Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism

Simon Baron-Cohen is well known in the autism community for the Empathy Quotient and Systemizing Quotient tests.  They are simple, fast, and reasonably accurate tests useful in screening for ASD.  Having read about his work, I was excited to read his book.  After reading it, I was somewhat disappointed.  I give it a rating of 5 out of 10.

Overall, I have two issues with the book.  The first is that rather than being an unbiased evaluation of his extreme male brain theory of autism, the book reads as an argument in support of his theory.  The second is that after reading the book, I'm convinced he doesn't understand the mind of someone with autism, or at least someone with Asperger's.

On the first issue, the problem starts in the first chapter, page 2, where he defines empathizing as, "the drive to identify another persons emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion."  I think a more appropriate definition would be:

  • the ability to identify another person's emotions, and to respond to them appropriately.
That ability can be intuitive or cognitive, meaning that it can be something that comes naturally or something that you have to think about.  Additionally, the appropriate response often involves action, not just emotion.  For example when my young children fell and hurt themselves, I would automatically recognize their pain, quickly pick them up, and hug them.

I understand that for some Aspies that kind of empathy is cognitive rather than intuitive, which to some degree supports Baron-Cohen's theory, however some Aspies are very sensitive.  Personally my most traumatic experience was holding one of my daughters still while she was screaming as a doctor was stitching a cut on her leg.  My empathy for other people's pain is not limited to family; I was invited to watch a UFC match a few years ago and had to turn my head once one of the fighters started receiving multiple blows to the head.  I even have some social empathy; I remember watching the show Three's Company and feeling very uncomfortable in the parts where Jack would make a fool of himself.

That is not to say that Aspies empathize the same as NTs.  I often don't empathize with other people's social anxiety and fear, and instead end up confused as to why someone would be fearful in a situation that is not dangerous.  For feelings I would have myself, such as fear of heights coming close to the edge of a cliff, I readily empathize with others in similar situations.  While differences in empathy likely plays a part in autism, difference in social instincts and differences in sensitivity cannot be ignored.

Some of the examples of low empathizing and high systemizing in the book are in stark contrast to typical Aspie behavior.  On page 124 there's an example of men killing to gain power and status.  A common characteristic of Aspies is a strong sense of "right", making them unlikely to cheat, lie, or plot to injure another human.  On pg 185 Baron-Cohen identifies this when he says, "Many people with AS conditions are gentle, kind people, who are struggling to fit in socially and care passionately about social justice."  He rationalizes this apparent contradiction by stating, "reduced empathy does not necessarily lead to aggression."  So while he provides significant evidence which I agree proves the point that males are more aggressive than females, he ignores how that contradicts his theory.  Males are aggressive, so if people with ASD have an extreme male brain, shouldn't they be extremely aggressive?

I think page 148 of the book demonstrates that Baron-Cohen neither understands nor empathizes with AS individuals.  He states:
Some marry, but remain married only if their partner is patient to the point of saintliness, is able to accommodate family life to the rigidity of the autistic routines and systems, and can accept an eccentric, remote, often controlling partner.
I also think it is unfair to characterize AS individuals as "often controlling".  Uncontrollable perhaps, but rarely controlling.  I find neuro-typicals to be the controlling ones; often using manipulation, threats, and punishment to get others to do what they want.  Aspies may be argumentative and persistent when trying to convince others, but most of them are not even capable of the devious manipulation and veiled threats commonly used by NTs.

I'll finish with a quote from the book that I do agree with, taken from page 139, describing people with autism:
Phenomena that are unpredictable and/or uncontrollable (like people) typically leave them anxious our disinterested, but the more predicable the phenomenon, the more they are attracted to it.