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Perinatal testosterone exposure and autistic-like traits in the general population: a longitudinal pregnancy-cohort study

Andrew JO Whitehouse1*, Eugen Mattes1, Murray T Maybery2, Cheryl Dissanayake3, Michael Sawyer4, Rachel M Jones1, Craig E Pennell5, Jeffrey A Keelan5 and Martha Hickey6

Author Affiliations

1 Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Centre for Child Health Research, University of Western Australia, 100 Roberts Road, Subiaco, Western Australia, 6008, Australia

2 School of Psychology, University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Hwy, Crawley, Western Australia, 6009, Australia

3 School of Psychological Science, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Victoria, 3086, Australia

4 Discipline of Paediatrics, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, 5005, Australia

5 School of Women’s and Infants’ Health, University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Hwy, Crawley, Western Australia, 6009, Australia

6 Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Melbourne, Royal Women’s Hospital, Cnr of Flemington Road and Grattan Street, Parkville, Victoria, 3052, Australia

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Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders 2012, 4:25  doi:10.1186/1866-1955-4-25

Published: 30 October 2012



Increased prenatal testosterone exposure has been hypothesized as a mechanism underlying autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, no studies have prospectively measured prenatal testosterone exposure and ASD. The current study sought to determine whether testosterone concentrations in umbilical cord blood are associated with a clinical diagnosis of ASD in a small number of children and with autistic-like traits in the general population.


Umbilical cord blood was collected from 707 children. Samples were analyzed for total (TT) and bioavailable (BioT) testosterone concentrations. Parent report indicated that five individuals had a clinical diagnosis of ASD. Those participants without a diagnosis were approached in early adulthood to complete the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ), a self-report measure of autistic-like traits, with 184 males (M = 20.10 years; SD= 0.65 years) and 190 females (M = 19.92 years; SD=0.68 years) providing data.


The BioT and TT concentrations of the five children diagnosed with ASD were within one standard-deviation of the sex-specific means. Spearman’s rank-order coefficients revealed no significant correlations between TT levels and scores on any AQ scale among males (rho range: -.01 to .06) or females (rho value range: -.07 to .01). There was also no significant association between BioT or TT concentrations and AQ scores among males (rho value range: -.07 to .08) or females (rho value range: -.06 to .12). Males were more likely than females to have ‘high’ scores (upper decile) on the AQ scale relating pattern and detail processing. However, the likelihood of a high score on this scale was unrelated to BioT and TT concentrations in both males and females.


These findings indicate that testosterone concentrations from umbilical cord blood are unrelated to autistic-like traits in the general population. However, the findings do not exclude an association between testosterone exposure in early intrauterine life and ASD.

Autism; Testosterone; Prenatal; Perinatal; Autistic-like traits