Simon Baron-Cohen

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Simon Baron-Cohen FBA FBPsS (born 15 August 1958) is a British clinical psychologist and professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. He is the Director of the University's Autism Research Centre and a Fellow of Trinity College. In 1985, Baron-Cohen formulated the mind-blindness theory of autism, the evidence for which he collated and published in 1995. 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. However, his views on autism and sex differences, such as the fetal sex steroid theory, are controversial, with some critics asserting that Baron-Cohen's theories are based on subjective perceptions.

Baron-Cohen was born into a middle-class Jewish family in London. [3] [4] [5] He completed a BA degree in Human Sciences at New College, Oxford, and an MPhil degree in Clinical Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London. He received a PhD degree in Psychology at University College London; [6] his doctoral research was in collaboration with his supervisor Uta Frith. [7]

He married Bridget Lindley, a family rights lawyer whom he had met at Oxford, in 1987. She died of breast cancer in 2016. [8] [9]

Baron-Cohen has three children, the eldest of whom is screenwriter and director Sam Baron. [10] He has an elder brother Dan Baron Cohen and three younger siblings, brother Ash Baron-Cohen and sisters Suzie and Liz. [5] His cousins include the actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and the composer Erran Baron Cohen. [citation needed] [11] [12] Simon Baron-Cohen's surname, in contrast to that of most of his family, includes a hyphen; this arose from a typographical error which he never corrected in the printing of his first professional article. [13]

While a member of the Cognitive Development Unit (CDU) in London in 1985, Baron-Cohen was lead author (with Alan M. Leslie and Uta Frith) of the first study proposing a correlation between children with autism and delays in the development of a theory of mind ("ToM"). [14] [15] 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. [15]

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. [16] His team has investigated whether synaesthesia is connected to autism. [17]

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. [10] [18] He postulates that more individuals with autistic traits are marrying each other and having children. [10] 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." [18]

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; [18] his theory is known as the "extreme male brain" theory of autism. [12] 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". [19]

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. [20] 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 (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). [21]

Baron-Cohen developed the Mindreading software for special education, [22] which was nominated for an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) interactive award in 2002. [23] 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. [10] [24]

Baron-Cohen has faced criticism by some for his "empathizing-systemizing theory", which states that humans may be classified on the basis of their scores along two dimensions (empathizing and systemizing); and that females tend to score higher on the empathizing dimension and males tend to score higher on the systemizing dimension. Columnist at The Guardian Madeleine Bunting summarized some of these aspects in the 2010 article "The truth about sex difference is that if men are from Mars, so are women". [25] Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences characterized The Essential Difference as "very disappointing" with a "superficial notion of intelligence", concluding that Baron-Cohen's major claims about mind-blindness and systemizing–empathizing are "at best, dubious". [26]

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". [10] Time said that while research from Washington University in St. Louis did not support the assortative 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. [10]

The extreme male brain theory has been criticized on several grounds. Some critics claim that the tests behind this theory are based on gender stereotypes, and not on hard science. Professor Catherine Lord of UCLA says the theory is based on "gross misinterpretations" of developmental data. Professor David Skuse of University College London claimed that communication differences between genders are likely to be small. Meng-Chuan Lai, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, says the results have not been replicated. [27]

Time magazine has also criticized the assortative mating theory proposed by Baron-Cohen, claiming that it is largely speculative and based on anecdotal evidence. The theory claims that autism rates are increasing because "systemizers", individuals with more autistic traits, are more likely to marry each other and are more likely to have autistic offspring due to relatively recent societal changes. [28] James McGrath has criticized the autism-spectrum quotient, writing that the score increases if one indicates interest in mathematics, and decreases if one indicates interest in literature or art. He claims that this leads to the false notion that most autistic people are strong in math. [29] Critics also say that because his work has focused on higher-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders, it requires independent replication with broader samples [30] and that his theories are based on subjective perceptions. [31] However, one study confirmed his prediction that prenatal testosterone is elevated in autism. [32]

A 2009 study led by Baron-Cohen which reported that autistic individuals possessed superior visual acuity has been subject to heavy criticism. The developers of the software he used said that his results were impossible based on the technology used in the study. Additionally, the results of the study could not be replicated in a follow-up study. [33] [34] [35]

Baron-Cohen's supposition that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein displayed autistic traits has been met with scepticism by UCSF psychiatrist Glenn Elliot. Elliot views attempting to diagnose on the basis of biographical information as extremely unreliable, and claims that any behaviour can have various causes. Baron-Cohen responded by claiming that he wanted to find niches for autistic people in society where they could use potential strengths, stating that “This condition can make people depressed or suicidal.” [36]

Writing for the Autism Society of America, Jill Escher has criticized Simon Baron-Cohen's support for neurodiversity, claiming that many autistic people lack basic life skills and will need lifelong care because of autism, not because of comorbid conditions. [37] In August 2018, Baron-Cohen criticized the Twitter hashtag #EndAutismNow, describing it as hate speech and eugenics, while comparing it to the goals of the Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. Jonathan Ferguson, writing in The Times of Israel, responded that it is inappropriate for Baron-Cohen to compare advocates for an autism cure to the Nazi Party or the Ku Klux Klan. [38]

Aiyana Bailin in a Scientific American blog claimed that Baron-Cohen did not acknowledge that neurodiversity also views autism as a disability through the social model of disability. [39] However, Baron-Cohen tweeted that he agreed with her analysis. [40]

His theories have been described by psychologist Cordelia Fine as "neurosexism". [41] The 2017 book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini develops a "take-down" [42] of the sex differences research from Baron-Cohen and his colleagues, who carry on Darwin's "idea that man and woman...evolved to meet their roles of hunter and gatherer, respectively." [43] [44]

Another neuroscientist, Gina Rippon, opposes his theories in her book The Gendered Brain: The new neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain. [45] [46] She has criticized Baron-Cohen works, cataloguing his book The Essential Difference as "neurotrash" because of its weak research methods. [47] Reviewing her work for Nature, neuroscientist Lise Eliot has supported Rippon's approach, arguing "The hunt for male and female distinctions inside the skull is a lesson in bad research practice". [48] Rippon also argues against using "male" and "female" for describing different types of brains which do not correspond to genders. [46] [49]

In response to some of these criticisms, Baron-Cohen agrees that many of his results have not been replicated, and says that he remains "open minded about these hypotheses until there are sufficient data to evaluate them". Still, he says he doesn't see a problem with introducing theories before definitive evidence has been collected. [30]

Baron-Cohen is professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. [6] He is the Director of the University's Autism Research Centre [50] and a Fellow of Trinity College. [6]

He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society (BPS), [51] the British Academy, [52] and the Association for Psychological Science. [53] He is a BPS Chartered Psychologist. [51]

He serves as Vice-President of the National Autistic Society (UK), [54] and was the 2012 Chairman of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Guideline Development Group for adults with autism. [55] He has served as Vice-President of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR). [6] He is co-editor in chief of the journal Molecular Autism. [56] He is President-Elect of INSAR. [57]

He is the Chair of the Psychology Section of the British Academy. [58]

Baron-Cohen was awarded the 1990 Spearman Medal from the BPS, [59] the McAndless Award from the American Psychological Association, [60] the 1993 May Davidson Award for Clinical Psychology from the BPS, [61] and the 2006 presidents' Award from the BPS. [62] 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. [1]


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