Thursday, 3 November 2011

Autism: the Extreme Male Chauvinism theory

Not one to let facts get in the way of a punchy title, me.

I've just been offered an appointment with the Adult Autism Centre. This means that me and my mum between us managed to scrape together enough "signifiers" in our paperwork for them to think it worth their while to bring me in and attempt to diagnose me properly.

Let me explain at this point that I'm not convinced that I have Asperger's; if I do, I don't find it a hindrance in the least (at least not these days), and either way, I'm not even sure I believe Asperger's is an actual thing (at least not to the very low level at which I might have it). And I'm not just writing to Autism Centres in the hope of gaining the right to sew yet another Minority Membership badge onto my woggle. I got myself referred to them purely to settle a point: my mum has told me all through my life that I'm "probably a bit Asperger's", without ever going to get me diagnosed or do anything more constructive than just give me a complex about my inability to function socially, and I just wanted to settle the matter once and for all. This is not a sympathy post, it's a "Simon Baron Cohen wtf ffs?!" post.

My intrigue regarding the topic of autism thus once again piqued, I bimbled around on Google and found this: a paper linking FtM transsexuality with autism. It's not like I wasn't expecting Science, as embodied in Simon Baron Cohen and his "extreme male brain" theory, to declare my gender identity a function of my neuroatypicality (if applicable) or vice versa. But even so, it triggers my natural defensive response to having my identity put into question. Particularly when one of the things I had scrawled on my initial paperwork was a small diatribe in the "Sex" box about how I'm female in biology but not in gender. I wonder how much my declaration of "I AM GENDERQUEER!!!!!11ONE!" contributed to their decision to offer me an appointment.

My problem with the "extreme male brain" theory is similar to my problem with most attempts to categorize people according to their brains (e.g., the very concept of Asperger's Syndrome itself). The thing is, right... people have brains. And all these brains are usually quite different. Thus people are different. It's not really surprising if people who do science tend to be "more autistic" than people who do arts, because what you've done there is you've labelled one of these infinite points of difference the "autistic" point, and then if you measure any two people, let alone two groups of people, with respect to their distance from this point, one of them will turn out "more autistic" than the other.

And the concept of a "male brain" or a "female brain", let alone an "extreme" version of either, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are a "typical male", you will have this kind of brain. If you are male and don't have this kind of brain, you're not "typical". Thus the many studies reporting that pre-hormone-therapy FtMs have a "more typically male" brain structure sound good at first - hurrah, scientific validation, we're ACTUALLY really men! - but on closer inspection, the message is more depressing.

The message is that all men have a certain kind of brain and all women have another certain kind of brain, and if you were born "female" but you don't have a "female" kind of brain, you're "not really female". I would like to state that, whatever my gender identity, I am (as far as such things can be defined) biologically female, and this is the brain I have. It is possible for a woman to have a "male-type" brain, or vice versa. Attempting to homogenise three billion people into one "typical female" brain pattern, and then throwing out those who don't conform to it as "atypical", is, well, bad statistics, surely? Take an "average" of three billion people and you're likely to get something pretty meaningless.

See, if you take an "average" of ANY group and compare it with the average for another group, you're likely to find a difference - because people are different and their brains are different and if you attempt to homogenise one set and then another set you will always get a difference. If you took a representative sample of hockey players and a representative sample of ginger people and got them to do this kind of test and averaged out the results, you'd probably - nay, definitely, though not necessarily to a "statistically significant" degree - find that one group came out as, on average, more "male" (i.e. more systematizing) than the other, which would obviously come out as more "female" (i.e. more empathizing).

So what? So bleedin' what? Scientists aren't going to sit down and test hockey players and ginger people and then declare that there is a "typical hockey brain" and a "typical ginger brain" and we are all on a spectrum from hockey to ginger. They're simply not going to try and make generalisations about such arbitrary groupings. But since "male" and "female" are the one big accepted set of arbitrary groupings, study after study after study will focus on this "binary difference". Sure, there may be observable differences between "male" and "female" brains. But there are probably observable differences between "hockey" and "ginger" brains: the hockey players might be more confident because of their physical prowess, the gingers might be more neurotic from being ribbed about their hair colour. The nature/nurture debate is still wide open with regard to so many other characteristics - criminal tendencies, high intelligence, gingerness-induced neuroticism - so why is it so firmly closed whenever the hallowed arbitrary grouping of binary gender is mentioned?

In their haste to document and catalogue the crazy, inescapable Mars-ness and Venus-ness of "the sexes", everyone seems to ignore the possibility that "maleness" and "femaleness" can be environmentally conditioned - gender is a social construct whereby those of us displaying [fe]male sexual characteristics are prodded throughout our lives into behaving how a "typical [fe]male" behaves. And it's no wonder if our brains soften under that pressure - or harden against it. The last thing we need is for Science, wearing its extreme-male-brained Simon Baron Cohen face, to come along, chew up our socially conditioned gender differences and spit them back out at us disguised as "inherent sex differences" - thus adding to that social-pressure concept of the "typical [fe]male" in an ever-amplifying feedback loop.

(Completely unrelatedly, did I mention how much I want this book for Christmas?)

Do you know what the "FtM transsexuals already have male brains!" theory says to me? It says: at least some of the female-assigned people who come to see themselves as male-gendered might do so because society affords them absolutely no way of expressing themselves as female, when their natural way of thinking and behaving is traditionally - and "scientifically" - male-coded.

The Adult Autism Centre might attempt to smugly, scientifically claim that my Asperger's tendencies are just a symptom of my gender dysphoria, or that my gender dysphoria is just a symptom of my Asperger's tendencies. Either way, it's not the kind of "science" I'm keen to subscribe to.