Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fetal Testosterone and Autistic Traits - Part V(a): More About Visuospatial Abilities

(An addendum to my earlier post on this topic)

Looking back at this article (full text here), I notice something I didn't write about in my earlier (as yet unpublished) post about it --- one of the things its authors were testing for, looking to see if it had any relation to how much testosterone they found in their study participants' mothers' amniotic fluid, was IQ (measured using the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence, or WASI).

More importantly, the researchers also tracked their subjects' scores on one particular subscale of the Wechsler test --- Block Design --- which has been shown over and over again to be something autistic people are very, very good at.

Not only are we better, overall, than non-autistic people are at this task, we also score much higher on it than we do on any other subscale of a Wechsler IQ test.

Our scores, when you plot them across all the different subscales, tend to show this characteristic pattern, of a valley on the (verbal) Comprehension subscale and a very high peak on the Block Design subscale:

(Image adapted from Figure 1 in Dawson et al., 2007; each square along the line represents a different subscale of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children - Third Edition)

Here is another image, from a much older study, showing the difference between the distribution across the different subscales of a Wechsler test of autistic and non-autistic test-takers' scores.

(Figure 5, in Shah and Frith, 1993; both solid lines represent groups of autistic children --- the line connecting unfilled circles represents autistic children with high overall IQs, while the line connecting darkened circles represents autistic children with low overall IQs. Dotted lines represent various non-autistic groups: children with intellectual disability but not autism, children without disabilities, and teenagers without disabilities)

The peaked shape is present in both the low-overall-IQ and high-overall-IQ autistic groups, while both the low- and high-IQ controls' scores are more or less the same across all the subscales.

So, if more testosterone in the womb ---> autistic-like brains, you would expect 1) boys to score higher than girls on this task, 2) boys to show greater disparity between Block Design scores and other scores, 3) both absolute and relative Block Design scores to correlate with fetal testosterone within each sex.

As raw scores for each subscale of the WASI were not given in Auyeung et al., 2009, I can't tell anything about whether their subjects' Block Design scores were particularly high relative to the other subscales.

However, I can tell you that there were no sex differences on Block Design --- boys' average score was 19.14 to girls' 16.26, but the standard deviation for both sexes is probably somewhere between 9.5 and 10*, making the difference between the sexes a little less than one-third of a standard deviation, and thus not statistically significant.

Also, within each sex, amniotic testosterone had no relationship to any of the IQ measures the researchers reported --- not full-scale IQ, not verbal IQ, not performance IQ and not the Block Design subscale of performance IQ.

So, this cognitive ability characteristic of autism doesn't seem to vary with sex or with androgenicity.

*Standard deviations are only given for boys and girls separately; for boys, it is 9.41; for girls, 10.08. There are 43 boys and 31 girls in this study population.

Auyeung, B., Baron-Cohen, S., Ashwin, E., Knickmeyer, R., Taylor, K., & Hackett, G. (2009). Fetal testosterone and autistic traits British Journal of Psychology, 100 (1), 1-22 DOI: 10.1348/000712608X311731

Dawson, M., Soulieres, I., Ann Gernsbacher, M., & Mottron, L. (2007). The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence Psychological Science, 18 (8), 657-662 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01954.x

Shah, A., & Frith, U. (1993). Why Do Autistic Individuals Show Superior Performance on the Block Design Task? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 34 (8), 1351-1364 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.1993.tb02095.x

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What Would You Tell a Teenage Girl with Autism?

Sharon daVanport's blog, Spectrumy, has this guest post from Shana Nichols, a psychologist who specializes in helping girls with autism cope with the social and emotional challenges of adolescence:

I am currently writing a companion book [to her earlier work, Girls Growing Up on
the Autism Spectrum
] for pre-teen and teen girls themselves to read titled A Girl's Guide to Growing Up on the Autism Spectrum. My co-author, Brigid Rankowski, is a college student with AS. This book is under contract with Jessica Kingsley Publishers, and at this time we are looking for short contributions from girls and women.

If you (as an adult on the spectrum) or your daughter would be interested in sharing an experience, or advice related to growing up as a female with an ASD, I would love to hear from you. We are looking for 50-200 word narratives about any topic related to growing up. Some examples include:
  • What it's like being a girl/woman with an ASD
  • Puberty
  • Having your period; gynecological exams
  • Getting a first bra
  • Friendships and mean girls; bullying; fitting in
  • Eating issues
  • Self-esteem and feeling good about yourself
  • Being true to who you are
  • Mood and anxiety
  • Sexuality
  • Relationships and dating
  • Media, popularity
  • Life goals and pursuing your dreams
  • Special interests
We are also interested in poetry and possibly art work.

I like this project --- especially when we're that young, there's so much we know but can't articulate about how we're different, particularly the growing suspicion that certain things that are very, very hard for us are as simple as breathing to most people, and thus that most people can't even tell we're struggling, because what could we possibly be struggling with? It might be helpful to have stuff written down by adults who've already figured out ways to cope with some of the really thorny, hard-to-name problems like inertia, executive dysfunction, sensory hypersensitivities, etc. Even if the solutions they describe aren't practical for the young person reading the book, they can at least show the essay to their parents and say, "See this? The problem she talks about? I have it, too."

I know I had to wait a very long time before I could describe most of the things that now seem to matter a great deal to me, and greatly affect my day-to-day welfare.

I'm not sure to what extent a guidebook written by autistic adults/other adolescents would've helped me, though, because many of my biggest problems either had little or nothing to do with autism (example: chronic, recurring nausea and other gastrointestinal issues) or my solutions to the problem required a freedom to arrange my life around my body's own needs and rhythms that most teenagers don't have (example: if I can wait a few hours before eating anything, I'll have a lot fewer problems than if I have to wake up, eat, and rush out the door). (As you can see from my choice of examples, sometimes both of those things are true at the same time).

I would also not have much, if anything, to say about many of the topics on their sample list, as many of them did not apply to me. I don't remember puberty --- at least, I don't remember menarche, and the other changes were gradual (and slight!) enough to be non-issues.

Similarly, getting a bra was not a memorable occasion for me; I wore training bras, and only ever "graduated" to sports bras.

Mean girls? What mean girls? The bullies I worried about were all boys, and I wasn't worried about being ostracized or gossiped about so much as I was worried about physical violence. (That never actually happened, but it's always a possibility when you are one gawky social outcast and your harassers are many teenage boys. I feared it, at any rate).

I was also so socially obtuse at that point in my life that many characteristic "mean girl" tactics would probably have been wasted on me.

However. There is one thing that could have made a world of difference if I'd been explicitly told this sometime during middle school, or at the beginning of freshman year of high school: that it's okay to say no to any form of sexual contact just because you don't want to do it. In other words, I wish I'd been given a Talk about consent. I wish it very much, because my not-rape in high school happened because I didn't know I could say no, so I allowed all sorts of stuff I didn't enjoy to be done to me by a boy I didn't even like.

I might write something about that, if I can get it short enough, coherent enough, and I don't think I'd be being too much of a Debbie Downer sending it in.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fetal Testosterone and Autistic Traits - Part V: Visuospatial Abilities

ResearchBlogging.orgEXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Researchers looking into the separate questions, "How do male and female minds differ?" and "How do autistic people differ from non-autistic people?" have discovered --- independently of each other --- an assortment of cognitive strengths peculiar to each of the groups being studied. Now that Simon Baron-Cohen has floated the idea that autism is just an extreme version of the normal male brain, it would make sense to check if the cognitive strengths of autistic people, and of all men, really do overlap, and whether prenatal testosterone exposure seems to play any role in the development of any of those aptitudes.

