even preschoolers with autism show, to help make faces and emotional expressions more autism-friendly and predictable. The Transporters DVD, commissioned by Culture Online, part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, was created by Catalyst Pictures, working alongside Culture Online, Baron-Cohen and researchers from Cambridge's Autism Research Centre[5].


Simon was also consulted in the case of Daniel Tammet in the documentary "The boy with the incredible brain". [6]


Selected Publications


Simon Baron-Cohen has written five books, including Mindblindness (1995) and The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth About Autism (2003). He has edited three books, including Understanding Other Minds (1993), with a second edition in 2001. In addition to autism, Baron-Cohen is also one of the pioneers in the empirical study of synaesthesia, and has edited a book on it: Synaesthesia: Classic and contemporary readings (1997).



Ofer Golan and Simon Baron-Cohen (2006). Systemizing empathy: Teaching adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism to recognize complex emotions using interactive multimedia. Development and Psychopathology 18 (2006), 591-617
Rana El Kaliouby, Rosalind Picard, and Simon Baron-Cohen. (2006). Affective Computing and Autism. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1093:1, 228–248
Simon Baron-Cohen and Sally Wheelwright (2004). The Empathy Quotient (EQ). An investigation of adults with Asperger Syndrome or High Functioning Autism, and normal sex differences. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 34:163-175
Simon Baron-Cohen. (2004). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Terrain, reprinted from Trends on Cognitive Sciences 6, 248-254 - translation 6:17-32



Simon Baron-Cohen is a first cousin of Sacha Baron Cohen[7], the actor and comedian famous for his characters Borat and Ali G. His maternal grandfather's brother was Robert Greenblatt, professor of endocrinology at the Medical College of Georgia, whose research led to the development of the oral contraceptive pill. [8]



1 Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a 'theory of mind'? Cognition, 21, 37-46.
2 http://depts.washington.edu/dataproj/chat.html
3 http://www.jkp.com/mindreading
4 http://www.transporters.tv
5 http://www.cultureonline.gov.uk/2007/01/animation_dvd_h.html
6 http://video.stumbleupon.com/#p=i85su1w6uz
7 IMDB biography page for Sacha Baron Cohen
8 Robert B. Greenblatt (1906-1987)


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Simon Baron-Cohen