Simon Baron-Cohen Director of Autism Aspergers Research
Professor: Simon Baron-Cohen
Simon Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, University of Cambridge and Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. He is Director, Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge. He has a degree in Human Sciences from New College, Oxford, a PhD in Psychology from UCL, and an M.Phil in Clinical Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, London, and he held lectureships in these departments. He is author of Mindblindness, The Essential Difference, Prenatal Testosterone in Mind, and Zero Degrees of Empathy. He has edited scholarly anthologies including Understanding Other Minds, Synaesthesia, and The Maladapted Mind. He has written books for parents and teachers including Autism and Asperger Syndrome: The Facts, and Teaching Children with Autism to Mindread. He has celebrated autism in An Exact Mind. He is author of the DVDs Mind Reading and The Transporters, to help children with autism learn emotion recognition, both nominated for BAFTA awards. He is author of >450 scientific articles. He has supervised 32 PhD students.
In 1985 Baron-Cohen formulated and went on to test the ‘mindblindness’ theory of autism. In 1997, he formulated and went on to test the ‘fetal sex steroid’ theory of autism. He has also made contributions to the fields of autism prevalence and screening, autism genetics, autism neuroimaging, autism and technical ability, typical cognitive sex differences, and synaesthesia. In 1999 Baron-Cohen created the first UK clinic for adults with suspected Asperger Syndrome, called the CLASS clinic (Cambridge Lifespan Asperger Syndrome Service), at a time when the National Health Service (NHS) did not see the clinical need for this. This has helped over 1,000 patients to have their disability recognized, the “lost generation” of adults who had missed out on diagnosis in childhood, and has been used to create a model for similar clinical services all over the UK.
Baron-Cohen has received awards from the British Psychological Society (BPS) (Spearman Medal); the American Psychological Association (McCandless Award); the BPS (May Davison Award); the Autism Award Philadelphia Autism Association/Princeton University; the Presidents’ Award (BPS); the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA), Joseph Lister Lecturer; the Lifetime Achievement Award, MENSA; and Kanner-Asperger Medal (German Society for Research into Autism). He is a Fellow of the BPS, the British Academy, and the American Psychological Association. He is Vice-President of the National Autistic Society, Autism Anglia, and was President, Psychology Section of the British Association and Vice-President, International Society for Autism Research (INSAR). He was Chair of the NICE Guideline Development Group for Autism (Adults), is Scientific Advisor or Patron to 6 autism charities, and a member of the Department of Health Program Board, Autism Strategy. He is Chair of the Psychology Section of the British Academy. He is co-editor in chief of the journal Molecular Autism and on the Editorial Board of many journals, including the Lancet Psychiatry. He is an Andrew D White Professor-At-Large, Cornell University, and received Doctor of Science degrees from Roehampton University and Abertay University. He is President-Elect of INSAR and an National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Senior Investigator.
Although he is soft-spoken, Simon Baron-Cohen courts controversy, from his ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism to his objections to incorporating Asperger syndrome into the spectrum.
One of the key concepts in autism research — that people with autism have difficulties interpreting the actions and intentions of others — owes its existence to Simon Baron-Cohen, a British researcher and among the most provocative thinkers in the field.
So does the first screening instrument for the infant siblings of children with autism, which Baron-Cohen developed in 1992. And the controversial hypothesis that autism is a manifestation of the ‘extreme male brain,’ which, according to Baron-Cohen, explains why the condition affects four times as many boys as girls.
Few scientists have a career that spans as wide a spectrum in autism research as Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. And fewer still garner effusive compliments from those who don’t agree with them.
“He is extremely prolific and has been hugely influential, both in the U.K. and worldwide,” says Francesca Happé, professor of cognitive neuroscience at King’s College London.
Given that Happé and Baron-Cohen are on opposite sides of one of the most controversial debates in autism — the decision to merge Asperger syndrome into the autism spectrum in the forthcoming edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the compliment is particularly weighty.
Shortly after graduating with a master’s degree in human sciences from the University of Oxford in 1981, Baron-Cohen worked as a teacher in a small school for children with autism.
He was fascinated by the children, who showed clear signs of intelligence but at the same time appeared oblivious to normal rules of social interaction.
