Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Why Girls don’t get Mild Autism and Why Alpha Females may have Kids with Autism.

You may or may not have seen the 2006 comedy film Borat; it was critically acclaimed in the US, but took a bit of time to become a commercial hit.  It brought to public attention its writer, producer and leading man, Sacha Baron Cohen.
Ted, aged 13 and very neurotypical, is a fan of Borat.
In the autism research community, Sacha’s brother Simon is equally well known.  He is the Director of the Cambridge University's Autism Research Centre and a Fellow of Trinity College.

All very interesting,  Ted’s Grandfather also went to Trinity College Cambridge.  Ted’s brother, Monty aged 10 with ASD, has yet to produce a movie, but he has helped to produce an autism blog.    
As you may have noted on this blog, I am rather disappointed with the autism research coming out of the United Kingdom.  90% of the good stuff is from the US.

The extreme male brain theory of autism
One of the well-known autism theories is from Simon Baron-Cohen, it is called:-

Simon has been developing his theory that something called “assortative mating” may be at least partly to blame for the spectacular rise in autism diagnoses.
The theory states that when people with strongly “systemising” personalities – the sort of people who become engineers, doctors and computer experts – marry each other and produce children, the effects of this kind of “male brain” are genetically magnified, increasing the chances of producing an autistic child – a child with what Simon suspects is an “extreme male brain”.
Strong “systemisers” are often slightly obsessive, perfectionist and make great scientists and are often extremely talented at music. But they sometimes have difficulties socially interacting with other people – a combination of traits that can blend into the milder end of the autism spectrum.
Some of the sharpest increases in autism diagnoses have been found in Silicon Valley, home to perhaps the largest population of successful systemisers on Earth. Tens of thousands of technicians, engineers and programmers work in the computer industry;  inevitably, many of these people marry each other.
Until relatively recently, being exceptionally bright was not much use to you if you were female. The opportunities for a woman to earn her living through brainpower alone were extremely limited. You could be a teacher, or perhaps, if you were lucky, a doctor.
Going to university was difficult and expensive; most did not even allow girls to study. There were certainly few opportunities for careers in engineering or the sciences.
Brainy women were not even seen as particularly desirable partners. Clever or rich men chose brides on the grounds of looks, “breeding” or both. If she did have a job, many employers would automatically fire a woman the moment she turned up with an engagement ring. So many clever, “systemising” women simply did not marry, or married late and probably had fewer children when they did.
Now everything has changed. Not only have the legal and social barriers to women entering the workplace as equals been largely dismantled, we also have the phenomenon of the desirable “alpha female”.
Fifty years ago many men were scared of smart women. Now, increasingly, alpha males want someone their equal. Fifty years ago, male airline pilots typically married stewardesses; now they marry other pilots. Doctors used to marry nurses; now they marry other doctors.
But the phenomenon of like marrying like may be having completely unexpected consequences.  

The Peter Theory of the Neuroprotective Effect of Female Hormones in Autism
Unlike Simon, I do not have a brother who is a movie star, with a Golden Globe; my brother designs car engines, but his engine did win the International Engine of the Year Award in 2013.

I always wondered why it was that kids with autism are mainly boys and when you do meet an autistic girl, she tends to be at the moderate to severely affected end of the spectrum.  Then there is Simon’s observation that alpha females produce disproportionately more kids with ASD.  Then there is the question as to why Anglo-Saxon countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) but particularly the US, have a higher incidence of autism than the rest of the world; is it really just over-diagnosis?
The hormones Estrogen and Progesterone are known to be highly neuroprotective.  Testosterone may also have some neuroprotective properties, but they seem to be of a lesser extent.   While Estrogen and Progesterone are known as female hormones and Testosterone is the male hormone, both sexes have all three hormones, just in different amounts.  We learnt in an earlier post that the stress hormone Cortisol is neurotoxic.
Imagine an experiment:

On the left, you have a stressed alpha female
 (cortisol↑ testosterone↑ estrogen↓  progesterone↓)
with a male fetus (testosterone↑ estrogen↓ progesterone↓)

On the right, you have a calm beta female
 (cortisol↓ testosterone↓ estrogen↑  progesterone↑)
with a female fetus (testosterone↓  estrogen↑  progesterone↑)  
Then both subjects experience a sharp oxidative shock from the environment.

