Sulky teenage Kevins 'may be autistic'

Teenagers are infamous for their sulky default mode and lack of emotional sensitivity. But new research reveals that these traits - wearyingly familiar to parents everywhere - may in fact stem from temporary bouts of autism.

According to Professor David Skuse from University College London, moany adolescents simply suffer from a kind of autistic disability due to their brains being "re-wired" during puberty.

Prof Skuse made the discovery while investigating the theory that autism is an inherent male trait.

Autism is characterised by a lack of empathy and emotional sensitivity. People with the condition are unable to "read" the emotions of others and tend to focus obsessively on narrow subjects.

It has been suggested that all men are autistic to some extent, which while impairing them emotionally might help them concentrate on complex tasks.

Prof Skuse's team tested 1,600 children aged six to 17, and found no convincing evidence to support the theory.

At the age of six, boys were less able to interpret emotions than girls, but by 16 there was little difference between them.

However, both boys and girls went through a dramatic change at about the time of puberty. In both cases, their ability to read emotions dipped sharply.

This was especially true for understanding facial expressions of anger or sadness.

Prof Skuse believes the "Kevin syndrome" is the result of brain re-organisation during the jump from childhood to adult life.

Speaking at the BA Festival of Science at Trinity College, Dublin, he said: "Does this explain the Kevin phenomenon? I'm suggesting that it might be behind the social ineptitude of early adolescents, the seeming inability to understand the two expressions that have this dip most strikingly, sadness and anger.

"You can't tell when somebody else looks sad as well as you could even a few years previously; you can't tell when somebody's looking angry.

"Having been through the experience myself, you can imagine what it's like for parents trying to manage their unruly adolescents. One wonders if they're actually understanding anything you're saying.

"It would appear that this is a function of the development of their brains at that time. It's not a cultural phenomenon. It's a real biological-based phenomenon from which, fortunately, they recover.

"When they recover at the age of 16 or 17 they're reaching adult levels of competence. But there is that period at 12, 13 and 14 when they seem completely oblivious to nuances not only of facial expression, but also tone of voice."

Prof Skuse's research was carried out using computer tasks designed to test key markers of the ability to recognise social cues.

These involved understanding emotional facial expressions, remembering faces, and recognising direct eye contact. All are abilities that are deficient in autistic individuals.

The differences seen at the age of six could be important for the way teachers deal with children, said Prof Skuse.

At that time, 70% of boys were less able to interpret facial expressions than averagely-performing girls.

"In the context of the classroom, teachers attempting to control the behaviour of boys by subtle means of expressions of disapproval, such as raised eyebrows, or even getting angry, may find that boys ignore these cues," said Prof Skuse.

"It may be that they are simply unable to read them."


8 September 2005


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