Sulky teenage Kevins 'may be
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
"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
"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
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