The beta female, with the female fetus, have a major neuroprotective advantage . They can generally weather the storm; only in severe cases is the neuroprotection overcome and the result is a severely autistic girl. 

The alpha female, with the male fetus, cannot weather even a moderate shock and the result is a mildly affected autistic boy.  The more rare severe shocks, produce severe autism.

The kind of insults that produce damaging oxidative shocks have been well documented by researchers like Abha Chauhan. 
This latest Peter Theory is hopefully flawed, after all, what do you learn about biology in Engineering School and Business School?  There should be much more talented people out there.  If it was correct, it would open up avenues in very simple preventative medicine.

P.S.   I am using a little dramatic license; Simon is actually Borat's cousin, not strictly his brother.


  1. Couldn't agree more! Like they say, opposites attract... And they should. :) But I'm just wondering... What about the girls and women who were male-brained/alpha as kids but became female-brained/beta when they got older?

    I'm scared to admit this... But I had classic autism when I was a little girl. Everyone I know, even experts say that I'm neurotypical now though. Oddly enough, scientists just found out that 1 in 10 autistic children become neurotypical. As for the "cause" of my autism, although my mom was a beta, we lived in a very toxic city when she was pregnant with me, she was very stressed, she had hypothyroid, she smoked (NOT WHILE PREGNANT, but before she got pregnant with me), and I was born by C-section.

    ANYWAY, I also used to be what you describe as an "alpha female" as a kid. I did have some beta-qualities, but I was mainly alpha because I tried to copy my dad and brothers. Because I lived in a family with mostly males, I thought it was normal for a girl to act boyish. They're strong systemisers and they wanted me to be one too. But my mom wasn't happy about this. As I said, she's a true beta and she didn't want me to become an alpha. So after she got laid off from her job for a little bit, I got to spend time with her. At first, I thought she was kinda boring, but I learned so much more from her. She taught me to be calm and embrace my femininity. I developed a more female brain because of her. I took this one quiz and it said that I was 98% beta and only 11% alpha. But then again, it's human nature- people change all the time.

    Now here's my question, is my autism genetic and would I have autistic children? This worries me a lot. I went for a walk in town with my mom today and we saw a bunch of kids playing at the park. I smiled because they were so happy and it made me happy that they were having fun. But then that smile faded. I realized that my future children might not be able to live a normal life... What should I do? What would you recommend? Please help... :(

    1. There are many things known to increase the risk of having a child with ASD, but many of them are under your control. You cannot change your genes, but there are steps you can take.

      Reduce oxidative stress prior and during pregnancy. This would mean avoiding emotional stress (stop working, particularly if you have a stressful job), environmental stress (if you live near power lines, transmitters, busy roads, air pollution etc). If you are able to measure GSH, then you would know the state of oxidative stress (or not) your body is in. If in oxidative stress, this can be normalized with NAC.

      Have kids while you and your partner are young. Copy-number variations (CNVs) are a type of genetic fault causes by copying errors, this might account for younger parents having a lower autism risk.

      Hormonal imbalances before and during pregnancy , in particular thyroid and I believe the male/female hormones (progesterone, testosterone etc) may increase risk. All of these are measurable and treatable.

      Also, very many things can cause “autistic behaviors”, so the fact that over the years you made such a good recovery might suggest that you do not have big genetic “dysfunctions”. Therefore your kids cannot inherit them.

      It is your choice, but if you take all the possible precautions, you are most likely to have a neurotypical child. Even doing nothing, the odds are still in favor of NT, but it clearly makes sense to shift the odds as far as possible to NT.

      Also, don't worry about it, because it is exactly that kind of emotional stress that leads to oxidative stress in your body. I know this is easier said than done.

      I hope that helps.

    2. Thank you very much! You really gave me hope. I'm only 14, I just realized that there are so many other girls in my age group who have it much worse... One of my best friends has severe Asperger's and she's 19, I pray for her every day. However, she's been making very good progress.

      Moving on, I found 2 interesting things to add to your research: When I was innocently googling stuff, I saw a study which suggests that alpha women have an 80% chance of having a son! My mom's the only exception to this though- while she is a beta, keep in mind that my dad had a lot of boys on his side of the family.

