Simon Baron-Cohen

Simon Baron-Cohen
Baron-Cohen in 2011
Born (1958-08-15) 15 August 1958
Residence Cambridge, England[1]
Nationality English
Alma mater
Known for Autism research
Bridget Lindley
(m. 1987; d. 2016)
Awards Kanner-Asperger Medal (2013)[2]
Scientific career
Institutions University of Cambridge
Thesis Social Cognition and Pretend-Play in Autism (1985)
Doctoral advisor Uta Frith

Simon Baron-Cohen FBA FBPsS (born 15 August 1958) is an English clinical psychologist, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.[3] He is the Director of the University's Autism Research Centre[4] and a Fellow of Trinity College.[3] In 1985 he formulated the mindblindness theory of autism, the evidence for which was collated in his 1995 book. In 1997, he formulated the fetal sex steroid theory of autism, the key test of which was published in 2015. He has also made major contributions to the fields of typical cognitive sex differences, autism prevalence and screening, autism genetics, autism neuroimaging, autism and technical ability, and synaesthesia.

Personal life and education

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

He married Bridget Lindley, a family rights lawyer, in 1987. She died in 2016.[6][7]

Baron-Cohen has three children, the eldest of whom is screenwriter and director Sam Baron.[8] He has an elder brother Dan Baron Cohen and three younger siblings, brother Ash Baron-Cohen and sisters Suzie and Liz.[9] Their cousin is the actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.[10][11] Baron-Cohen's surname includes a hyphen—which is not the case with most other members of his family—because of a typographical error in his first professional article; he never had the error corrected.[12]

Autism research

While he was a member of the Cognitive Development Unit (CDU) in London, in 1985 Baron-Cohen was lead author of the first study, published with Alan M. Leslie and Uta Frith, which proposed a correlation between children with autism and delays in the development of a theory of mind, known as ToM.[13][14] A theory of mind is the ability to imagine other people's emotions and thoughts, and it is a skill that according to Baron-Cohen's research is typically delayed developmentally in children with autism.[14]

Baron-Cohen and his colleagues discovered in 1987 the first evidence that experiences in synaesthesia remain consistent over time; they also found synaesthesia to be measurable via neuroimaging techniques.[15] His team has investigated whether synaesthesia is connected to autism.[16]

In 1997 Baron-Cohen developed the empathising–systemising theory. His theory is that a cognitive profile with a systemising drive that is stronger than empathising is associated with maths, science and technology skills, and exists in families with autism spectrum disorders. He suspects that if individuals with a "systemising" focus are selecting each other as mates, they are more likely to have children with autism.[8][17] He postulates that more individuals with autistic traits are marrying each other and having children.[8] He said that "In essence, some geeks may be carriers of genes for autism: in their own life, they do not demonstrate any signs of severe autism, but when they pair up and have kids, their children may get a double dose of autism genes and traits. In this way, assortative mating between technical-minded people might spread autism genes."[17]

According to Time magazine, his views on systemising traits had "earned him the ire of some parents of autistic children, who complain that he underestimates their families' suffering".[8] Time said that while research from Washington University in St. Louis did not support the assortive mating theory, a survey finding that autism was twice as high in Eindhoven (the Silicon Valley of the Netherlands) had "breathed new life" into Baron-Cohen's theory.[8] The theory has received further support in 2016.[18]

Baron-Cohen's work in systemising-empathising led him to investigate whether higher levels of fetal testosterone explain the increased prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among males;[17] his theory is known as the "extreme male brain" theory of autism.[11] A review of his book The Essential Difference published in Nature in 2003 summarises his proposal as: "the male brain is programmed to systemize and the female brain to empathize ... Asperger's syndrome represents the extreme male brain".[19] Critics say that because his work has focused on higher-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders, it requires independent replication with broader samples.[20] His prediction that prenatal testosterone would be elevated in autism has been confirmed.[21]

In 2001 he developed the autism-spectrum quotient, a set of fifty questions that can be used to help determine whether or not an adult exhibits symptoms of autism.[22] The AQ has subsequently been used in hundreds of studies including one study of half a million people, showing robust sex differences and higher scores in those who work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).[23]

