If fetal testosterone plays an important role in autism, women with autism should be especially masculinized in certain ways. Some evidence suggests that this is true. Girls with autism show “tomboyism” in their toy-choice preferences. On average, women with autism and their mothers also have an elevated rate of polycystic ovary syndrome, which is caused by excess testosterone and involves irregular menstrual cycles, delayed onset of puberty and hirsutism (excessive body hair).
Prenatal testosterone, if it is involved in autism, is not acting alone. It behaves epigenetically, changing gene expression, and interacts with other important molecules. Similarly, the link between autism and systemizing, if confirmed through further studies, is unlikely to account for the full complexity of autism genetics. And we should not draw the simplistic conclusion that all technical-minded people carry genes for autism.
Investigating why certain communities have higher rates of autism, and whether genes that contribute to the condition are linked to genes for technical aptitude, may help us understand why the human brain sometimes develops differently than usual. People with autism, whose minds differ from what we consider typical, frequently display both disability and exceptional aptitude. Genes that contribute to autism may overlap with genes for the uniquely human ability to understand how the world works in extraordinary detail—to see beauty in patterns inherent in nature, technology, music and math.
This article was originally published with the title Autism and the Technical Mind.