Recently a friend bought up Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories on the difference between the sexes, stating that autism is an example of the extreme male brain. I was horrified. While I have Asperger’s Syndrome, I have always identified as female. Surely I couldn’t have a male brain??? However, the more I thought about this theory, the more I began to see some sense in it. I was already aware that autism is up to ten times more likely to occur in boys than girls, and the majority of the autistic kids that attend my workplace are male. The theory that autism is somehow inherently masculine reminded me of a private joke I share with my family. When I was going through my diagnosis my mother recognised some symptoms in my father, and passed the list on to him. After reading the diagnostic criteria he exclaimed ‘this doesn’t just describe me- it’s EVERY man!’
My interest was piqued and I decided to dig deeper. I purchased a copy of Baron- Cohen’s The Essential Difference and read it avidly. Most of the people who saw what I was reading were incredibly sceptical, dismissing any book that discusses the difference between genders as sexist nonsense. Therefore, I feel the need to state that Cohen’s theories were incredibly well researched and had a great deal of scientific evidence to back them up. He did not try to present one gender as superior to the other. Most importantly, as a young person with Asperger’s I could relate to the contents of the book.
I’m not a Scientist, nor are the majority of my readers. Therefore, I’m going to try to explain Baron-Cohen’s theories on gender, brain types and the extreme male brain in the simplest way possible. There are two types of brain, the systemising (or male) brain which is better at understanding systems in areas like road maps, the animal Kingdom and complex mathematics, and the empathising (or female) brain, which is better at social skills and caring for others. The reduced capacity for empathy in the male brain can lead to violence, cruelty and poor self-control. The ability to ignore others feelings is also why some systemisers excel in areas like politics, where they must rise to the top by crushing their opponents. Occasionally, men do have the empathising brain type and women the systemising brain type.
Baron- Cohen’s theory is that men have evolved to be systemisers because systemising enables them to hunt, select an ideal mate and rise to the top of the social hierarchy. Women have evolved to be empathisers because increased empathy enables them to care for their children, thus ensuring the genetic line survives and the tribe is kept from descending into anarchy.
Systemisers will approach every aspect of life via systems. For example; a male systemiser might approach his interest in pop music by burning CD’s of his favourite songs, then arranging them in a particular order based on the year they were released, their position in the charts and the name of the artist. A female empathiser might approach her interest in pop music by hosting parties where she can sing along to a favourite song with her friends. Thus, brain type affects a person’s way of thinking rather than their interests or hobbies, and systemisers and empathisers are perfectly capable of being friends. Neither brain type is superior or inferior.
According to Baron-Cohen autism is an example of the extreme male brain. He stipulates that autistic people often have narrow interests and a (sometimes) superior understanding of the systems involved in fields like maths or science because they have an extreme male brain, and the lack of social awareness and understanding that also characterises autism stems from the limited capacity for empathy which is usually present in advanced systemisers. If advanced systemising is more commonly found in males, Baron-Cohen’s theory would explain why autism is up to ten times more likely to occur in boys than girls.
When I first came across this theory of the extreme male brain I found myself panicking about the implications it holds for autistic women. If autism is an example of the extreme male brain, then surely that means I’m not just masculine… I’m EXTREAMLY MASCULINE! For someone who is currently wearing nail varnish, a skirt patterned with flowers and a t-shirt depicting a fairy this was a distressing thought. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always understood the definition of transgender to be a male brain trapped in a female body, or a female brain trapped in a male body. If my autism could be descried as an extreme male brain- didn’t that mean I was transgender? And what about other women on the autism spectrum? Were they all transgender too?
I’ve given this matter considerable thought… and no, I’m not transgender. I do share many characteristics with males, and my disability means I am slightly better at systemising than I am at empathising. But my biological gender is female, and I’m perfectly happy with it. I can’t speak for all women on the spectrum, but I don’t believe that a high systemising ability or a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder makes you any less of a woman. There is significant evidence to support the theory that the majority of men have systemising brains and the majority of women have empathising brains. However, I don’t think these brain types should be assigned to specific genders, as this undermines the gender identity of anyone whose brain type doesn’t conform.
Besides, just as nobody is one-hundred percent masculine or one-hundred percent feminine, nobody is purely a systemiser or purely an empathiser. We each have a mix of these skills, so it would be wrong to imply that systemising is inherently male, or empathising is inherently female. I used the multiple choice questions at the back of The Essential Difference to determine which brain type I have. As I expected, I do have a systemising brain. However, I only scored one mark higher on the systemising test than on the empathising test. I also did surprisingly well on the ‘reading the mind in the eyes’ test for someone who’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s.
I don’t believe that everyone on the autism spectrum is bad at empathising, particularly those of us with high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. In certain situations I feel a great deal of empathy, however, I wasn’t born that way. Empathy is a skill I have improved over time through reading a wide range of fiction and taking part in drama workshops where I was forced to put myself in other people’s shoes. As my mother often said when I was growing up: social skills are like a muscle, if you don’t use them they will quickly become weak. What I (and many others on the autism spectrum) struggle with is how to express empathy without coming across as clumsy or offensive. The best way to illustrate this is through an example.
I have broader hips than some women, and I try to see that as an advantage rather than something to be ashamed of. In many societies my figure would be celebrated as wide hips imply fertility and a little extra fat implies wealth and affluence. I was once chatting to two other girls, one of them (we’ll call her Emily) was incredibly thin, and the other (we’ll call her Zoe) was closer to my body type. Emily casually mentioned that she couldn’t lend Zoe her clothes as they would be too small. I noticed a pained expression on Zoe’s face and immediately felt empathy, as I know what it is like to have a bigger body than is currently fashionable. I wanted to comfort Zoe, and immediately blurted out ‘Don’t listen to Emily- she’s so skinny she’ll probably die in childbirth! Me and you are going to have lots of children because we’ve got child bearing hips!’
This was obviously an extremely inappropriate and insensitive thing to say. It was bad enough to tell Emily that she was going to die, but I later found out that Zoe was currently undergoing medical treatment because she had been diagnosed with a disease that leads to infertility. Imagine how awful my compliment on her ‘child bearing hips’ must have made her feel! I am likely to make mistakes like that for the rest of my life and while I no longer feel embarrassed, I do worry about inadvertently upsetting people. Luckily, I have friends that are willing to be patient and understanding with me. They know I would never be deliberately cruel. I’m just a little socially awkward, and that’s nobody’s fault.
What I want to illustrate with the above example is that while it may be hard for us to express or direct it, people on the autism spectrum are certainly capable of empathy. Men are certainly capable of empathy, and while autism may be an example of the extreme systemising brain, there’s nothing overtly masculine about it.
I accept Baron-Cohen’s depiction of the systematic and the empathic brain. I just don’t think these brain types should be ascribed to specific genders, regardless of what the statistics are. Depicting autism as masculine is damaging for the several reasons. Firstly, it undermines the gender identity of those on the autism spectrum. Secondly, the notion that autism is more likely to occur in boys than girls can result in some women, such as Susan Boyle, not receiving their diagnosis until late in life. Undiagnosed autism (or a diagnosis without sufficient understanding and support) often leads to mental health problems and social isolation. In my opinion a proper diagnosis is key to understanding how an individual thinks, and can provide the tools they need to work with their strengths rather than against them. A copy of Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference could be extremely valuable to anyone affected by autism. Just remember, nobodies theories define your gender identity.