The theory that autism is caused by an extreme version of the “male brain” has won strong support from new research showing that male hormones in the womb are linked to social and emotional skills in childhood, the Times of London reports.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge found that both boys and girls who are exposed to high levels of testosterone before they are born are more likely than usual to develop traits typical of autism, such as a preference for solitary activities and strong numerical and pattern-recognition skills.

The study included only children who are not autistic, but it gives some of the firmest biological evidence yet that the social impairments that characterize the condition may be affected by prenatal hormone exposure.

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This backs the theory that autistic people are best understood as having extreme versions of a brain type that is common in the population at large, particularly among men.

The idea advanced by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who leads the Cambridge team, is that human brains are predominantly attuned either to empathizing with others, or to understanding how systems work. Women are more likely to be in the first group and men in the second, while autistic people are extreme systemizers whose social problems emerge from a fundamental difficulty with empathy.