Baron-Cohen developed the Mindreading software for special education,[24] which was nominated for an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) interactive award in 2002.[25] His lab developed The Transporters, an animation series designed to teach children with autism to recognise and understand emotions. The series was also nominated for a BAFTA award.[8][26]

Criticism and accusations of "neurosexism"

Simon Baron-Cohen has been criticized for "empathizing-systemizing theory", which claims that humans may be classified on the basis of their scores along two dimensions (empathizing and systemizing); and that females tend to score higher on the empathizing dimension and males tend to score higher on the systemizing dimension. Columnist at The Guardian Madeleine Bunting has summarized some of these aspects in the 2010 article "The truth about sex difference is that if men are from Mars, so are women".[27]

Some research in systemizing and empathizing in early life indicates that boys and girls develop in similar ways, casting considerable doubt on the theory of sex differences in these areas.[28] Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences characterized The Essential Difference as "very disappointing" with a "superficial notion of intelligence", concluding that Baron-Cohen's major claims about mind-blindness and systemizing–empathizing are "at best, dubious".[29]

Time magazine has also criticized the assortative mating theory proposed by Baron-Cohen, claiming that it is largely speculative and based on anecdotal evidence. The theory claims that autism rates are increasing because "systemizers", individuals with more autistic traits, are more likely to marry each other and are more likely to have autistic offspring due to relatively recent societal changes.[30]

Glen Elliott, a UCSF psychiatrist, is skeptical of Baron-Cohen's claim that historical figures displayed autistic traits. This is because he views attempting to diagnose on the basis of biographical information as extremely unreliable, and claims that any behaviour can have various causes.[31] Jill Escher has criticized Simon Baron-Cohen's view of autism as a difference with no impairment as opposed to a medical disability, claiming that many autistics lack basic life skills and will need lifelong care.[32]

In 2018 on Twitter Simon Baron-Cohen has criticized the #EndAutismNow campaign, comparing wanting to cure autism to ethnic genocide.[33] Ginger Taylor of Age of Autism responded by stating that wanting to cure disability is not the same as genocide, and that there is no clear way to differentiate negative autism symptoms from autism itself.[34]

His theories have been catalogued as "neurosexism".[35] The 2017 book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini develops an extensive "take-down"[36] of the sex differences research from Baron-Cohen and his colleagues, who carry on Darwin's "idea that man and woman...evolved to meet their roles of hunter and gatherer, respectively."[37][38][39] The Guardian mentions she "admirably covers the research of experts from opposing camps, deftly fielding points and counter-points from each"[36] and The Independent remarks how Saini "paints a disturbing picture of just how deeply sexist notions have been woven into the fabric of scientific research".[40]


Baron-Cohen is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society (BPS),[41] the British Academy,[42] and the Association for Psychological Science.[43] He is a BPS Chartered Psychologist.[41]

He serves as Vice-President of the National Autistic Society (UK),[44] and was the 2012 Chairman of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Guideline Development Group for adults with autism.[45] He has served as Vice-President of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR).[3] He is co-editor in chief of the journal Molecular Autism.[46] He is President-Elect of INSAR.[47]

He is the Chair of the Psychology Section of the British Academy.[48]


Baron-Cohen was awarded the 1990 Spearman Medal from the BPS,[49] the McAndless Award from the American Psychological Association,[50] the 1993 May Davidson Award for Clinical Psychology from the BPS,[51] and the 2006 presidents' Award from the BPS.[52] He was awarded the Kanner-Asperger Medal in 2013 by the Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft Autismus-Spektrum as a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to autism research.[2]

Selected publications

Single-authored books

  • Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. MIT Press/Bradford Books. 1995. ISBN 978-0-262-02384-9. 
  • The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain. Penguin/Basic Books. 2003. ISBN 978-0-7139-9671-5. 
  • Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Facts. Oxford University Press. 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-850490-0. 
  • Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty. Penguin/Allen Lane. 2011. ISBN 978-0-7139-9791-0.  (published in the US as The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Human Cruelty, ISBN 978-0-465-02353-0)