      The other thing I found was another study which said that taking chlorophyllin before having kids protects your genes from random mutations. It seems interesting, because I've never heard of chlorophyllin before... I hope I helped and I wish you the best of luck in your research :)

  2. I think you may be wrong about girls not having autism - in my practice as a paediatrician in the UK - they are coming oiut of the woodwork! Many of those I see are highly imntelligent & functioning in mainstream school. Much more difficult to diagnose, often hold themselves together at school because they are much more capable of copying their peers & adopting a "superficial" social persona. Underneath they are highly anxious, often display very difficult behaviour at home as a result of holding it together at school, so only the family see the underlying autism.

    It is quite commonly understood now that it is this population who will go on to have anorexia in their teens, & we know what an epidemic that is!.

    1. These are very mild kinds of autism, I am mainly writting about the kind with limited speech and later self injury, not to mentioned seizures and MR. I think we need several new terms to fairly represent each group.

    2. With regard to specific terminology, we seem to be moving away from having sub groups of autism. The DSM 5 & ICD 10 have dropped the term "Aspergers" which used to refer to higher functioning individuals, as being too non-specific. Everyone is classified now as Autism Spectrum Disorder, with no way of indicating where on the spectrum the individual might be.

      I guess you are referring to those at the more severe end of the spectrum, but yes, in terms of treatment options you are looking at very different desired outcomes for children like your son compared to the children I am seeing who are in mainstream education & have reasonable language. However quite a few of these have seizures, & self harm is very common.

      Not an easy condition to categorise.

    3. This is why I think when kids have autism, the parents have it too to some degree.

  3. Hello,
    revisiting an old post here, very interesting. I am a web developer and I guess that suggests high testosterone. I definitely had high cortisol through both my pregnancies and had low progesterone--so much so that the fertility clinic insisted that I supplement progesterone during the first trimesters. (both kids were conceived drug free via IUI)

    my first child, a son was born on the spectrum (no "second wave" as such)-- confounding factors were that I had him induced at 39 weeks because of pre-ecclampsia and he was put on intravenous antibiotics for 3 days after delivery because of a low fever. He is on the high end of the spectrum. We only got the diagnosis at age seven a few weeks ago (which has led me to your blog-- I'm in the shock/research everything phase). My second child, a daughter is very neurotypical and extremely bright— a 5 year old reading at a 10 year old level and socially brilliant, consistently cheerful, etc.

    So there's an n=1 for you but it does support this theory. Perhaps the progesterone supplementation kept my son at the higher end, who knows.

    My question is progesterone related-- DS has a double mutation on the MAO A R297R gene (rs6323 T) that puts him in the 1% of white males with the "warrior gene". He has an acute temper, a tendency to blind rages actually. -one of the behaviors that lead to the ADS diagnosis. I've read that his permutation of this gene is associated with very low MAO A and subsequent "pooling" and rapid dropping off of neurotransmitters. Given this and your speculation that progesterone may be preventative, would you suggest that I consider trialing progesterone for my son? (Progesterone is said to increase MAO A). I know you're not a doctor, just interested in what you might do if your were in my situation.

    Thanks as always for such an amazing blog!


  4. Hello Peter,
    This was an interesting post not in the least because I had been thinking on the same lines for quite some time..maternal temperament linked to not only autism but other problems as well, occupying the arena of fertility, child birth and developmental issues with the child.
    Feminism, and not the soft feminism that females like me follow, but the real deal, the Simone de beauvoir, Germaine Greer one, that my mother's generation internalized where feminity was almost an embarrassment and low class, pressurized the following generation of female offsprings to pursue academic excellence and financial independence putting aside their biological identities. This was a shame and totally anti feminism..a foolish attempt at gender transformation.

    I pursued an unconventional career, freewheeling, enjoying my doctoral and post doctoral research that involved field work in areas in Central Himalaya. I boasted about my fitness, got married late, conceived in the first try and walked leisurely into the gynaes clinic good two months after conception. Subclinical hypothyroidism but uneventful pregnancy. Mild elevation in liver enzymes in the last trimester led to an induced vaginal delivery at 37 months and in two days time I was up and about. So what went wrong?

    I do feel that it's not only a case of alpha female as you call it, but an entire imbalance of hormones in the female body, produced by stress associated with ambition, higher and wider thought process and competitiveness. It's so unfair and so politically incorrect but I do think there is a trade-off between acquiring a 'male' kind of intellect and thought process and reproductive fitness/health of progeny. And it's got nothing to do with nurturence.


Post a comment