Autism and the Extreme Male Brain

In Jami L. Anderson & Simon Cushing (eds.), The Philosophy of Autism. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (2012)
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ABSTRACT: Simon Baron-Cohen has argued that autism and related developmental disorders (sometimes called “autism spectrum conditions” or “autism spectrum disorders”) can be usefully thought of as the condition of possessing an “extreme male brain.” The impetus for regarding autism spectrum disorders (ASD) this way has been the accepted science regarding the etiology of autism, as developed over that past several decades. Three important features of this etiology ground the Extreme Male Brain theory. First, ASD is disproportionately male (approximately 10:1 in the case of Asperger’s Syndrome or high-functioning autism (HFA) and approximately 4:1 in the case of autistic disorder). Second, ASD is not psychogenic but biological in origin, and hence is not the product of sexist conditioning or childrearing practices, although these may affect the development of the disorder. Third, ASD is regarded as a spectrum developmental disorder, unlike other disorders such as Down Syndrome that are diagnosed by a (nearly) binary criterion. Down Syndrome, for example, is diagnosed by the presence in all or most cells within a given individual of an extra copy of Chromosome 21. Autism, on the other hand, is diagnosed by the presence of a set of symptoms that vary in their intensity and in their milder forms seem to conform to purported sex differences in cognitive, emotional, and social functioning. In this paper, I do not challenge accepted science regarding the etiology of autism, and I do not challenge the idea of ASD as a disorder. Nor do I wish to offer an alternative account of what autism is. Instead, I focus on the usefulness of thinking of a disorder as an extreme version of ordinary sex differences. Does it follow from the fact that a disorder is more often found in men that we should think of it as an extreme form of maleness? If not, what other conditions must be met in order to warrant this way of thinking about ASD? What does it mean to say that ASD is a form of “extreme male brain”? Feminists are rightly skeptical of theories that make claims about male and female brains, so how should we respond to the clear evidence that the differences between typical and ASD individuals are not caused by childrearing practices? I explain what I take to be Baron-Cohen’s central argument that autism should be seen as the extreme male brain, and critique that argument. I conclude that there is no good argument that autistic symptoms should be regarded as an extreme form of male mental traits, and that Baron-Cohen’s claim does not help us to understand autism, women, or men. His claim is a speculative thesis that is readily mobilized for sexist practices. As such it requires a higher threshold for evidentiary support and rigorous argumentation—support and argumentation that does not exist. KEYWORDS: autism, brain, gender, neuroscience, feminism, male

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Ruth Sample
University of New Hampshire, Durham


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