New research from Cambridge University has found that empathy, or the ability to recognize or infer someone else's state of mind by reading his or her eyes appear to be low in people with autism.
The findings support the 'extreme male brain' theory of autism, that predicts that on tests of empathy, typical females will score higher than typical males, who in turn will score higher than people with autism.
"This research has the potential to explain why children with autism, from the earliest point in development, avoid looking at people's eyes, and become confused in rapidly changing social situations, where people are exchanging glances without words all the time," said one of the researchers Carrie Allison from Cambridge University.
"This disability may be both a marker of the early-onset empathy difficulties in autism, and contribute to exacerbating them," Allison noted.
For the study, people with autism took the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' test known as an advanced 'theory of mind' or empathy test, designed to reveal subtle individual differences in social sensitivity.
While typical adults showed the predicted and now well established sex difference on this test, with women on average scoring higher than men, in adults with autism this typical sex difference was conspicuously absent.
Instead, both men and women with autism scored low on the test.
"There are substantial individual differences in terms of how well a person with autism performs on the Eyes test, but the social difficulties of both men and women are reflected on their test scores," senior author of the study Meng-Chuan Lai from Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge University noted.
"In addition, women with autism differ more from typical women than men with autism differ from typical men," Lai pointed out.
The findings appeared in the journal PLoS ONE