Other books

  • Baron-Cohen S, Tager-Flusberg H, Lombardo MV, eds. (2013). Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives From Social Cognitive Neuroscience (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-852446-5. 
  • Hadwin J, Howlin P, Baron-Cohen S (2008). Teaching Children with Autism to Mindread: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Parents. Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-97623-3. 
  • Baron-Cohen, Simon (April 2007). "The evolution of empathizing and systemizing: assortative mating of two strong systemizers and the cause of autism". In Barrett, Louise; Dunbar, Robin. The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198568308.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19856-830-8. 
  • Baron-Cohen S, Lutchmaya S, Knickmeyer R (2005). Prenatal Testosterone in Mind: Amniotic Fluid Studies. MIT Press/Bradford Books. ISBN 978-0-262-26774-8. 
  • Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S (2004). An Exact Mind: An Artist with Asperger Syndrome. Jessica Kingsley. ISBN 978-1-84310-032-4. 
  • Baron-Cohen S; Tager-Flusberg H; Cohen DJ, eds. (2000). Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-852445-8. 
  • Baron-Cohen S, Harrison J, eds. (1997). Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Blackwells. ISBN 978-0-631-19763-8. 
  • Baron-Cohen S, ed. (1997). The Maladapted Mind: Classic Readings in Evolutionary Psychopathology. East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press/Taylor Francis Group. ISBN 0-86377-460-1. 

Selected journal articles

  • Baron-Cohen S, Leslie AM, Frith U (October 1985). "Does the autistic child have a "theory of mind"?". Cognition. 21 (1): 37–46. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(85)90022-8. PMID 2934210. 
  • Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S, Skinner R, Martin J, Clubley E (February 2001). "The autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): evidence from Asperger syndrome/high-functioning autism, males and females, scientists and mathematicians". J Autism Dev Disord. 31 (1): 5–17. doi:10.1023/A:1005653411471. PMID 11439754. 
  • Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S, Hill J, Raste Y, Plumb I (February 2001). "The "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" Test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism". J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 42 (2): 241–51. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00715. PMID 11280420. 