One recent study (Falter et al., 2008) compared groups of autistic and typically developing schoolchildren on three visual/spatial tasks that normally show a male advantage: mentally rotating three-dimensional objects, positioning a cursor over a moving image, and spotting a shape hidden somewhere in a larger pattern or line drawing, or "figure disembedding". They also measured the children's second-to-fourth digit ratios, as an indicator of prenatal testosterone exposure.

Their results were not consistent with what they predicted based on the extreme-male-brain theory of autism: the autistic children did better at figure disembedding, worse at targeting the moving image, and were slightly faster (but not more accurate) at mental rotation. On further analysis, though, they seemed to be faster at different parts of the (complex, multi-step) mental-rotation process than non-autistic men seem to be. The researchers were able to break down the results of the mental-rotation task into "rotational" and "non-rotational" components --- that is, to separate the actual visualization of the object rotating from the other factors, like comparing the rotated object in your head to the one shown on the screen and deciding whether they are the same. Autistic people seem to be faster at the non-rotational parts of this process, while non-autistic, male people seem to be faster at the rotational part. So, different cognitive skills underlie the two groups' respective advantages at the same complex task.

Finally, testosterone seemed to play no role whatsoever in predicting a child's success at either mental rotation or figure disembedding; the only task that showed a relationship between digit ratios and performance on that task was targeting, which 1) was harder for the supposedly "hyper-masculine" autistic boys, and 2) was easiest for the boys with middling digit ratios --- the ones with very low, "masculinized" digit ratios performed worse, as did the ones with high, "feminized" digit ratios. There were also no group differences in digit ratio between autistic and non-autistic boys.


The term "visuospatial abilities" covers a lot of ground, and might include different skill sets depending on where and how it's being used.

For example, one of the most-studied (and most reliably replicated) cognitive differences between the sexes is a male advantage in the ability to rotate three-dimensional images on one's head; other spatial skills that tend to show a male advantage are aiming, predicting a projectile's trajectory . If autism is the same thing as having an "extreme male brain," you would expect autistic people to do better at these tasks than non-autistic people of their same gender.

There is also a well-established constellation of visual and spatial skills that autistic people tend to be better at than non-autistic people: the Block Design subscale of the Weschler intelligence tests, spotting a shape hidden inside a larger pattern (i.e., disembedding a figure), distinguishing a target figure from a crowd of "distractor figures" that are similar but not identical to the target, and reproducing a distorted or impossible image. It would be equally instructive, as far as investigating the extreme-male-brain hypothesis is concerned, to look for sex differences in how non-autistic people do on these tasks; you would also want to look for a relationship between those abilities and prenatal testosterone exposure. If the autistic cognitive style is essentially the same as the masculine one, you would predict exposure to higher levels of testosterone in utero would correlate with higher scores on the Block Design, faster and more accurate performance on visual-search tasks (like the Embedded Figures test or the tasks described in this study), and greater accuracy on drawing tasks, like the perspective-drawing task described here or the shape-drawing task described here (PDF).

One relatively recent study, carried out by Christine Falter, Kate Plaisted and Greg Davis and published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, directly addresses the prediction I made in the second paragraph. Those researchers identified three visuo-spatial tasks that usually show a male advantage (or correlate with prenatal testosterone exposure, or both) --- mental rotation, targeting and figure-disembedding --- and tested a group of 28 autistic schoolchildren (27 of whom were boys) and a group of 31 typically-developing children matched for age, sex and nonverbal IQ on those tasks. They also measured the children's second-to-fourth digit ratio, as an indirect measure of prenatal testosterone exposure.
(Sample image from the Embedded Figures Test)

They found no significant differences between the autistic children and the typically-developing children in terms of digit ratio; depending on how the study participants were grouped (because each skill was tested in a differently-sized subset of the total study population), either the autistic half or the neurotypical half of a given subgroup might have slightly higher 2D:4D. These differences were so slight as to be statistically insignificant, regardless.

Overall, the autistic children did better at both mental rotation of 3-D objects (measured by having the children turn a computer-generated image of a solid to match the view of that solid the computer showed them) and figure disembedding than the typically-developing children; they were both faster and more accurate at these tasks. (Although, for the mental-rotation task, the difference was very slight). However, they performed worse than the typically-developing children at the targeting task, in which they had to position a cursor over an image that would appear at random points within certain regions of the computer screen*. Also, the mental-rotation results are a bit more complicated than just looking at the mean reaction times and accuracies of both groups would lead you to believe. The study authors did a linear regression of each of those two outcome variables with the degree of rotation (i.e., how far from its original position did the participants have to rotate the object?), which apparently allowed them to separate out the different cognitive processes used in mental rotation:

Across participants, the degree of rotation showed a strong linear relationship with reaction time, RT (R = .99, F(1,3) = 227.88, p = .001), and accuracy scores, ACC
(R = .98, F(1,3) = 59.84, p = .004). Accordingly, consistent with previous studies of mental rotation, RT and ACC were each regressed linearly against angle of rotation for each participant, to yield a rotation slope and an intercept. The slope for each participant indexed the speed with which they mentally "rotated" objects in degrees per second. The intercept yielded by these regressions indexed non-rotational aspects of performance, presumably related to the speed with which participants mentally compare three-dimensional objects as well as decision making and response variables.

Only the linear regression for reaction time showed any difference between the autistic and typically-developing groups, and there the difference was only in the intercept; the slopes of the two groups' lines were more or less the same.

(Figure 1, in Falter et al., 2008 --- graph showing the linear relationship of degree of rotation with reaction time)

Since two of the three authors of this paper (Falter and Davis) had also been involved in a similar study comparing men and women, using the same linear-regression method in their analysis of their results, they were in a position to notice differences between the men's results in the 2006 study and the autistic children's results from the 2008 study.

While both of the studies found overall differences that seem to lend support to Baron-Cohen's hypothesis --- men outperformed women, and autistic boys** outperformed typically-developing boys --- the linear regressions of both sets of data revealed different factors contributing to each better-performing group's advantage: while the autistic group in Falter et al. (2008) seemed to be better at the non-rotational aspects of this task, the male group in Falter et al. (2006) was faster at performing the rotations themselves. (In other words, if you were to compare the graphs made of the linear regressions of their results, the graphs in the 2006 study would have different slopes, while the graphs in the 2008 study have about the same slope, but different intercepts).
(Figure 2, in Falter et al., 2008 --- graph showing relationship of second-to-fourth digit ratio to reaction time on Targeting task)

Neither the mental-rotation task nor the figure-disembedding task showed any relationship to digit ratio; however, there was a quadratic relationship between 2D:4D and reaction time on the targeting task, with children having both very high (above 1.0) and very low (below 0.90) digit ratios taking longer to position the cursor correctly than their peers with mid-range digit ratios.
An older study, carried out in 1992 by Jo-Anne Finegan, G. Alison Niccols, and Gabriel Sitarenios, compared testosterone levels in the amniotic fluid of women who had undergone amniocentesis at Toronto General Hospital during the mid-1980s with those women's children's later results (at age four, in this study) on a wide range of cognitive tests.

