Siblings of Children With Autism Tend to Have More Masculine Faces, According to New Research
Siblings of children with autism tend to have more masculine faces on average, according to new research led by Andrew Whitehouse, a professor of autism research in Perth, Australia. While family members of children with autism have been known to show mild traits of the condition, the new study is the first to suggest that they might share physical traits as well.
The results of the study align with the “extreme male brain” theory of autism, which suggests that autism traits are an exaggeration of stereotypically male traits, such as looking at things systematically rather than empathetically. According to the theory, these ‘male’ traits are connected to heightened exposure to testosterone in the womb.
Whitehouse and his team conducted their study by capturing 3D pictures of the faces of 40 girls and 40 boys between 2 to 12 years old, with no family history of autism. The researchers used computer software to position 13 coordinates on the faces, and then measured the distance between 11 pairs of these coordinates. They then used an algorithm to calculate a facial masculinity score for 30 boys and 25 girls between 2 and 12 years old, who have siblings with autism. The score compared each child’s facial measurements with the average for that sex.
The researchers found that brothers of autistic children have more masculine faces than the average for boys, with the same being true for sisters. The results of the study were published on January 16 in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
For the next phase of their research, Whitehouse and his team are analyzing the facial masculinity of autistic children’s parents to better understand whether the trait is heritable, or the result of testosterone exposure in the womb.