23/04/2010

Boys will be boys will be autistic ... my arse!

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.

13 comments:

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Thank you for this wonderful post! I identify completely with your descriptions of your son's acute sensory and empathic awareness; far from lacking empathy, I am often overloaded by it. Of course, I also share your utter outrage at SBC's "theories." Every time I see him described as a "world-reknowned autism expert," I want to spit. It's great to hear someone else deconstruct his nonsense. :-)

1 husband, 2 kids (and lots of books) said...

Being 'mind-blind' would be so much easier. It's feeling everything so strongly yet finding it very hard to know what to do to express it, or how to react, and going round and round thinking about it, getting more and more overwhelmed by that is really hard. Finding yourself feeling everything so deeply yet being 'labelled' by other people as un-caring. That's why all this blogging is so much easier. No-one looks you in the eye and gradually you can practice saying what you really think and feel and testing it out on people in what feels like a safer environment

Kim said...

Well, I was going to direct you to Rachel's blog, but I see you are already connected to her...

I can't really add anything new; I can just agree that your observations, Rachel's experiences (as described on her blog,) and the things I've observed in my son all line up. They all make sense. Baron-Cohen's ideas do not.

Sandrine said...

Thank you, both of you, for your great comments! Rachel, it feels like a vindication that you agree with me - your post on the intense world syndrome meant a lot to me in terms of how I understand my son.
And yes, Ms ... lots of books, I can see that blogging might feel like a safer way of expressing yourself! I just can't believe anyone who'd spend time with my son would ever think he was uncaring. Yet, there's plenty of people out there who haven't met him who're prepared to do just that.

Sandrine said...

Thanks for commenting Kim! It was you who directed me to Rachel's post in the first place... on facebook!

Marie said...

I came to this post via EcoMum's FB page. And all I have to say is "RIGHT ON!" I found myself nodding my head and saying "exactly!" outloud as I read your post. Thank you for stating so eloquently what so many people don't seem to get at all about our children. By way of background, my son has autism and he too is probably one of the most caring and empathetic human beings I will ever have the honor to know.

Sandrine said...

Thank you Mary. I'm becoming persuaded that all the trite we hear about autism is caused by the fact that scientists don't spend time with austitic children or adults and actually interact with them. They look at them as the holders of interestingly 'deficient' brains, a problem to be solved, rather than people. And non-scientists simply don't spend enough time around autistic people to correct this misperception. So let's make sure we introduce our children to as many people as possible!

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with all you wrote. My Aspie son is far, FAR more empathic and caring than his NT brother. If he steps on your foot he's all "Sorry! Sorry! Sorry! Are you OK?" with REAL concern on his face and a hand on your arm. I told him today his Grandad had died and he immediately came to me, put his arms round me and said so softly "That's really sad Mummy. Everything will be OK" while patting my shoulder. He has Asperger's - but he always knows exactly what to say and do instinctively when it comes to things like that.

Sandrine said...

Thanks for commenting! Your son sounds adorable. But that's another prejudice, isn't it. People say about Aspies that they just don't know what the appropriate thing to say is. Clearly that's not true of your son!

Nix said...

I think there's a misinterpretation here. The technical term 'empathy' does not mean the same thing as the English-language word 'empathy'. Obviously autistics have English-language-empathy: we feel others' pain, perhaps too much. What we don't have is psychologists'-empathy, which is the ability to automatically model others' states of mind. We cannot automatically determine what other people are thinking and how they are feeling from tiny twitches of eye or what-have-you: we cannot tell that saying X will lead to the person we're talking to being deeply hurt. If we knew, we'd not do it, because we have English-language-empathy. But we all too often don't. (I was 20 before I learnt to read any emotions more subtle than red-faced anger.)

Sandrine said...

Nix - your experience seems to fit in better with SCB's theory than some other people's (see Rachel's comment, for example). Would it be fair to say that not all autistic people have the same degree, or even the same kind of emotional awareness? That's certainly the case for NTs... I really do think that my son's responses to other people's emotions are spot on, most of the time, i.e. more often than mine (although a bit OTT at times!)
As to the differences in empathy - I actually take issue with SBC's definition. Empathy is a fairly loaded word not just in plain English, but in philosophy. And I'm just not not sure that what SBC does with it is really coherent.

Lindsay said...

Ha! This post is hilarious!

My favorite parts:

"I have read one book by him: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Hold on, that's not it."

...and

"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."

(I'm like Nix --- I actually do have a degree of mind-blindness. But I also agree with you that SBC's concepts of "systemizing" and "empathizing" are poorly-defined, poorly-measured and, even for someone like me, who *does* fit the theory, there's a whole lot of really important stuff that this model leaves out. I consider sensory sensitivity to be a much more important, day-to-day aspect of having autism than difficulty reading facial expressions, for example.)

Sandrine said...

Glad you enjoyed! I know I'm repeating myself, but if you want to read some scientifically and philosophically solid, yet hilarious writing about SB-C, you should really read Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender. Which, come to think of it, you've probably already read!

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