The visuospatial tasks included in this study were fairly similar to the ones Falter, Plaisted and Davis used: there was a figure-disembedding task (the Preschool Embedded Figures Test, in which a triangle is hidden somewhere in various line drawings of familiar objects), a block-building task, in which the person giving the test builds structures of varying complexity out of 1-inch cubes, and the child is supposed to build the same thing. It's not the same as the Block Design test, but it seems pretty close to it to me. The one thing Falter et al. test that Finegan et al. do not is targeting, and Finegan et al. test a few things Falter et al. don't: picture-puzzle solving (which I guess is also analogous to Block Design) and geometric-form copying (analogous to the drawing tasks I mentioned above, in the paragraph about autistic people's visuospatial strengths).
(Sample image from the Preschool Embedded Figures Test)

That study found no significant sex differences in any of the skills being investigated; it also found no relationship between prenatal testosterone and performance of three of the four tasks I describe above --- figure disembedding, puzzle solving and shape drawing were all independent of prenatal testosterone exposure in both sexes. For girls, there was a significant negative relationship between prenatal testosterone and scores on the block-building task --- the higher female scorers on this test tended to have lower levels of prenatal testosterone exposure than their lower-scoring peers; for boys, there was a small trend in the opposite direction --- with high scorers tending to have higher prenatal testosterone levels --- but that relationship wasn't statistically significant.

Falter et al.'s results tell me that the area of overlap between 1) the things men are usually found to better at than women, and 2) the things that autistic people are usually found to be better at than non-autistic people, within the larger domain of visuo-spatial skills, is fairly small. Also, the two "masculine" skills that autistic people tend to do better at --- figure disembedding and mental rotation --- are not at all correlated with an indirect measure of prenatal androgen exposure.

Because there is some uncertainty around the use of digit ratios as a marker for prenatal testosterone exposure, I wanted to find a study of similar cognitive abilities that measured that variable directly. Finegan et al.'s study was the only one I could find that did this, even though it was old and didn't have any autistic participants. Their results showed that prenatal testosterone has no effect on young children's performance at most visuospatial tasks, and, on the tasks it does influence, it seems to affect boys and girls differently, with higher levels of testosterone exposure boosting boys' scores but lowering girls'.

*It doesn't surprise me at all that autistic people would be slower at that, given our difficulties with motor planning. Even apart from that, some studies have found that we are not as good as neurotypical people in tracking moving visual stimuli --- see this review (full text here) for more detail.

**I use "boys" here because there were a total of two girls --- one in the autistic group, and the other in the control group --- in this study population of fifty-nine children.

Falter CM, Plaisted KC, & Davis G (2008). Visuo-spatial processing in autism--testing the predictions of extreme male brain theory. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 38 (3), 507-515 PMID: 17674175

Finegan, J., Niccols, G., & Sitarenios, G. (1992). Relations between prenatal testosterone levels and cognitive abilities at 4 years. Developmental Psychology, 28 (6), 1075-1089 DOI: 10.1037/0012-1649.28.6.1075

Voyer D, Voyer S, & Bryden MP (1995). Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: a meta-analysis and consideration of critical variables. Psychological bulletin, 117 (2), 250-270 PMID: 7724690

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fetal Testosterone and Autistic Traits - Part IV: Verbal Abilities

ResearchBlogging.orgApart from eye contact and looking behavior, one of the earliest signs that a child might be autistic is a delay in the acquisition of speech*. Many of us continue to have difficulties with language as older children, adolescents and adults --- difficulties both with producing speech, and with understanding other people's speech.

Thus, if autism really results from hypermasculinization of the developing brain in utero by testosterone, you would expect children exposed to higher levels of testosterone during gestation to 1) develop speech somewhat later than children exposed to less testosterone, 2) have somewhat poorer verbal skills in general, perhaps reflected by an imbalance between verbal and performance IQ, and 3) do relatively poorly at comprehending spoken language, compared to their less-androgenic peers.

To help answer those questions, Svetlana Lutchmaya, Simon Baron-Cohen and Peter Raggatt (full text here) measured testosterone levels in the amniotic fluid of 87 women and then tested their children twice, at the ages of eighteen and twenty-four months, on the size of their vocabularies using the Communicative Development Inventory (CDI).

They found a significant sex difference in vocabulary size --- on average, the 40 girls in this study knew about 87 words at eighteen months old, while the 47 boys had an average vocabulary size of around 42 words. There was a huge amount of variation within each group, though: the boys' scores ranged from zero (which I'm assuming to mean they didn't speak at all --- three boys had this result) to 222 words; while the girls' scores ranged from 2 to 318. So, the least verbal girl(s) could all say at least a few words, while three boys couldn't say any words at all; while the most verbal girl(s) knew almost a hundred (or ~50%) more words than the most verbal boy(s).

This pattern persisted when the children (most of them, at least --- at this stage, the sample consisted of 43 boys and 38 girls) were followed up at twenty-four months old: then, the boys' average vocabulary consisted of 197 words (ranging from a low score of zero to a high score of 414); the girls knew about 275 words on average (ranging from 15 to 415). So, while the most talkative boys had caught up with the most talkative girls by this time, the sexes' average and low-end scores still diverged.

In their statistical analysis of these data, and on the seven other variables they tracked, the researchers found the strongest relationship between sex and vocabulary size, followed by level of parental education. Fetal testosterone came in third for both sexes together, and was not a significant predictor of vocabulary size at all within either sex. So I think it's probably fair to conclude that the reason testosterone showed up as a significant factor at all in the analysis of the pooled data is because it's strongly correlated to sex.

A much older study (Finegan, Niccols, and Sitarenios, 1992) also looked for a potential relationship between prenatal testosterone (measured in amniotic fluid) and young children's performance on a broad assortment of cognitive tests. Some of these tests measured verbal abilities; the Comprehension scale of the Reynell Developmental Language Scales tested a child's understanding of individual words, concepts, and different meanings conveyed by different sentence structures; and several subdomains within the McCarthy Scales of Children's Abilities --- Oral Vocabulary, Verbal Fluency and Opposite Analogies --- tested the children's expressive language abilities. Of those latter three, the first is a rough measure of vocabulary size (though, unlike the measure used by Lutchmaya and her colleagues, it doesn't ask the parents how many words their child knows; instead, it asks children to define a series of 10 words, increasing in difficulty from familiar objects and animals to more abstract concepts, like "loyal"), while the second two measure how quickly a child can come up with words of a specific type.

Of all those measures, only one --- Language Comprehension --- was found to correlate with prenatal testosterone, and that relationship was only seen in girls.

(Figure 1, in Finegan et al., 1992 --- graphs showing the relation of prenatal testosterone levels, plotted on the x-axes, with scores on the Reynell Language Comprehension subscale. The graph on the left, with the black dots, shows the results for girls; the graph on the right shows boys' results. You can see that there's only a correlation of any kind for the girls).

In girls, there was a negative quadratic relationship between prenatal testosterone and scores on the Language Comprehension test, meaning that girls with middling levels of prenatal testosterone exposure --- not the highest or the lowest --- tended to get the highest scores on this task. No relationship whatsoever was found between prenatal testosterone and either comprehension or expression of language for boys.

