Since the 1980s, the prevalence of those with Autism associated with science, computing and other hi-tech industries, has once again singled out Autism as being a primarily male condition.
Diagnosing famous scientists, engineers, and computer scientists with autism has become both a parlour game and a cottage industry—Albert Einstein, Paul Dirac, Bill Gates, and Isaac Newton are among the most commonly cited in this category.
Contemporary understandings of geek masculinity have become one of the more common, gendered screens through which autism is now understood.
According to the Extreme Male Brain (EMB) theory of autism, people with autism possess hyper-male brains, therefore the existence and/or severity of their Autism, can be graded based on a scale that views those who are less adept at systemizing tasks (mostly women) as non-autistic, and those with extremely high systemizing abilities (mainly men) as being people with Autism.
To achieve this male and female interests are categorized as either “systemizing” or its opposite, “empathizing,” and then placed along a scale that grades from female to male to the extreme male (or autistic).
In particular, the EMB theory takes the form of a “double hierarchy,” in which an established series (e.g., male-female) forms the basis for a second series (systemizing-empathizing).
In a 2009 study Baron-Cohen co-authored with Bonnie Auyeung, et al., the authors provide these points of evidence for their extreme male brain theory:
-“The typical male brain is heavier than the female brain and individuals with autism have heavier brains than typical males”.
-“The amygdala is also disproportionately large in boys compared to girls … and children with autism have enlarged amygdala”.
Not only does this evidentiary criteria over emphasize differences between those with autism and those without; but it also forces males and females further apart by exaggerating the differences between average women, average men, and autistic people.
Further to this Baron-Cohen claims men are more interested in systemizing tasks, such as engineering, computer programming, and mathematics, or hobbies based on mechanics, construction, and categorizing—metalworking, boat-building, crafting musical instruments, even bird-spotting.
Whereas women tend to enjoy “having supper with friends, advising them on relationship problems, or caring for people or pets, or working for volunteer phone-lines listening to depressed, hurt, needy, or even suicidal anonymous callers”.
Based on these insights, Baron-Cohen devised a series of three tests:
-The systemizing quotient (SQ),
-The empathizing quotient (EQ),
-The Autism quotient (AQ).
All of which reflect his predetermined, gendered notions of male and female-appropriate activities.
On the Systemizing Quotient Test, testers are asked to rank their answers on a Likert scale to such questions as -“If I were buying a car, I would want to obtain specific information about its engine capacity” and “If there was a problem with the electrical wiring in my home, I’d be able to fix it myself”.
Meanwhile, the Empathy Quotient test includes such prompts as “I try to keep up with the current trends and fashions” and “When I talk to people, I tend to talk about their experiences rather than my own”.
In these prompts it can be seen that stereotypically masculine activities are assumed to reflect systemizing, while stereotypically feminine activities are assumed to reflect empathizing.
Clearly, these questions can easily be seen to reflect socialization as well as biology.
In 2006, Sally Wheelwright, Baron-Cohen, and their collaborators published a revised version of the SQ, the SQ-R, which included a wider range of questions about systemizing.
The original SQ, the authors admitted, “Were drawn primarily from traditionally male domains.” For this reason, the SQ-R included “more items that might be relevant to females in the general population,” a feature that would allow the researchers to determine whether men would continue to score higher on the SQ “even with the inclusion of items selected from traditionally female domains” (Wheelwright et al).
Some of the new prompts included “When I have a lot of shopping to do, I like to plan which shops I am going to visit and in what order” and “My clothes are not carefully organised into different types in my wardrobe” (answering “no” on this prompt presumably indicates an SQ type of brain).
The SQ-R successfully shifted the results. In the original SQ, men had a higher mean score on 86 percent of the questions, while women had a higher mean on only 13.2 percent. In the revised version, men scored higher on 68 percent and women on 32 percent—a rather dramatic shift in the sex ratio.
The SQ-R itself demonstrates that these sex differences may largely be an artefact of the testing prompts and the specific mix of questions applied.
One might therefore, hypothesize that the SQ could be revised even further in ways that would more drastically equalize the scores.
This article consists of excerpts form an academic paper written by J. Jack and published in 2011.
- “The Extreme Male Brain?” Questioning The Gendering of Autism. (seventhvoice.wordpress.com)
- New study finds that individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome don’t lack empathy – in fact if anything they empathize too much (seventhvoice.wordpress.com)