People make jokes about ‘too much testosterone’ in boys’ schools or football clubs.
But an excess of male hormones is not really a lot of fun. It has been found to be a potential risk factor for autism, a developmental problem in humans that results in them having difficulties in relating to and communicating with other people.
Severe forms of autism prevent affected people from living normal, independent lives, making friends, forming relationships and holding down jobs.
Dr Andrew Whitehouse, a research fellow at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, is bringing together all the risk factors for autism and recruiting pregnant women who have at least one autistic child, to monitor them and their unborn babies. He and his team will continue to monitor the children after birth until they reach the age of about two years, when autism, if it exists, will start to manifest itself.
"There are several risk factors that we know of,” Dr Whitehouse said. “The biggest one is family history. If a family already has a child with autism, the chances are much higher that subsequent children will also develop autism. Another is a sudden acceleration in head circumference during the first years of life. Children who develop autism often have much greater head growth during the toddler years than children without autism.
“More recent research has suggested that another risk factor may be exposure in utero to high levels of testosterone. For example, we recently found that girls exposed to higher levels of prenatal testosterone developed more autistic-like behaviours during childhood,” he said.
“This data has led some people to wonder whether autism is, in fact, a very extreme form of maleness. This theory is further supported by the skills that so-called high functioning autistic people possess: they are often extremely good at maths and statistics, the sorts of skills more often associated with maleness in our society.”
About one in a thousand children develops a form of autism and boys are four times more likely than girls to be autistic.
Dr Whitehouse was studying speech pathology when a friend of his mother had her child diagnosed with autism. “At Mum’s suggestion, I went around to her place to give the family some respite and see if I could help the boy with his language development,” he said.
“I ended up spending time with him twice a week for the next three years. He has quite classic autism and his inspiring parents moved me to find out more about the condition. I did a PhD at UWA in autism research and, while I was studying, I worked in private practice, helping autistic children learn to speak.”
He took up a post-doctoral position at Oxford University, where he became the Scott Family Research Fellow for Studies in Autism. On his return to WA, he joined TICHR and is looking at prenatal risk factors for autism. “I am hoping to learn from these high-risk cases in order to promote early diagnosis and perhaps better intervention of children with autism.”
He said an autism culture in the community was pushing for people with autism, especially high functioning autism, to be regarded as ‘different’ rather than disabled; to be accepted as they are rather than helped to adjust.
“My view is that anything we can do to help these people to have a happier and more fulfilling life is worth it.”