That study tracked other variables as well as prenatal testosterone, and while none of those variables (including testosterone) predicted how well the children did on any of the expressive-language tasks, family background (a measure including parental socioeconomic status, and the mother's IQ and education) was also a significant predictor of language comprehension. This is somewhat in line with Lutchmaya et al.'s results, which found parental education to be an important predictor of a child's vocabulary size, but also a little different, since Lutchmaya and colleagues were measuring how much the children in their sample spoke, not how much they understood --- expressive language, not receptive language, which Finegan and colleagues did not find any predictors for. Finegan et al.'s children were older than Lutchmaya et al.'s, though, and the measures the two groups of researchers used were very different. The one thing they seem clearly to agree on is that there probably isn't any correlation between prenatal testosterone exposure and language abilities as manifested in early childhood, or if there is it's a very weak one.

*This impairment in verbal communication is actually one of the diagnostic criteria for various ASDs --- with (classical autism) or without (Asperger syndrome) delayed acquisition of speech.

Lutchmaya, S., Baron-Cohen, S., & Raggatt, P. (2001). Foetal testosterone and vocabulary size in 18- and 24-month-old infants Infant Behavior and Development, 24 (4), 418-424 DOI: 10.1016/S0163-6383(02)00087-5

Lutchmaya, S., Baron-Cohen, S., & Raggatt, P. (2001). Foetal testosterone and vocabulary size in 18- and 24-month-old infants Infant Behavior and Development, 24 (4), 418-424 DOI: 10.1016/S0163-6383(02)00087-5

Saturday, December 18, 2010

S. 987 Vote: More Proof that "Pro-Life" Isn't About Protecting Children

Clarissa and Anthony McCarthy (at Echidne's blog) have both written about the U.S. House of Representatives' failure to pass a bill that would help protect young girls around the world from being forced into marriage, often to much-older men who will abuse them, rape them and force them to bear children before they are full-grown.

The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010, or S. 987, passed unanimously in the Senate and had lots of support in the House, to the extent that it looked like it was going to pass easily. (As it should, since it's one of civilized society's major duties to protect its most vulnerable members --- children being among them --- from exploitation and harm). But in the hours leading up to the House vote, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (a Republican from Florida) circulated a "Dear Colleagues" letter asking fellow Republicans not to vote for the bill, but instead to vote for an alternate version of it which she authored.

The full text of that letter is reproduced at the end of this post at RH Reality Check --- the gist of it is that Rep. Ros-Lehtinen believes that S. 987, as it was written, would cost too much, and that her own alternate bill would be cheaper to implement.

According to another Representative, Rep. Betty McCollum (a Democrat from Minnesota), there's no basis for this objection; she says the bill does not appropriate any new funds whatsoever. And, indeed, in my own perusal of the bill's full text (which is short), I could find no mention of money, or of things that cost money, like establishing new agencies, task forces or research initiatives. The text of the bill seemed to me to deal only in guidelines for allocating funding that already exists.

Anyway, hours after Ros-Lehtinen sent out her letter, just before the bill was to be voted on, Republican Majority Whip Eric Cantor sent out a "Whip Alert" (a short message telling rank-and-file party members what the party line is going to be) saying this:
Leadership and Ranking Member Ros-Lehtinen OPPOSE passage of S. 987, the International Child Marriage bill, because of cost and pro-life concerns.
S. 987 authorizes $108 million over 5 years without sufficient oversight of the taxpayers' money. According to the Congressional Research Service, there is no available, confirmed figure on how much taxpayer funding is already being used to fight child marriage in developing countries and this bill does not address that issue.
There are also concerns that funding will be directed to NGOs that perform abortions and [that] efforts to combat child marriage could be usurped as a way to overturn pro-life laws.

After receiving those two messages, almost all of the House Republicans (along with nine Democrats), did indeed vote "No" on S. 987. It still received a majority of votes --- 241 ayes and 166 nays --- but it wasn't a big enough majority to pass.

This is a truly mystifying outcome; not only does the bill not call for any new spending, it also doesn't say anything about abortion. On its face, this is actually a very pro-life bill: it protects children and aims to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Even Sen. Sam Brownback*, a very, very pro-life senator, not only voted for the Senate version of this bill, but he apparently worked very hard to get it passed, so important was it to his vision of a Culture of Life.

It looks to me like they derailed this important, necessary, moral bill out of sheer orneriness; non-cooperation for its own sake, and the consequences be damned.

*"God's Senator" --- many of whose policy positions I abhor, but whom I at least respect for being consistently pro-life, and having "pro-life" mean more than just "anti-abortion." He has written, sponsored and supported lots of humanitarian-aid legislation, and he's often willing to cross party lines to get that sort of thing done. I've voted for him as a Senator before for that reason, but after this session he's leaving the Senate to become Governor of Kansas. I do not think that will go well, at all.

Friday, December 17, 2010

More Disagreeing by Diagnosing: the Aspie-in-Chief

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Partial transcript of a podcast by two progressive political bloggers that criticizes President Obama's leadership style, which the podcast hosts believe is weak. The podcast, titled "Hey Obama, Get Your Head Out of Your Asperger's!" spends a lot of time drawing a picture of Barack Obama as a "high-functioning Asperger's" autistic, who is fixated on governing according to his own ideas of what the Presidency is supposed to be, even at the expense of governing well, or of doing any of the things the people who voted for him want him to do. Besides producing this transcript, I also critique the Obama-as-Aspie metaphor, and quote another autistic blogger's (Leah Jane) criticism that I particularly endorse.

Leah Jane at The Quixotic Autistic linked to this Professional Left podcast from a couple of weeks ago, titled "Hey Obama, Get Your Head Out of Your Asperger's!"

The podcast couches some actually very good criticism of Barack Obama's approach to being President in
some really offensive stereotyping of autistic people (similar to the instances of Disagreeing by Diagnosing I've chronicled earlier on this blog). Leah Jane transcribed and paraphrased a little bit of the relevant part of the podcast (which is very long --- almost the whole first half of the forty-minute recording), but invited other people to transcribe more of it, so I figured I'd do that.

The participants in this exchange are progressive bloggers
Driftglass and Blue Gal:
Driftglass: ... I'm very disappointed in my president right now.

Blue Gal: Yep. I actually woke up this morning and had a revelation about Barack Obama that I want to share with you.

Driftglass: Ooh! Pray tell, pray tell.

Blue Gal: I haven't even put this in the podcast notes, because I want it to be fresh.

Driftglass: Well, hold on, let me "man up" so I can handle it!

Blue Gal: (Laughs)

Driftglass: Let me put on my "man pants," as the new parlance for bracing myself ---I'm girding my loins.

Blue Gal: Girding your loins. There ya go.

Driftglass: Ready, gird! Okay, go.

Blue Gal: You and I both know --- and I actually did Photoshops this week of Obama as Spock --- and you and I both know, and lots of people have said that basically, Obama is sort of on that high-functioning Asperger's end of the spectrum, of not being emotional, of being very rational about things rather than getting mad, and that's very frustrating to a lot of us.

Driftglass: Yes.

Blue Gal: But along with that --- and also, full disclosure: Driftglass and I are very familiar with what it feels like to be on the Asperger's end of the spectrum; I think I can speak for both of us in that regard, may I?

Driftglass: That's a fair statement.

Blue Gal: We've talked about that before.

