Let me just say outright that I'm not a psychologist. Never have been, never will be. And I am rather more familiar with the work of Sasha Baron-Cohen than that of his cousin Simon Baron-Cohen. But I have read one book by him: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.
Hold on, that's not it. It's called: The essential difference: men, women and the extreme male brain. It argues basically that men and women think differently, and that autistic people's minds are like extreme versions of men's minds. So the female brain is 'hard-wired for empathy' and the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems'.
Please take a moment to reread the first sentence of this post.
Now put together a few choice words as rude as you like (come on, you can't outdo me on this one). This is what I think of SBC's theory of men, women, and autism. Maybe he's got a good theory of the animal mind. Although as far as I know, the only scientist who's gone anywhere with that is Temple Grandin, who's autistic herself, and happens to disagree rather with SBC's characterisation of her mind. She says thinks like a cow, not a man, thank you very much.
Prof. Baron-Cohen, to be fair, does present the reader of his book with scientific evidence to back up his theory. He interviews a woman who has had a boy and a girl. Under strict experimental conditions, the woman recounts how her little girl really liked organising teaparties and such like with her friends, whereas her little boy preferred to play with cars. She declares, also under strict experimental conditions, never to have encouraged such behaviour in either of them. There you are then! Evidence that boys are abstract thinkers and girls nurturers! Oh, you know what? Rousseau said that too! Women can't do abstract thought, and men don't care about silly emotional things (because they're too busy having important thoughts about systems).
From there it is but a small but perfectly logical step to observe that yes, autistic children like things that go round and round, that car wheels go round and round, therefore that autistic children are like boys.
The contrary of empathy, SBC tells us, is mindblindness. You just can't figure out what another person is feeling, because you can't gather all the details, or put them together. It's like being really insensitive. Like telling your girlfriend she's just looking a bit pudgy when she asks you if her dress makes her look fat. And then not getting why she's upset. It's like being a man, really. Except not. Autistic people aren't very good at saying the right thing. Heck, some of them aren't very good at saying anything at all. But this doesn't mean they don't understand how you feel! It doesn't mean they don't get you, or that they don't feel your pain.
The word autism means, literally, to be on one's own (hold on there, I'm talking about etymology, not about what autism really is!). Autistic people are supposed to be locked up in their own little world, incapable of interacting with the rest of us, normal people. Sometimes they are. On occasions, a lot less now that he's older, I would have huge difficulties distracting my son from playing with a wheelie toy. He wouldn't look at me, hear me. But other times - again less now - he would cover his ears, as if in pain, for a noise I barely heard. He would refuse to look a person in the eye, going to huge trouble to avoid having to do so, always aware of where that person was, when they might be trying to look him in the eyes. Why on earth would he, and other kids like him, behave like this if their awareness of other people's minds was minimally functional? Why be afraid of something you're not noticing?
Now, if you ask an autistic person, they might tell you this: autistic people tend to be extra aware of everything. To the extent that it hurts. So sometimes, the easiest thing is just to block the input and retreat into a world of their own. When they grow up and they learn to negotiate all the loudness and brightness, they might spend less time on their own. My son tends to pick up on the slightest noise - the buzzing of supermarket fridges used to bother him, and he can hear a plane or helicopter a long time before we hear it. But he also picks up on any tiny emotional disturbance in the family. If he feels that we are stressed about something, he worries, gets stressed up himself. If he feels we are tired, sad, sick, he becomes cuddly, he looks out for us. He certainly doesn't lack empathy.
As far as I can tell, all the little autistic and asperger kids at the centre he attends are like that. They're kind, they're tuned in to what people around them feel. They can really pick up, among the parents and relatives in the common room, who's uncomfortable with them, or who's trying too hard. A lot of the older kids usually make a beeline for my handbag, and look for whatever electronic piece of equipment I happen to have on me. They can just tell I'm a fellow geek!
What these children seem to be not so good at is reacting. My son still thinks people like it when he tries to lick their ears. He keeps on doing it. But he'll only to someone who wants to play with him in the first place, and someone who's not going to respond harshly. Any social interaction works better on a one to one basis, where he can really concentrate on doing what he's supposed to do. A large group of kids wanting to play with him is just a bit too much. He only recently started going to birthday parties again, after a two year break. Allright, so he's afraid of balloons as well, which doesn't help. But perhaps more importantly, he just couldn't cope with all these kids being excited at the same time. His emotional radar, a bit too finely tuned, was going on overdrive.
So as far as I'm concerned, not only does Sasha's 'clever cousin' succeed in rewriting Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, giving it a scientific gloss that is bound to reinforce sexist prejudice, but what he says about autism really flies in the face of the experience reported by autistic people, and by those who care for them. Maybe Simon should try going into comedy. Except right now, I'm not laughing.