“These puzzling behaviors made me want to explore the disconnect between intelligence and social skills,” Baron-Cohen says.
The job led him to a Ph.D. at the Medical Research Council-funded Cognitive Development Unit, under the supervision of the pioneering autism researcher Uta Frith.
“Simon was one of those rare students who could make a success out of a rather sketchy idea which still had many question marks,” says Frith, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. “He impressed me with his willingness to design his own test materials and to work hands-on with children.”
At the time, theory of mind — the ability to attribute mental states to others and interpret their actions — was a new concept, and it was thought that mind blindness, or the lack of theory of mind, might be the underlying cause of some aspects of autism.
Baron-Cohen and Frith recruited 4-year-old children with autism to test this idea. They showed the children a scenario involving two dolls. In the scenario, one of the dolls places a marble into her basket and leaves the scene. The second doll then moves the marble into her own basket. The researchers then ask the children where the first doll should look for her marble when she returns.
Typically developing children and those with Down syndrome pick up on the plot very quickly, and realize that the first doll doesn’t know what has happened. But children with autism say the first doll should look for the marble in the second doll’s basket.
“Baron-Cohen’s early research is the foundation of a whole field which has been growing exponentially in the last decade,” says Rebecca Saxe, assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It has transformed both autism research and treatment practice.”
Still, it didn’t go far enough for Baron-Cohen.
“In those early years we took a very narrow view of theory of mind,” says Baron-Cohen. “The mind blindness theory had something going for it, but it missed a lot, particularly the role of emotions.”
In the late 1990s, Baron-Cohen began to explore the idea that the autism spectrum might be defined by sex differences. He developed the Empathy Quotient, a measure of the ability to identify with another person’s feelings.
Women generally score higher on the empathy scale, whereas men tend to score higher on the systemizing scale, a measure of the drive to analyze and construct systems that follow rules2.
Children with autism also tend to score low on empathy and high on systemizing, Baron-Cohen has found3.
Seeing this same pattern of results on psychological tests, Baron-Cohen in 1997 proposed the extreme male brain hypothesis4, which characterizes people with autism as hyper-systemizers — focusing more on systems and repeating patterns than on other people’s thoughts and actions.
“Initially people were wary of it because of the long history of sex differences being taboo in science,” Baron-Cohen says. “But increasingly, the research community is recognizing that we might need to take sex-linked factors into account to understand autism.”
To better understand the skewed sex ratio in autism, Baron-Cohen started measuring testosterone levels in amniotic fluid taken from hundreds of pregnant women during routine testing procedures. The project is nearing its end; the children are about 10 years old, and Baron-Cohen’s group has studied around 500 of them so far.
“We found correlations between early hormones and later behavior,” he says, “and are now inviting children to climb into the brain scanner, so that we can look for correlations in the brain.”
Many in the field are skeptical of this hypothesis, however. “It isn’t clear if the theory predicts that fetal testosterone is sufficient to cause autism or whether fetal testosterone levels interact with other markers of genetic vulnerability,” notes David Skuse, professor of behavioral and brain sciences at University College London.
Most of the analyses carried out by Baron-Cohen’s group are based on the mothers’ perceptions of their children’s behavior, and not on objective measures, Skuse adds.
In the past year, Baron-Cohen has taken on yet another controversial idea: that Asperger syndrome and autism should be merged under one diagnosis.
Baron-Cohen is a prominent critic of this decision, arguing that Asperger syndrome should remain a distinct diagnostic entity.
“My suggestion was that it is premature to delete it,” Baron-Cohen says. “I don’t think there have been enough studies comparing Asperger syndrome to other types of autism to be able to say there’s no difference.”
Still, he is quick to dismiss the idea that autism is a mental illness. Instead, he says, it is both a disability and a difference.
“The disability is in relation to social functioning and adapting to change,” he says. “But the child is processing information in an intelligent, albeit different, way, with attention to detail and an ability for spotting patterns.”
He compares the way in which autism is viewed today with how left-handedness once was, and says he hopes it will eventually be regarded as another variation.