Driftglass: Yes, that's a reasonable ---

Blue Gal: Obsessive interests, you know, being able to ignore everything else to the point of a fault, and so forth. But one of the things that people like us, at that end of the spectrum, often do, is focus on one little detail --- again, to the fault of forgetting the big picture.

Driftglass: Yes.

Blue Gal: --- and I really think that the Constitutional scholar Barack Obama has this little seed in his mind that the Presidency is supposed to be weak, Constitutionally speaking, in relation to the Congress, in terms of starting legislation, and so forth. He's decided that he's going to return, he's going to change the way Washington works, and what he means by that is he's going to go back to a time when the Presidency and the Congress and the courts were part of this balancing act --- you know, the three branches ---

Driftglass: (cuts in) Pre-Imperial.

Blue Gal: Pre-Imperial presidency. So I'm thinking this morning in my kitchen about, "Well, when was it that we sort of got this imperial presidency?" and I realized, "Oh, my God, FDR!"

Driftglass: Yeah?

Blue Gal: And, so, doing this is antithetical to the New Deal! You know? It really is!
Driftglass: It is. It is.

Blue Gal: And that's why we're all having such a collective freakout, like "Revenge of the Nerds," when the nerd gets elected to the presidency of the student council, and, instead of sitting down and taking over and representing the rest of us nerds, and doing what we want him to do, he sits down and takes out the bylaws, and says (speaks in nasal voice) "Well, ya know, we really have to go by the bylaws and the bylaws say that everyone gets a vote and we all have to work together on a consensus."

Driftglass: Uh-huh.

Blue Gal: And we sit there and we're like, "But wait! We elected you President because we don't want the Alpha Betas to have a voice in this! They're jock assholes! They're not gonna come up with anything that's gonna even resemble a reasonable answer to any of the problems we have." (nasal voice) "No, but the bylaws say we have to do it this way." (resumes her normal voice) And the collective freakout from the progressive base, is, "Oh my God! He's going by the bylaws! Stop it! Stop it! Stop him now! We want you to be an imperial President. We want you to be strong."

Driftglass: He's an originalist. He's a Constitutional originalist; the first branch of government is the Congress.

Blue Gal: Yeah! And they're the ones that originate legislation.

Driftglass: Yeah, absolutely true.

Blue Gal: And, as someone who came fresh out of the Senate --- you know, was really in the Senate for a very short time --- and being the Constitutional scholar that he is --- but the other thing about this "Aspie" thing, this Asperger's thing, is, two things: One is, I think Barack Obama really has faith in America, and thinks
that America can survive anything. We survived Reagan. But I think he really has fundamental faith in America to survive anything, and so it's perfectly okay for him to conduct this experiment, and I really think he's conducting an experiment now, in his head. Let's go ahead and really do this Constitutional thing of letting the Congress have more power.

Driftglass: Yeah.

Blue Gal: And I think he realizes that, the people he's dealing with, they're Republicans, you know?

Driftglass: Yes. Well, there's the fly in the ointment, isn't it?

Blue Gal: Yeah! The fly in the ointment is, they want to destroy him. And he doesn't care because he's gonna conduct this little experiment in Constitutional originalism --- it's almost ironic in terms of the Tea Party always talking about defending the original Constitution, which to them means "we only have white men for President" ---

Driftglass: The Second Amendment, the Tenth Amendment, and nothing else.

Blue Gal: --- but the real Constitutional originalist is Barack Obama.

Driftglass: That's a very interesting revelation.

Blue Gal: And it's intellectualizing it like that that distracts me from wanting to (bleep) Congressional offices, damn it!

Driftglass: Okay, you'll have to, uh ---

Blue Gal: I think I'll have to edit that out.

(Both laugh).

Blue Gal: It's a joke! It's a joke. I'm kidding, I'm kidding.

Driftglass: Send them a very firm letter.

Blue Gal: I'm going to send a very firm letter, too!

Driftglass: Well, I can understand that point of view. I can respect that point of view. You raise a very interesting point, that he is conducting his presidency as a mediator among the branches of government, and as a modest, confirm-or-deny kind of person, but [one] who doesn't originate. And that is what the Constitution generally says a President should be.

Blue Gal: We're so not used to this, because, when I teach middle-school U.S. history, it's all about who was President. You start there, with U.S. history.

Driftglass: Of course.

Blue Gal: "Okay, when FDR was President, this, this, this and this happened." You don't start with, "The great Congresspeople of 1945, how brave they were!" You know? You don't go there! That's not how we think of history.

Driftglass: So he's essentially gone to the House basement and pulled out this 200-year-old machine, and said, "I'm going to oil it up and get it running again and make it run the way it was originally intended to run." That's a very interesting theory, and I think that we could spend probably the rest of the podcast talking about it.

Blue Gal: I think so. Yeah.

Driftglass: But if I'm that guy, then Step One is, I stop torturing people.

Blue Gal: Yeah. Yeah.

Driftglass: Step Two, I close down secret prisons. If you really ---

Blue Gal: And that's it. I think that's where he fails his own experiment.

Driftglass: He does.

Blue Gal: Because, there are areas --- particularly during the Bush administration --- where presidential power just exploded.

Driftglass: And he wants to hang onto that.

Blue Gal: He wants to hang onto that! You can't have it both ways.
I do think there might be something to Blue Gal's notion that Barack Obama, the Constitutional scholar, might be deliberately not being as strong a leader as he could be because he believes the Presidency *should* be weak. Of course, there is a conflict there with his keeping in force all the totalitarian measures his predecessor adopted after 9/11, using a vague Terrorist Threat to justify all manner of surveillance-state excesses --- and Driftglass and Blue Gal catch that inconsistency, and acknowledge it. They make some other criticisms of Obama's leadership style that I think carry a lot of weight, like his persistence in believing that the extremists who've largely taken over control of the Republican Party (in what I think of as a two-stage process that began with the anti-Clinton Republican Revolution of 1994, which gave us Newt Gingrich, and has culminated with the current anti-Obama backlash) will move even one nanometer to the left in order to compromise with him --- even if he moves a mile to the right first, as a gesture of good faith. Driftglass also makes a good point that Obama is not only President, he is also leader of the Democratic Party, and he is abandoning this second responsibility. I also appreciated their discussion of the long historical roots* of the "imperial Presidency" that they suspect Obama of wanting (if not quite wholeheartedly) to abdicate.

But this "oh, the President is an Aspie, that's why he's so 1) emotionless, 2) naive and 3) stubbornly committed to principle at the expense of realpolitik" thing, that's the part I didn't find particularly helpful or illuminating.

I thought Leah Jane put her finger on the biggest thing that's wrong with this use of autism-as-metaphor:

[W]hen the American people were at an all time euphoria about Obama, he was compared to Spock, and Superman, and other idols of nerd culture, but the "A" word never came up. Now, progressives are finding a few walloping things wrong with his decisionmaking and snubbing of progressives, and now it's so convenient to label him with autism or some other "disorder" or invisible disability. Disability need not apply to people when they're doing what you think is right, but the moment you find fault with them, disabilities begin to be thrown about, and always the negative stereotypical traits are thrown in too. Never would it be suggested (at least while he is alive, see Einstein and Newton) that Obama has Asperger Syndrome for an exceptional trait which makes him a fine leader. Always focus on what makes them different, not good. Same for Narcissistic Personality, or Psychopathic Personality, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or now, Asperger Syndrome. Yay. Or just happily labeling anyone who disagrees with you as part of the Loonie Left, or a Wingnut, or a Right Wing Nutjob, having "Nazi Tourettes," having some type of ADD or ADHD, or a Crazy [insert noun], or Republitard.

