The Extreme Male Brain

// 11 June 2013

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This image is called Blue Denim and Pink Brain Anatomy Mini Hoop Art, Hand Embroidered. It was modified by Helen from an original photo by Hey Paul Studios under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.When I was 11 years old my mother was told that I had Asperger’s Syndrome. Now, as then, I feel it is a constructed category created as a result of others’ inability to understand how I work or how to interact with me as much as out of any inability to understand and interact with them. It has always puzzled me why the blame for this two-way problem gets to be thrust at the feet of the minority, but as I have gotten older I’ve realised this isn’t the only context in which such constructions appear, and I have, like most readers here, resolved to address as many of them as possible wherever I find them.

The oppressions facing individuals on the autistic spectrum intersect with the oppression of women in a number of ways: autistic communities are overwhelmingly male dominated due to the higher rate of diagnosis in men; medical research into the area has historically been focused on men to a greater extent than in other areas of psychiatry; higher expectations imposed on women to be nurturing, socially pleasing, and sexually available can increase pressure even further on girls. What is less often critiqued in public discourse is the effect that gender constructions within psychiatry have in impeding the understanding of autism and feeding into populist stereotyping.

In 1999, Professor Baron-Cohen published his famous paper “Is autism an extreme version of the ‘male brain'” in which he argues that ‘there seem to be different cognitive styles associated with being male or female’. He states that for the purposes of the article he “operationally defines the male brain type as an individual whose spatial skills are in advance of his or her social skills…regardless of biological and chromosomal sex”. In case your unscientific female brains can’t work it out, this means that your mother could have a male brain and your father a female one. Having defined skills known to be more prevalent in autistic individuals as ‘male’, or at least those that fit with existing stereotypes about maleness, he then goes on to argue that autism is an extreme version of this.

According to Baron-Cohen’s theory, because the male brain is more ‘mechanistic’ and ‘systemising’, in extreme cases this can lead to the lack of empathy or ‘mind-blindness’ seen in autistic people. There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, the whole idea of empathy is difficult. People tend to empathise with people who are similar to them – large numbers of individuals in the autistic community have very strong empathy with each other. It is empathy between autistic people and neurotypicals (autistic-speak for non-autistic people) that is more difficult, and that’s a sword that cuts both ways. Not reading the same cues in the same way is not the same thing as lacking feeling for fellow human beings, and this approach to autistic people has a tendency to demonise and other us. In ‘Zero degrees of empathy’ Baron-Cohen equates a hypothetical total lack of empathy with evil, suggesting if not stating that those of us who measure as less empathetic on traditional scales are less moral, and ignoring the role, of, say, having a strong and intellectually thought through moral code. It also ignores or marginalises other crucial differences between autistic and neurotypical minds, such as differences in sensory processing, difference in our experience of time, in stress levels and in emotional processing; often the things which autistic people are more likely to experience as disabling.

Baron-Cohen argues that there is scientific value in understanding the differences between the way male and female brains work as a group and this is not inherently wrong. While this is true, in pursuing his research in a way which defines brains as male or female by extrapolating from how these groups behave on average, he creates a significant researcher bias in favour of looking at those aspects of autism which differ between the sexes, despite those often not being the most important for autistic people themselves, and allows popular science to latch on to his theories in order to make controversial headline-grabbing claims, which become watered down to very little of substance by the final paragraph. Overall, it is an approach to science in which an academic white man is willing to exploit the obvious damage he does to women as a group in popular media in order to gain notoriety and funding for his own work. I would say that it seems he lacks empathy, but apparently I’m not qualified to tell.


Image attribution and description: The image at the head of this post is called Blue Denim and Pink Brain Anatomy Mini Hoop Art. Hand Embroidered. It was modified by Helen from an original photo by Hey Paul Studios under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Comments From You

MarinaS // Posted 11 June 2013 at 8:51 am

Great piece. That stupid book by Baron-Cohen is a money grubbing travesty. He himself has admitted that there is no significant statistical distribution of the traits he calls “male” in men and vice versa. He just picked a stereotype out of the air and wrote a whole book about how it’s true even though none of the data support it.

It’s been known for years that the vast majority of studies find not statistically significant difference between men and women in brain function; but publication bias and reporting bias cospire to completely misrepresent reality in favour of patriarchal constructions of gender difference.

Nothing make me angrier than this kind of essentialist reactionary pseudo science. Evolutionary psychology, geno-babble and its successor neurobabble… These are the intellectual successors of phrenology and the medieval belief in the wandering uterus, not serious science. Sadly they are accepted by the vast majority of the population, including feminist thinkers, as some kind of gospel material reality, doing untold damage to the cause of equality. It’s going to take decades to unpick this deterministic mess out of education policy, the justice system, health practices, employment law… It’s just awful.

Laura // Posted 11 June 2013 at 9:49 am

Brilliant piece, thank you!

I’m sure you’ve probably read it, but Cordelia Fine does a great job of picking apart Baron-Cohen in Delusions of Gender.

Millitoria // Posted 11 June 2013 at 2:31 pm

Thank you for writing this. I think there an awful lot of unhelpful and inaccurate ideas about the autistic spectrum, and Baron-Cohen seems to have capitalised on them in order to sell his travesty of a book.

When it comes to empathy, there’s so many reasons why people can’t easily empathise with each other at times – whether they are neurotypical or not. I have a close friend who has been diagnosed as having asperger’s syndrome. I’ve never noticed that she lacks empathy or the ability to feel for other people – in fact quite the opposite. This is also true when I did care work, some of which was with adults with autism. There was never a lack of feeling or empathy, there was often a way of relating to people and situations that took a little time and effort for me to understand but that doesn’t mean it was absent.

Elisa // Posted 11 June 2013 at 11:32 pm

This is fantastic, thanks for this!

Emer // Posted 18 June 2013 at 12:50 pm

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. As a woman with AS it really gladdens my heart to see more pieces like these. I don’t have anything particularly new to add, but this just lends itself to the argument that attempting to diagnose AS in women from a male template in general (how many other aspie women have been told they look ‘normal’?) is very, very limiting. Not criticising any man with AS, but this ignores how it may manifest itself differently between the sexes, and also dismisses neurodiversity. No brain, autistic or allistic, is the same.

JP // Posted 23 June 2013 at 11:09 pm

It’s always seemed to me that the presence of gender stereotypes makes life that little bit harder for women on the AS. The women-are-from-Venus stereotype of female intuition, in which we’re apparently supposed to be able to read people’s minds and know exactly how they’re feeling and exactly how best to respond, is pretty much impossible to live up to for someone on the spectrum. In fact, the greater diagnosis rate in males surprises me – I would have thought that what with the base line of expectation being that much higher for women and girls when it comes to social skills, one might expect to see a higher rate of diagnosis in females. Of course, it’s very possible that there really *are* significantly more male than female sufferers (and I don’t use that word lightly – I can tell you that having a differently-functioning brain does cause profound suffering). Anyway I don’t know much about ASDs really, I’m just a person trying to get on with my life…. Thanks for writing the piece.

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