Cultural Influences On the Expression for Autistic Phenotype In Indian and North American Populations

Thursday, May 17, 2012
Sheraton Hall (Sheraton Centre Toronto)
3:00 PM



Autism spectrum conditions are a clinical spectrum characterized by some extreme variants of certain normal human cognitive traits that in their more subtle forms can be found within the typical population.  Past research has established these traits as a weakness in “central coherence” combined with a deficit in social communication in general and theory-of-mind in particular.  It remains unclear to what extent these hyper-“systemising” and hypo-“empathising” aspects of autistic traits co-vary, within and beyond the autism spectrum and within and across cultures. Earlier studies of typical individuals have proved that cultural and situational variables exert linked effects on contextual, “centrally coherent” perception and on social perspective-taking.  Our current study contrasts two types of culture- a more individualistic, self-oriented North American culture and a more contextualized, socially focused Indian culture, in terms of their effects on autism-spectrum social communicative and non-social perceptual traits. 


  1. To assess the overall difference in measures of empathizing and systemizing ability among the typical Indian population and their American counterparts.
  2. To compare mild variants of autism in Indian and American populations, using culture as an independent variable, to study its effect on the expression and management of autistic phenotypes and behaviours.


Individuals with Asperger syndrome and those with milder or lower levels of autistic traits are used. The analysis makes use of a data set in process of being collected for an on-going study, comprising the following measures:

  1. Autism Spectrum Quotient, a questionnaire measuring autistic traits
  2. Social Responsiveness Scale- a questionnaire measuring autistic social communicative traits
  3. Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test- a measure of sensitivity to facial emotional expressions.
  4. Forced Choice Embedded Figures Test- to measure perceptual disembedding.
  5. Second-to-fourth digit length ratio as a proxy for foetal testosterone.
  6. Attachment Style Questionnaire.
  7. Experimental measures incorporated in a video game, including-      
  • Go/No-go Task
  • Posner Attention Task


With the caveat that it can be difficult to equilibrate survey measures and diagnostic practices across cultures, preliminary data from the survey measures in this study support a slight increase in some empathizing skills within the Indian Asperger/broader-phenotype population relative to North Americans, with no apparent difference in systemizing.  At the same time, preliminary data from the experimental behavioural measures do suggest a lessening of attention to detail, a capacity that some authors have related to systemizing ability.


Individuals in India with mild levels of autistic traits may be at an advantage relative to those in North America in terms of outcome of empathizing skills.  Although experimental behavioural measures suggest a decrement of attention to detail, this decrement does not seem to propagate strongly into self-report of systemizing skills.  Cultural variables in India - for example the greater valuation placed on engineering and scientific skills, and family practices more demanding and supporting of social competence - may underlie these differences, and may help suggest ways to accommodate and to include people with autism spectrum conditions, within all cultures.

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