How delightful to know that the mentally and intellectually disabled are so disposable.
I remember this, too: during the campaign and shortly after he became President, people would use words like "cerebral," "rational" (or "hyper-rational," if you're fond of superlatives), "intellectual," "professorial," or talk about his desire to transcend partisanship, or dirty politics, or whatever; the image was of a guy who practically embodied Reason and Idealism and Moderation in All Things. And we did not use a psychiatric diagnosis to convey this image; we used mere adjectives. Now that some commentators see these same traits as flaws --- as impediments to his being an effective President --- they describe them in psychiatric terms. What were character traits or habits are now symptoms.

Using metaphors like that --- comparing some trait, or philosophical stance, or policy position, in a politician to a DSM diagnosis --- does two things. First, it marginalizes and delegitimizes the person you're talking about, since whatever they say can (and usually is) just be used as further evidence of their incapacity; and second, it feeds the stigma against people with that particular diagnosis. There's already a stereotype that autistic people are never leaders, never politicians, because of our total lack of social skills; if "autistic" or "Aspie" become common insults for a leader who is seen to be ineffective, the stereotype becomes stronger (and also, more specific to political leadership). Young autistic people trying to find something they're good at and want to do with their lives might assume they can't go into politics (even if they might want to, or have an aptitude for it**), or people in a position to hire, say, campaign workers might choose not to hire anyone who says they're autistic, or who looks autistic, because they've gotten the idea that autistic people don't belong in politics.

*I wonder if, based on some things I've read at Arthur Silber's blog (start with this nine-part series on "Dominion Over the World" and follow links to his other writings on the history of American imperialism, if you've got lots of time and an intense interest in this matter), if this overpowered executive branch might not be even older than they seem to think it is --- if maybe it didn't start with Woodrow Wilson (or earlier --- you wouldn't call Teddy Roosevelt a passive, retiring, conciliatory sort of leader, would you?) rather than Franklin D. Roosevelt. Wilson was also a very active, aggressive President who embroiled the nation in bloody, imperialistic wars that it had no need to fight (in Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Russia, according to Wikipedia; he also ultimately made the choice to involve the U.S. in World War I). But Wilson in particular seems to have done a lot of the thing that I had previously thought started with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that kicked off U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War: using executive power to declare war without ever formally declaring war, which the Constitution allows only Congress to do.

**Which some of us do!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Systemizing Quotient

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: In this post, I look at individual questions on Simon Baron-Cohen's Systemizing Quotient (SQ) and list all the factors I think they depend on. I notice a pattern among many of the questions requiring, not just having a certain cognitive style, but also possessing certain training, skill sets and interests --- usually training, skills and interests that are gendered masculine in Anglo-American culture.

Now that I've got a fairly detailed explanation of what "systemizing" is supposed to mean, I'd like to look at the way Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at the Autism Research Centre have decided to measure it.

According to this article, the Systemizing Quotient is a self-report questionnaire that asks you to agree or disagree (either weakly or strongly) that a given statement describes you. The kinds of things you get asked about are mostly instances of systemizing behaviors or preferences in everyday life:
Initially, we had planned to devise the SQ so that it would tap into each of the domain-specific systems described above [i.e., natural systems, abstract systems, social systems, organizable systems, motoric systems and technical systems, of which examples of each are given and discussed in my earlier post]. However, this proved to be problematical because individuals who were well rounded but not necessarily good systemizers would end up scoring highly, whereas those who were highly systematic but only interested in one domain would receive a low score. Thus, we decided, instead, to use examples from everyday life in which systemizing could be used to varying degrees. The assumption is that a strong systemizer would be drawn to use their systemizing skills across the range of examples more often than a poor systemizer, and would consequently score higher on the SQ.
Okay! So, we're not testing your knowledge of, or interest in, various systemizing-heavy subjects --- no, this test is all about choices you make every day, and whether they show you to have systematic, rational, orderly and inquisitive habits of mind*.

If they're examples from everyday life, that should eliminate biases favoring 1) men and 2) more educated people, right?

Well, let's see what kind of examples he uses:

I am fascinated by how machines work.
When I buy an appliance, I do not read the instruction manual very carefully.
If I had a collection (e.g. CDs, coins, stamps), it would be highly organized.
I am not very meticulous when I carry out DIY.
When I lend someone money, I expect them to pay me back exactly what they owe me.
These seem pretty straightforward to me, and not necessarily dependent on one having a particular background or skill set. (A possible exception might be the instruction-manual one, which assumes one has the literacy, direction-following ability and diagram-reading skill necessary to understand most instruction manuals). The fascination by how machines work --- and many of its sister questions, like curiosity about how furniture/buildings were made, or how mountains were formed, or how wireless communication works --- indicates both a certain level of pure intellectual curiosity, and also a focus on particular kinds of questions: being more interested in how than, say, when or why or who.

The other questions --- about reading instructions carefully, having one's records alphabetized or keeping track of debts --- seem to be asking about diligence, or conscientiousness; not sure to what extent this trait overlaps with "systemizing," which seems to be an intellectual process rather than a personality trait. I guess if you are driven to understand and create systems, order in your personal life might be preferable to chaos, but there's also the trope of the absentminded professor, who might be able to come up with an equation describing just about any phenomenon you asked hir about, but who is also very disorganized and flighty. So I am not quite convinced that orderliness or conscientiousness has much to do with one's ability to make sense out of complex systems.

When I look at a building, I am curious about the precise way it was constructed.
When I look at a piece of furniture, I do not notice the details of how it was constructed.
When I listen to a piece of music, I always notice the way it's structured.
When I look at a painting, I do not usually think about the technique involved in making it.

These are also asking about attention to detail, and trying to break things down in your mind to see how they work and how they're put together --- plain intellectual curiosity, but on a practical level --- but it seems to me that they assume you have a certain kind of training or life experience that would make such details of construction, technique or composition intelligible to you.

Like, I might notice all sorts of tiny details about a chair, or a table, or a house --- such that I'd be able to draw it from memory after seeing it a few times --- for instance, I may notice the wood grain in different parts of a chair being oriented in different directions, but because I have no training in carpentry, this tells me little to nothing about how the chair was made. Some such details may well be invisible to me because I do not know to look for them.

Similarly, someone who's never painted might notice brushstrokes on a painting, but might not even know that's what they are, let alone whatever they might tell a connoisseur of art about what the artist did to make them look that way.

When I read the newspaper, I am drawn to tables of information, such as football league scores or stock market indices.

This one kind of depends on whether you care about sports or the stock market, doesn't it? They've also got a question like this about election results, but if you're also indifferent to politics, you must not be a very strong systemizer, I guess.

(Also, I have a bright and shiny No-Prize for the person who can tell me what gender people who care about sports scores and stock market indices are likeliest to be!)

