With your support, we funded the world’s largest ever study looking into autistic people’s interests and skills in two specific areas – empathy and the ability to systemize.

Working with Channel 4, scientists at the University of Cambridge have just completed the study, testing over half a million people, and the results are in.

Two long-standing psychological theories

The researchers wanted to find the answer to two questions that experts have been talking about for decades.

First, they wanted to test whether the Empathizing-Systemizing theory is true.

Is it true that, on average, women score higher than men on tests of empathy (the ability to recognize what others are thinking and feeling, and the drive to respond with an appropriate emotion), whereas men on average will score higher on tests of systemizing (the drive to analyse or build rule-based systems)?

Secondly, the research wanted to go further and check the Extreme Male Brain theory, which predicts that autistic people, on average, will tend more towards systemizing than empathy.

The results are in

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirmed both theories. 

The first part of the study confirmed what we already know – on average, women scored higher than men on empathy, and men scored higher than women on both systemizing and autistic traits. 

But when looking at autistic people only, these sex differences were reduced, and autistic people’s scores were ‘masculinized’, a term used to indicate a higher drive (in average) to analyse or construct a system.

This new research reveals the strength many autistic people bring to neurodiversity:

This study pinpoints some of the qualities autistic people bring to neurodiversity. They are, on average, strong systemizers, meaning they have excellent pattern-recognition skills, excellent attention to detail, and an aptitude in understanding how things work. We must support their talents, so they achieve their potential – and society benefits too.

– Professor Simon Baron-Cohen

This study has also some very important implications for clinicians, who are responsible for diagnosing autism. 

By having a better understanding of the factors that underlie autism, we come step closer to being able to give earlier diagnoses which in turn will enable earlier interventions.

Autism and feelings

This result doesn't mean that autistic people don't care about feelings. Quite the opposite.

Although the results indicate a clear tendency to systemizing in autistic people, it’s important to point out that autism does not mean indifference. While autistic people on average may struggle more with ‘cognitive’ empathy, they usually have intact ‘affective’ empathy – they care about others as much as everyone else.

And, as the scientists clearly note in the paper, the differences found in this study apply only to group averages and not individuals.

Read the full study… and take part!

Both of the theories – the Empathizing-Systemizing theory and the Extreme Male Brain theory – have been confirmed in previous studies before, but number of people who took part to this new study was massive.

671,606 people took part, of which 36,648 were autistic people, providing evidence for these two theories on an unprecedented scale.

You can read the full study below, or you can help us further by helping us to complete these measures and participate in studies at the Autism Research Centre. 

Read the full study

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Of course, it’s only with your support that we can fund pioneering research that can help people understand autism. If you can, please donate today.