“The Extreme Male Brain?” Questioning The Gendering of Autism.

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“In 2005, autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen opened a New York Times article with the following statement: “By studying the differences between male and female brains, we can generate significant insights into the mystery of autism” (Baron-Cohen). What makes this statement possible, rhetorically, is a process of gendering that has made autism spectrum disorder (ASD) into “The Male Condition”—the title of Baron-Cohen’s piece.”

“Autism is an example of what Judy Segal calls a rhetorical disorder: in the absence of clear biological markers for autism, “discourse fills the space that certainty in medicine leaves unoccupied.”

“in 2010 the APA released working notes for the DSM-V, which offered new criteria for autism and placed Asperger’s syndrome (heretofore a separate disorder) within the umbrella category of ASD. Such a shift would be fundamentally rhetorical, in that it is enacted through language, persuading practitioners to categorize individuals in a new way.”

“Autism is shaped in part by “social meanings, symbols, and stigmas” attached to it. What makes this process unique, in the case of autism, is that these social meanings do not merely demarcate the “normal” (or neurotypical) from the “abnormal” (or neurodiverse); instead, they also differentiate between men and women, in such a manner that the “male condition” is pathologized alongside the autistic condition.

“ In the case of the EMB theory, this commonality stems from the fact that more boys than girls receive autism diagnoses, by a ratio of 4 to 1. These statistical facts, though, are extended to the disorder itself, where maleness is applied to the brains of individuals with autism. In the process, researchers espousing this theory construct a scale, drawing on the rhetorical figure of incrementum, or scale, which positions women, men, and people with autism along a continuum according to the degree to which they possess some quantified trait.”

“An incrementum is simply a scale, but one that can be used for rhetorical purposes. For instance, if we claim that men tend to be heavier than women, who tend to be heavier than children, we have constructed an incrementum, ordering those three groups according to weight. This claim might seem noncontroversial, but imagine constructing a scale in which we measure intelligence, instead, and order individuals according to sex. That type of scale can support a range of unsavory arguments for policies of all sorts, and would be fundamentally rhetorical both in its construction and its use.”

“Sex and gender offer readily available lenses for understanding autism because they are “present” and by referencing culturally specific notions of sex and gender, researchers make those elements hyper present, and, in the process, obscure others.”

“Late twentieth-century rhetorics of technology, gender, and the service economy make it possible to order individuals along new scales, including technological ability and emotional intelligence.”

“ These scales have shaped scientific understandings of autism in ways that direct the attention of researchers to some aspects and deflect attention away from other important issues, including alternative scientific theories, the interests of girls and women with autism, and the issues deemed most important by autistic people themselves.”

This article consists of excerpts from an academic paper written by J. Jack and published in 2011.

 

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11 thoughts on ““The Extreme Male Brain?” Questioning The Gendering of Autism.

  1. What I don’t get though, I mean people use autism as a way to discourage people who identity as transgendered. As if autistic people can’t also be girls to them. Pretty weird.

    1. Thanks Michelle… I’m still trying to find the name of the artist so if anyone knows please feel free to post it as I’d like to be able to provide them with the credit for their work.

  2. Thank you for posting about this. I’m both intrigued by the Simon Baron-Cohen’s Male Brain Theory and can see some of the issues it would cause in getting girls and women diagnosed and changing people’s perceptions about sex and gender and autism. As someone who has always felt more similar to my male friends and teachers than to my female ones, and as someone who aligns more with the male group according to the tests outlined in Baron-Cohen’s paper on his theory, this leaves me in an odd place with my feminist opinions and with knowing just how unfairly girls and women with autism are treated by society and science. It’s definitely possible the ratio difference in autism may be explained by both differences in social environment/lack of lookout for girls on the spectrum and biology, but it’s good to critique this kind of stuff because so many people unfortunately aren’t.

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