I can easily visualize how the motorways in my region link up.
I find it difficult to learn my way around a new city.
I find it difficult to read and understand maps.
When travelling by train, I often wonder exactly how the rail networks are coordinated.
I am interested in knowing the path a river takes from its source to the sea.
While all of these certainly deal with systematic thinking, they also require you to be very good at visual and spatial thinking. (Two possible exception might be the train one and the river one, which only ask you to be *curious* about the layout of the rail network or river system, not to have a keen mental grasp of it --- but even there it assumes you've got the habit of making mental maps of things, which requires you to be halfway decent at map-reading and keeping track of the relative location of different things in space).

Is spatial cognition a part of systemizing? I don't know! None of the articles I've read on E-S theory addresses that explicitly. It's certainly possible to think systematically about one's position in space --- anticipating the trajectory of a moving target is a systematic process; you can even use math to do it! --- but I don't know if being good at manipulating maps, or 3-D representations of objects, or other spatial representations in your head is necessary for systematic thinking in general. They seem to bear about as much relation to each other, in my mind, as algebra and geometry. You can *use* algebra to solve some geometry problems, but being a poor geometer doesn't doom you to algebraic illiteracy. Indeed, many people are good at one but not the other.

In maths, I am intrigued by the rules and patterns governing numbers.
If there was a problem with the electrical wiring in my house, I'd be able to fix it myself.
When I learn a language, I become intrigued by its grammatical rules.
When I read something, I always notice whether it is grammatically correct.
When I'm in a plane, I do not think about the aerodynamics.
Okay, now all of these strike me as requiring quite a lot of prior training --- formal or informal. The most obvious one to me is the electrical-wiring one: yes, being able to solve problems like that by yourself does display impressive systemizing skills, but no matter how good a systemizer you are, if you have no training as an electrician you're probably not going to attempt that! Similarly, math --- especially math advanced enough for you to admire its beauty, and begin noticing rules and patterns (which for me didn't really happen until calculus) --- is a notoriously abstract subject, and while there are people who can grasp even complex mathematical concepts intuitively, without training, most people need to be taught that stuff. It's the same with grammar. We might *use* grammar unconsciously and spontaneously --- that's what Steven Pinker argues in his book The Language Instinct --- but we have to be taught to understand it. "Correct" grammar especially (something Pinker actually doesn't think exists) comes only from formal education.

Besides drawing on separate skill sets (whether arguably innate, like spatial cognition, or acquired, like mathematical ability, understanding of cars or computers, carpentry or electrical wiring), a lot of the examples in the Systemizing Quotient depict (stereo)typically masculine interests or pursuits.

I've already mentioned the tables of sports scores or stock-market indices, but even many of the examples of wondering "How does it work?" or "How was it put together?" skew masculine as well. Carpentry, for instance, is a skill much more likely to be possessed by men.

Some examples, from off the top of my head, of some very similar questions based in stereotypically feminine hobbies:
  • When I see a piece of beaded jewelry in a store, I try to visualize how it was made.
  • I can usually picture the steps it took to manufacture a given article of clothing.
  • When I go shopping for beads, I already have a design and color scheme in mind.
  • My outfits and makeup are usually highly color-coordinated.
  • When I'm cooking, if I find out partway through a recipe that I don't have one of the ingredients the recipe calls for, I can usually substitute something I have that will serve the same purpose as whatever I'm missing.
(Baron-Cohen does use a couple more typically feminine examples in the SQ: there's a question about cooking, and the painting one might be feminine and might be gender-neutral; I'm not sure about the gender ratio of people who dabble in painting).

Another thing that seems a bit stereotypical is this:
If I were buying a car, I would want to obtain specific information about its engine capacity.

Even putting aside the genderedness of interest in, and knowledge of, cars in modern American pop culture, the specific thing a good systemizer is supposed to ask about --- engine capacity --- seems to me to tap into culturally masculine values, like placing a premium on owning a high-performance vehicle even if you have no reason for needing a car with a particularly powerful engine. Why is it engine capacity that determines systemizing and not, say, fuel efficiency?

*Here is an interactive web form of the SQ, which I invite y'all to take and post your results in comments, along with your thoughts on whether the test gave an accurate picture of how "systematic" you are.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Fetal Testosterone and Autistic Traits - Part III: Empathy

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: This post looks at two studies by Simon Baron-Cohen's group dealing with the effects of testosterone on the development of empathy. Both of the studies' subjects come from a cohort of children whose mothers underwent amniocentesis and agreed to have their amniotic fluid hormone levels tested. The first study I discuss looks for a relationship between amniotic testosterone and performance on two psychological tests that are supposed to measure empathy: a children's version of the Empathy Quotient and a children's version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. The other study involved having the children watch a short animated film and describe what they saw in it, with researchers keeping track of what kind of words the children used --- did they tend to speak of the animated shapes in human terms, as having thoughts, intentions, and feelings?

Girls did indeed tend to speak more readily of the animated shapes as if they were thinking, feeling characters in a story, though for the most part this trait did not have any relation to amniotic testosterone levels. Girls also scored higher on the Empathy Quotient, but their scores likewise bore no relation to prenatal testosterone. (There was such a relationship for boys, however). Only the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test results showed the expected negative correlation with amniotic testosterone, and that test failed to show the expected sex difference in favor of girls.

ResearchBlogging.orgEmpathy --- or the lack thereof --- is crucial to Simon Baron-Cohen's conception of autism, and also to his conception of the "essential difference" between the sexes.
In this 2006 paper published in Social Neuroscience (full text here), a group of researchers affiliated with Cambridge University looked for a relationship between children's scores on two measures of empathy, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test and a children's version of the Empathy Quotient (EQ-C), and the amount of testosterone that was present in their mothers' amniotic fluid.

The two tests were given in separate experiments, to different groups of children whose mothers all underwent amniocentesis in the Cambridge region of the U.K. between June of 1996 and June of 1999; at the time of testing, the children were all between six and nine years old. The EQ study involved 193 children --- 100 boys and 93 girls --- and had those children's parents fill out the questionnaire about the children, rather than having the children take the test themselves. Three outliers --- one boy and two girls --- were left out of the statistical analysis, leaving 99 boys and 91 girls.

(Figure 1, in Chapman et al., 2006 --- scatter plot showing the distribution of boys' and girls' scores on the children's Empathy Quotient in relation to the amount of testosterone, expressed in nanomoles per liter, present in their mothers' amniotic fluid)

There were significant sex differences in EQ-C scores; the boys' average score was 32.62 (out of a possible 58), while the girls' was 39.12. That's a difference of a little less than a standard deviation (roughly), with effect size d = 0.76. Fetal-testosterone levels correlated significantly with EQ-C scores when both sexes' data was analyzed together, and also in the within-sex analysis for boys; for girls, however, there was no relation between fetal testosterone and EQ-C score.

Due to the very close relationship between two of the variables being looked at --- amniotic testosterone level and sex (which in this study were correlated with r = -0.65) --- the researchers did further analysis to try and isolate the effect of each one:

A combined sex analysis showed there to be a significant negative correlation between fT level and performance on the EQ-C: r(193) = -.28, p < .01. However, there was also a significant difference between girls' and boys' EQ-C scores. Within-sex analyses revealed that there was a significant correlation between fT and EQ-C scores for the boys: r(99) = -.35, p ≤ .01, but not for the girls. The fact that a correlation is observed between fT and EQ-C for the boys may in part be due to a larger variation in fT levels for boys (0.10-2.05 nmol/L) compared to girls in this study (0.05-0.85 nmol/L). We investigated the influence of fT and sex on EQ-C scores by running a stepwise analysis, which revealed a main effect of sex, but not fT in the final model. The strong correlation between sex and fT means that fT cannot be ruled out as a factor in producing the observed sex difference, but it is clear that the sex difference is larger than that which would be predicted by fT alone.

