Brains with Autism: Two Theories About Human Social Behaviour

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Table of Contents

  • WCC Theory's Non-Social Focus and Social Traits of Autism
  • EMB Theory's Impact on Diagnosis and Gender Stereotyping
  • Conclusion

Autism is a neurological and developmental disorder, in which their interaction and communication with others is affected, as well as affecting how one learns and behaves. In addition, individuals with this disorder show a limited range of behaviour, interests and activities. Individuals with autism commonly develop routine behaviours and will become distressed if the routine is deviated from. In my essay about autism I will evaluate two theories, these theories are the Weak Central Coherence (WCC) Theory by Uta Frith and the Extreme Male Brain (EMB) Theory by Simon Baron-Cohen.

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WCC Theory's Non-Social Focus and Social Traits of Autism

Weak Central Coherence (WCC) Theory by Uta Firth (1989) theorises those non-social traits of autism, including both advantages and disadvantages, could be because of the consequences from the bias of superior local processing over global information. Autistic individuals tend to have flawed cognitive abilities to be able to separate meaningful data and comprehend this information from a larger perspective. Frith determined this theory after many experiments. This included the Embedded Figures Test (EFT) in which the participant had to find the desired shape in the drawing of a larger more complicated shape with many lines on it. The results showed that autistic people recorded higher than average. Plaisted, argued that these findings show that autistic individuals have the 'acute ability to process fine detail'. On the other hand, the sentence completion experiment showed that processing information in context was more difficult. The participants had to finish sentences during the experiment, if the participant responded in relation to just one word it means that they have weak central coherence and when it was in relation to the context of the whole sentence it shows they have strong central coherence. This experiment shows the reliability of WCC theory, as it also addresses flaws. As determined by the study conducted by Frith and Snowling, the theory states that autistic children regardless of language skills are not able to comprehend the meaning from the context, although Norbury, demonstrated that it does not affect all autistic children. His study aimed to find out if autistic children could recognise multiple meanings of vague words. This study found that only children who have fundamental language difficulties struggled with this task. Showing that the WCC theory was not clearly explained in relation to this context. However, the WCC theory evaluates various non-social features of autism though, it does not establish a link with the social traits of Autism.

EMB Theory's Impact on Diagnosis and Gender Stereotyping

Extreme Male Brain Theory (EMBT) by Baron-Cohen (2002) looks at difficulties in social cognition, specifically where autistic individuals have extreme male brain. This could be caused by too much testosterone exposure in the early stage of pregnancy. This theory considers the view that females are more empathetic whereas males are better at systemizing (urge to develop the morals and rules to be able to further understand complex systems). For example, learning how something works. Empathizing however is described as the ability to react and understand other people's emotions, as well as being able to effectively interact with others. For example, when seeing someone crying, feeling need to support them. Someone viewed as having an extreme male brain is seen as a hyper-systemiser and hypo-empathiser. Knickmeyper et al. conducted a study with the intention to learn if there was an increase of autistic traits in females with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (exposure to high testosterone levels) due to their medical condition. The results of this study confirmed his hypothesis. However, Kung et al, argued that the experiment was conducted on mostly adults therefore it lacks representation which affects the validity of the results found. To argue his point, he conducted a study in which he measured prenatal exposure to testosterone to find out if it had an effect on autistic traits. This study looked at both children with and without congenital adrenal hyperplasia and it was found that there was no correlation. A limitation of the EMB theory is that it is developed from the results found from tests and questionnaires. For example, the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) that measures non-clinical autistic symptoms. The purpose of the questionnaire is to categorise the cognitive style of each participant. For example, someone who is good at systemizing and might not show interest in social relations will likely achieve a high AQ score, which means that their cognitive style will be categorised as an extreme male. As well, AQ questionnaires are solely based the participant's own opinion and therefore could lack reliability. For example, social standards might cause bias in this type of self-assessment, a female participant might think that she needs to answer in a compassionate way. Furthermore , Krahn and Fenton argue that EMB Theory cause less diagnoses in women. Baron-Cohen identified the types of brain with gender (Male: systemizing, Female: empathising). These labels could reinforce gender stereotyping.


In conclusion, Weak Central Coherence theory (Frith, 1989) and Extreme Male Brain theory (Baron-Cohen, 2002) explain traits of Autism in entirely different ways. Baron-Cohen highlights how autistic individuals process information and how those individuals react in a social situation. On the other hand, Frith explained the connection between weak central coherence found in autistic children and their ability to be highly detail focused but are not able 'to see the forest through the trees'. Baron-Cohen's methodology and hypothesis of testosterone being a cause of Autism has been heavily criticised by many Psychologists, together with with gender bias which the EMB theory might have helped create. But his theory gives a decent explanation of how the brain of someone with autism analyses information in a social situation.

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