“There are lots of different routes to adulthood,” he says. “The profile we call autism might just be one of those routes.”
- Baron-Cohen S. et al. Cognition1, 37-46 (1985) PubMed
- Baron-Cohen S. and S. Wheelwright J. Autism Dev. Disord.34, 163-175 (2004) PubMed
- Auyeung B. et al. J. Autism Dev. Disord.39, 1509-1521 (2009) PubMed
- Baron-Cohen S. Trends Cog. Sci.6, 248-254 (2002) PubMed
Baron-Cohen in 2011
|Born||15 August 1958|
|Known for||Autism research|
|Awards||Kanner-Asperger Medal 2013 (WGAS)|
|Fields||Psychology and Cognitive neuroscience|
|Institutions||University of Cambridge|
|Thesis||Social cognition and pretend-play in autism (1985)|
|Doctoral advisor||Uta Frith|
Simon Baron-Cohen FBA (born 15 August 1958) is a British clinical psychologist, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He is the Director of the University’s Autism Research Centre, and a Fellow of Trinity College. In 1985 he formulated the mindblindness theory of autism, the evidence for which was collated in his 1995 book. In 1997, he formulated the fetal sex steroid theory of autism, the key test of which was published in 2015. He has also made major contributions to the fields of typical cognitive sex differences, autism prevalence and screening, autism genetics, autism neuroimaging, autism and technical ability, and synaesthesia.
- 1 Personal life and education
- 2 Autism research
- 3 Organizations
- 4 Recognition
- 5 Media appearances
- 6 Selected publications
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Personal life and education
Baron-Cohen completed a BA in Human Sciences at New College, Oxford, and an MPhil in Clinical Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. He completed a PhD in Psychology at University College London; his doctoral research was in collaboration with his supervisor Uta Frith.
Baron-Cohen has three children, the eldest of whom is screenwriter and director Sam Baron. He has an older brother Dan Baron Cohen and three younger siblings, brother Ash Baron-Cohen and sisters Suzie and Liz. Their cousin is the actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Baron-Cohen’s surname includes a hyphen—which is not the case with other members of his family—because of a typographical error in his first professional article; he never had the error corrected.
While he was a member of the Cognitive Development Unit (CDU) in London, in 1985 Baron-Cohen was lead author of the first study, published with Alan M. Leslie and Uta Frith, which proposed a correlation between children with autism and delays in the development of a theory of mind, known as ToM. A theory of mind is the ability to imagine other people’s emotions and thoughts, and it is a skill that according to Baron-Cohen’s research is typically delayed developmentally in children with autism.
Baron-Cohen and his colleagues discovered in 1987 the first evidence that experiences in synaesthesia remain consistent over time; they also found synaesthesia to be measurable via neuroimaging techniques. His team has investigated whether synaesthesia is connected to autism.
In 1997 Baron-Cohen developed the empathising–systemising theory. His theory is that a cognitive profile with a systemising drive that is stronger than empathising is associated with maths, science and technology skills, and exists in families with autism spectrum disorders. He suspects that if individuals with a “systemising” focus are selecting each other as mates, they are more likely to have children with autism. He postulates that more individuals with autistic traits are marrying each other and having children. He said that “In essence, some geeks may be carriers of genes for autism: in their own life, they do not demonstrate any signs of severe autism, but when they pair up and have kids, their children may get a double dose of autism genes and traits. In this way, assortative mating between technical-minded people might spread autism genes.”
According to Time magazine, his views on systemising traits had “earned him the ire of some parents of autistic children, who complain that he underestimates their families’ suffering”. Time said that while research from Washington University in St. Louis did not support the assortive mating theory, a survey finding that autism was twice as high in Eindhoven (the Silicon Valley of the Netherlands) had “breathed new life” into Baron-Cohen’s theory. The theory has received further support in 2016.
Baron-Cohen’s work in systemising-empathising led him to investigate whether higher levels of fetal testosterone explain the increased prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among males; his theory is known as the “extreme male brain” theory of autism. A review of his book The Essential Difference published in Nature in 2003 summarises his proposal as: “the male brain is programmed to systemize and the female brain to empathize … Asperger’s syndrome represents the extreme male brain”. Critics say that because his work has focused on higher-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders, it requires independent replication with broader samples. His prediction that prenatal testosterone would be elevated in autism has been confirmed.