I can think of something that might be at work here, that would explain a wider gap between the sexes than differences in amniotic testosterone levels would account for: remember that the metric used to measure empathy in this (quasi-)experiment, the Empathy Quotient, isn't a direct assessment of a skill but rather asks you to agree or disagree that various general statements (like "I can easily tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation" or "It is hard for me to see why some things upset people so much") describe you. Also remember that, in this instance, the person answering the questions isn't answering them about hirself, but is answering them for hir children. Both of those aspects of the EQ-C allow for quite a bit of subjective wiggle room --- even when you are answering questions about yourself, if the questions are fairly general in nature (like "Are you a 'people person'?" or "Are you good at math?"), the same person might answer them differently at different times or in response to different cues. (One of these cues, as Cordelia Fine persuasively argues in Delusions of Gender, is the checkbox at the top of many standardized tests --- including the EQ and SQ --- that asks you to specify whether you are male or female).

The "Mind in the Eyes Test" experiment involved a much smaller study population: 39 boys and 37 girls, from the same cohort of six-to-nine-year-old children as the participants in the EQ-C study. The test involves looking at a series of pairs of eyes and choosing (from four available words) the word that best describes what the owner of those eyes is feeling.

Here are some of the eyes:

The children's mean scores didn't really differ between the sexes --- 15.23 (out of 28 possible) for boys versus 16.29 for girls, with standard deviations of 3.50 for boys and 3.29 for girls --- but, looking at the graph, I get the impression that, although the score distributions for each sex are pretty much right on top of each other, there seem to be more low scorers among the boys than among the girls.
(Figure 2, in Chapman et al., 2006 --- scatter plot showing the distribution of boys' and girls' scores on the children's version of the Mind in the Eyes Test in relation to levels of testosterone present in amniotic fluid)

Weirdly, although no sex differences were found, the researchers did see a relationship between amniotic testosterone levels and Mind in the Eyes test scores. This relationship held true within each sex, as well as in the combined-sex analysis. The correlation was somewhat weaker for the girls, though: r = -0.29, as opposed to the boys' r = -0.42 and both sexes' r = -0.43.

There was also another variable that correlated significantly (r = 0.29) with performance on this test: the age of the child. That just makes sense --- children's verbal fluency, degree of insight and social intelligence all improve as they develop. (They also measured the children's IQs, and found no relationship between verbal IQ and test scores, though. So that aspect of development seems not to be implicated in this study).

Another study (full text here) published that year in Hormones and Behavior --- by many of the same researchers who worked on the one I already described --- looked for a relationship between amniotic testosterone and a different, somewhat whimsical, measure of empathy: they looked for the proportion of words relating to mental states that children used to describe the movements and interactions of cartoon shapes in a short, wordless film.

Here's a description of the short films the children (25 boys and 14 girls, all four years old) were shown:

Computer-presented animations were provided by Fulvia Castelli and were used in the studies by Abell et al. (2000) and Castelli et al. (2000). The animations showed one large red and one small blue triangle moving around a screen which contained a rectangular enclosure. One animation (random) showed the triangles moving about purposelessly (bouncing off the sides) and not interacting with each other (this was chosen from a possible set of 4). Two animations were designed to convey ToM (these were taken from a possible set of 6). One film showed the big triangle coaxing the little one out of the enclosure (see Fig. 1). One showed the little triangle hiding behind a door and surprising the big triangle. Sequences lasted 34 to 45 s each. Children watched the film once and were then asked what was happening. They were then asked to describe the film as it was playing (to reduce the memory burden). For the random film, only these initial descriptions were recorded. For the ToM films, after the first descriptions were given, children were asked a series of questions designed to elicit more information and to encourage them to view the sequence in human terms. ... The children's narratives were tape-recorded and then transcribed.

Later, researchers who hadn't participated in the interviews read through the transcripts and counted the number of "mental-state terms" (words describing thoughts, plans, wishes, motives, etc.), "affective-state terms" (words describing feelings), "intentional propositions" (phrases describing the animated shapes as characters doing things), and "neutral propositions" (phrases that just describe how the shapes are moving, or what they look like, without any attempt to turn them into characters in a story) that appeared.

Because an earlier study found that autistic children were less likely than typically developing children to ascribe mental states to similar animated triangles, the authors of this study (Rebecca Knickmeyer, Simon Baron-Cohen, Peter Raggatt, Kevin Taylor and Gerald Hackett) predicted 1) that the girls in this study would use more mental- and affective-state terms than the boys, and 2) that, within each sex, the concentration of testosterone found in each child's mother's amniotic fluid would vary inversely with that child's use of mentalizing language.

While they pretty much found the sex differences they expected to find (the girls used significantly more affective-state terms than the boys did (d = 0.82), while the boys used significantly more neutral propositions than the girls did (d = 0.63), and there was a trend that just barely missed the cutoff for statistical significance (d = 0.62) for the girls to use more intentional propositions), their results were more ambiguous in their support (or nonsupport) of the proposed link with fetal testosterone exposure.

Two of the outcome variables, mental-state terms and affective-state terms, showed no relationship to amniotic testosterone levels whatsoever; two others, intentional propositions and neutral propositions, showed a significant relationship* to testosterone when all the subjects' data were analyzed together, but that relationship failed to show up in the within-sex analyses**, which suggests that the relationship observed for the pooled data might just be an artifact of the sex differences I described in the last paragraph.

These data, along with the data from the first study I described in this post, provide only incomplete, ambiguous support for the idea that testosterone exposure during development suppresses a person's ability to imagine another person's mental state.

Both studies also fail to make the case that the link with testosterone exposure is strong enough to stand on its own, rather than simply being another indicator of sex differences, which may have any number of biological, psychological, social or cultural causes. Is testosterone driving this sex difference, or merely reflecting it?

*They tested for this relationship in two ways: first, they just looked for Pearson correlations (r) between all the variables they had measured; next, they used hierarchical regression analyses to try to isolate the contributions of individual variables --- to test each one to see how well it predicts how much of each type of language any given child's description will contain. Only one of the Pearson correlations --- that between testosterone and use of intentional propositions --- was significant, at r = -0.43. The other kind of significant relationship Knickmeyer and colleagues are talking about is one that produces a significant F change when it is included in their statistical model. Fetal testosterone produced such a change for both intentional and neutral propositions.

**Neither sex showed such a relationship when use of intentional propositions was the outcome variable of interest; when they looked at neutral propositions, there was a significant relationship to amniotic testosterone levels among the boys, but not among the girls.

Chapman, E., Baron-Cohen, S., Auyeung, B., Knickmeyer, R., Taylor, K., & Hackett, G. (2006). Fetal testosterone and empathy: Evidence from the Empathy Quotient (EQ) and the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" Test Social Neuroscience, 1 (2), 135-148 DOI: 10.1080/17470910600992239

KNICKMEYER, R., BARONCOHEN, S., RAGGATT, P., TAYLOR, K., & HACKETT, G. (2006). Fetal testosterone and empathy Hormones and Behavior, 49 (3), 282-292 DOI: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2005.08.010