See also


  2. 1 2 "Awardees". Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft Autismus-Spektrum (WGAS). Retrieved 18 December 2013.
  3. 1 2 3 4 "ARC people: Professor Simon Baron-Cohen". Autism Research Center, University of Cambridge. Retrieved 28 December 2013.
  4. "ARC researchers, collaborators and staff". Autism Research Center, University of Cambridge. Retrieved 28 December 2013.
  5. Bishop DV (January 2008). "Forty years on: Uta Frith's contribution to research on autism and dyslexia, 1966–2006". Q J Exp Psychol (Hove). 61 (1): 16–26. doi:10.1080/17470210701508665. PMC 2409181. PMID 18038335.
  6. "Obituary: Bridget Lindley OBE". Family Law. 26 April 2016. Retrieved 16 March 2018.
  7. "Obituary: Bridget Lindley". The Times. 22 April 2016.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Warner, Judith (29 August 2011). "Autism's lone wolf". Time. Retrieved 28 December 2013.(subscription required)
  9. "Simon Baron-Cohen: My special sister Suzie". The Jewish Chronicle. 17 April 2014.
  10. "Time Out with Nick Cohen". New Statesman. 26 February 2007. Retrieved 1 November 2010.
  11. 1 2 Szalavitz, Maia (30 May 2011). "Q&A: Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen on empathy and the science of evil". Time. Retrieved 2 January 2014.
  12. The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan - Page 7 of 9 - Moment Magazine. (25 November 2015). Retrieved on 2016-05-14.
  13. Baron-Cohen, Simon; Leslie, Alan M.; Frith, Uta (October 1985). "Does the autistic child have a "theory of mind"?". Cognition. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 21 (1): 37–46. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(85)90022-8. PMID 2934210.
  14. 1 2 Saxe, Rebecca (9 May 2008). "1985 paper on the theory of mind". SFARI: Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative. Archived from the original on 29 December 2013. Retrieved 28 December 2013.
  15. Carpenter, Siri (March 2001). "Everyday fantasia: The world of synesthesia". 32 (3). American Psychological Association.
  16. 1 2 3 Baron-Cohen, Simon (9 November 2012). "Are geeky couples more likely to have kids with autism?". Scientific American. Retrieved 14 April 2018.(subscription required) Pdf. Now in Scientific American (eds.). "Chapter 4.4. Autism and the Technical Mind". Understanding Autism. The Search for Answers. ISBN 1-4668-3385-8.
  17. "Partner preferences may contribute to autism prevalence | Spectrum". Spectrum. 2016-12-05. Retrieved 2016-12-17.
  18. Benenson, Joyce F. (2003). "Sex on the brain". Nature. 424 (6945): 132–133. doi:10.1038/424132b.
  19. Buchen, Lizzie (November 2011). "Scientists and autism: When geeks meet". Nature. 479 (7371): 25–7. doi:10.1038/479025a. PMID 22051657.
  20. "Children with autism have elevated levels of steroid hormones in the womb". University of Cambridge. 2014-06-03. Retrieved 2016-12-17.
  21. Woodbury-Smith MR, Robinson J, Wheelwright S, Baron-Cohen S (June 2005). "Screening adults for Asperger Syndrome using the AQ: a preliminary study of its diagnostic validity in clinical practice" (PDF). J Autism Dev Disord. 35 (3): 331–5. doi:10.1007/s10803-005-3300-7. PMID 16119474. Retrieved 3 January 2014.
  22. "Study of half a million people reveals sex and job predict how many autistic traits you have". University of Cambridge. 2015-11-03. Retrieved 2016-12-17.
  23. "Mind Reading: Frequently Asked Questions: Who developed it?". Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Archived from the original on 28 December 2013. Retrieved 28 December 2013.
  24. "BAFTA Awards: Interactive: Offline Learning in 2002". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 3 January 2014.
  25. "BAFTA Awards: Children's: Learning – Primary in 2007". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 3 January 2014.
  26. Bunting, Madeleine (14 November 2010). "The truth about sex difference is that if men are from Mars, so are women". The Guardian. Kings Place, London: Guardian Media Group. Retrieved January 3, 2017.
  27. Nash, Alison; Grossi, Giordana (2007). "Picking Barbie™'s Brain: Inherent Sex Differences in Scientific Ability?". Pdf.
  28. Levy, Neil (September 2004). "Book review: Understanding blindness". Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. Springer. 3 (3): 315—324. doi:10.1023/B:PHEN.0000049328.20506.a1.
  29. Melnick, Meredith. "Could the Way We Mate and Marry Boost Rates of Autism?". Time. Retrieved 14 January 2018.
  30. Muir, Hazel. "Einstein and Newton showed signs of autism". New Scientist. Retrieved 4 November 2017.
  31. Escher, Jill. "The Decline and Fall of "Autism"" (PDF). Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee. Retrieved 13 January 2018.
  32. Baron-Cohen, Simon [@sbaroncohen] (10 August 2018). "I am disgusted by the #EndAutismNow campaign.[...]" (Tweet) via Twitter.
  33. Taylor, Ginger. "Sacha Baron-Cohen's More Obnoxious Cousin Disqualifies Himself as an Autism Researcher". Age of Autism. Retrieved 20 August 2018.
  34. Bouton, Katherine (23 August 2010). "'Delusions of Gender' Peels Away Popular Theories". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 16 March 2018.
  35. 1 2 Davis, Nicola (6 June 2017). "Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 March 2018.
  36. Vaswani, Anjana (9 August 2017). "Fighting Science with Science". Ahmedabad Mirror. Retrieved 14 April 2018.
  37. Saini, Angela (2017). "Chapter 1. Woman's Inferiority to Man (pp. 13—28)". Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-7170-6. Darwin.
  38. Before even "Baron-Cohen and his colleagues", already the neo-Kantian Lawrence Kohlberg (1927 – 1987) with his "stages of moral development", Carol Gilligan (born 1936) with her In a Different Voice (1982), and Nancy Chodorow (born 1944) were followers of such an aspect of Darwinian evolutionary theory. But their generation of gender diversity scholars tried to judge differences as parithetic and complementary values, not as conflicting and hierarchical ones.
  39. Da Silva, Chantal (24 May 2017). "Inferior by Angela Saini, book review: Shining a light on sexism in science". The Independent. Retrieved 16 March 2018.
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  46. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 13 April 2016. Retrieved 17 December 2016.
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  51. "Presidents' Award for distinguished contributions to psychological knowledge". British Psychological Society: History of Psychology Centre. Archived from the original on 22 September 2013. Retrieved 17 March 2018.
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