In 2001 he developed the Autism Spectrum Quotient, a set of fifty questions that can be used to help determine whether or not an adult exhibits symptoms of autism. The AQ has subsequently been used in hundreds of studies including one study of half a million people, showing robust sex differences and higher scores in those who work in STEM.
Baron-Cohen developed the Mindreading software for special education, which was nominated for an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) interactive award in 2002. His lab developed The Transporters, an animation series designed to teach children with autism to recognise and understand emotions. The series was also nominated for a BAFTA award.
Further information: Empathizing–systemizing theory § Criticism
Glen Elliott, a UCSF psychiatrist, is skeptical of Baron-Cohen’s claim that historical figures displayed autistic traits. This is because he views attempting to diagnose on the basis of biographical information as extremely unreliable, and claims that any behaviour can have various causes.
He serves as Vice-President of the National Autistic Society (UK), and was the 2012 Chairman of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Guideline Development Group for adults with autism. He has served as Vice-President of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR). He is co-editor in chief of the journal Molecular Autism. He is President-Elect of INSAR.
He is the Chair of the Psychology Section of the British Academy.
Baron-Cohen was awarded the 1990 Spearman Medal from the BPS, the McAndless Award from the American Psychological Association, the 1993 May Davidson Award for Clinical Psychology from the BPS, and the 2006 presidents’ Award from the BPS. He was awarded the Kanner-Asperger Medal in 2013 by the Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft Autismus-Spektrum as a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to autism research.
- Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. MIT Press/Bradford Books. 1995. ISBN 978-0-262-02384-9.
- The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain. Penguin/Basic Books. 2003. ISBN 978-0-7139-9671-5.
- Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Facts. Oxford University Press. 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-850490-0.
- Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty. Penguin/Allen Lane. 2011. ISBN 978-0-7139-9791-0. (published in the US as The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Human Cruelty, ISBN 978-0-465-02353-0)
- Baron-Cohen S, Tager-Flusberg H, Lombardo MV, eds. (2013). Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives From Social Cognitive Neuroscience (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-852446-5.
- Hadwin J, Howlin P, Baron-Cohen S (2008). Teaching Children with Autism to Mindread: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Parents. Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-97623-3.
- Baron-Cohen, Simon (April 2007). “The evolution of empathizing and systemizing: assortative mating of two strong systemizers and the cause of autism”. In Barrett, Louise; Dunbar, Robin. The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198568308.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19856-830-8.
- Baron-Cohen S, Lutchmaya S, Knickmeyer R (2005). Prenatal Testosterone in Mind: Amniotic Fluid Studies. MIT Press/Bradford Books. ISBN 978-0-262-26774-8.
- Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S (2004). An Exact Mind: An Artist with Asperger Syndrome. Jessica Kingsley. ISBN 978-1-84310-032-4.
- Baron-Cohen S; Tager-Flusberg H; Cohen DJ, eds. (2000). Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-852445-8.
- Baron-Cohen S, Harrison J, eds. (1997). Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Blackwells. ISBN 978-0-631-19763-8.
- Baron-Cohen S, ed. (1997). The Maladapted Mind: Classic Readings in Evolutionary Psychopathology. East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press/Taylor Francis Group. ISBN 0-86377-460-1.
Selected journal articles
- Baron-Cohen S, Leslie AM, Frith U (October 1985). “Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”?”. Cognition. 21 (1): 37–46. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(85)90022-8. PMID 2934210.
- Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S, Skinner R, Martin J, Clubley E (February 2001). “The autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): evidence from Asperger syndrome/high-functioning autism, males and females, scientists and mathematicians”. J Autism Dev Disord. 31 (1): 5–17. doi:10.1023/A:1005653411471. PMID 11439754.
- Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S, Hill J, Raste Y, Plumb I (February 2001). “The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism”. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 42 (2): 241–51. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00715. PMID 11280420.
- Childhood Autism Spectrum Test
- Sally-Anne test
- Debates regarding sex differences in human neonatal social perception