When we last left our heroes, Emma had just discovered Simon Baron-Cohen setting a new standard in “sexist nonsense masquerading as science” by hypothesizing not only that autism is Extreme Male Braineded-ness but that psychosis is Extreme Female Braineded-ness. (Question for SBC: What about people who have both autism and a psychosis?)
I, meanwhile, have been reading Maxine Aston’s What Men With Asperger Syndrome Want to Know About Women, Dating, and Relationships (Jessica Kingsley, 2012). You JUST KNOW Chapter 9 is going to be a hoot when its title is literally “Why are women so complicated?” After an analogy to the internal workings of various machines whose moral seems to be “find the clitoris and you’ll be fine,” we get these two passages of incomprehensible sexist applesauce* that appear to have wandered right out of Baron-Cohen’s laboratory. Here’s the first:
A woman’s needs are so subtle that they are, more often than not, totally missed by the high performing logical Asperger brain, which is programmed to make sense of complex structures or fix misconfiguration. The AS man will take time to observe, analyse, process and interpret his partner’s behavior, looking for logical answers and labels, in an effort to help him make sense of her emotions, which he has probably realized by now appear to be completely illogical. Her emotions will be like a minefield to him and he will find himself treading very carefully in order to avoid possible confrontation.” P. 70-1
Wow. Where to begin unpacking the wrongheaded assumptions jammed into this paragraph? HIGH PERFORMING LOGICAL ASPERGER BRAIN, DON’T FAIL ME NOW!
- New euphemism for “hysterical ladybrain” alert: “subtle.”
- “the high performing logical Asperger brain.” Men, it’s not your fault the ladies be cray-cray! You’re HIGH PERFORMING and LOGICAL! (In fact, this kind of hot-air ego boost is exactly what is going to torpedo an Aspie-NT relationship; see below.)
- Do Aspie women have “high performing logical Asperger brains,” because Asperger’s, or are they “subtly” hysterical, because ladies? I’M GUESSING THE LATTER.
- This paragraph assumes the woman is neurotypical. I know this because, having dated autistic men while being an autistic woman, I’ve found they generally don’t find me an “illogical” “minefield.” In fact, once they chill enough to let down the “must always be processing for potential confrontations” guard they’ve cultivated in order to navigate NT relationships, my former autistic partners were quite relieved to find that we “got” each other.
- Which brings me to this point: this “tak[ing] time to observe, analyse, process and interpret his partner’s behavior” thing? Isn’t an “Aspie man in romantic relationship” thing. It’s an “autistic people try to interact with NT world without it going to shit” thing. In a relationship, it’s a recipe for failure neither party understands. NTs are used to people “getting” them; autistics will burn out quickly if they try to accommodate an NT partner’s NT privilege the same way they accommodate the rest of the world’s NT privilege. These guides offering to help autistic men “crack the code” of NT women are only contributing to the autistic man’s inevitable burnout.
- In other words, they are imposing the same “passing” demand as the rest of the NT world. They promote only appearing to succeed in a straight romantic relationship, not actually finding relationship happiness (which, in fact, is a thing these guides seem uniformly to assume autistic people cannot do – for one thing, notice how no one seems to be encouraging autistic people to date one another).
On a scale of 1 to Baron-Cohen Himself, this bit rates about a “Curious Incident.” BUT IT GETS WORSE. Because of course it does.
Men in general find it more difficult than women to read the perspective of their partner. In trials of mindreading tests, women were often found to score higher than men. It is widely accepted that the female brain tends to be more right-side dominant, whereas the male brain will tend to be left-side dominant. The male brain may be excellent at applying linear processing or being spatially aware or systematizing, strengths the female brain may be less adept at. However, empathetic thought and intuition are certainly strengths the female brain has over the male. So mindreading issues will occur in any relationship but not to the same extreme they will occur when Asperger syndrome is brought into the equation. Being affected by AS will exaggerate this problem and often hinder future learning from situations. P. 73
I’ve seen this argument before, but the fact that it’s plopped right into the middle of a conversation about autistic-NT relationships highlights just what is so profoundly fucked up about it. Which is this:
I’m an autistic woman married to an NT man. If men are “left-brained” and women “right-brained,” but autism makes you more “left-brained,” my husband and I should just about overlap on this brainedness spectrum. He should start out to the left of me, but then my autism should move me toward the left and thus closer to Man-Land (and my husband). In other words, if communication problems are caused by being too far apart on the left-brain-right-brain continuum, an autistic woman and an NT man ought to have the least number of problems communicating, because our respective brain-strengths and brain-deficits are just about equal. Right?
Except my husband and I have the exact same problems communicating that this book claims autistic men have with NT women. I have the same difficulty “reading” his body language, the same difficulty guessing what it is he wants, the same “minefield” to navigate if I feel like I have to guess right the first time OR ELSE.
According to the book, autistic men have these problems because they are just soooo far left on the brainedness spectrum, soooo far away from Right-Hand Lady-Land, that women are a foreign country to them. But this autistic woman (me) has the same communication troubles with her NT husband even though, per this model, we should get along fine because we occupy practically the same point on the scale.
This model has to be incorrect. And by “incorrect,” I mean “applesauce.”
It’s also annoying as hell to me because while the book correctly identifies the communication issues, its suggestions for solving them are bullshit – a declaration I make with the authority of being in an autistic-NT marriage in which we have largely solved these problems. How did we do it?
….Not by learning how to “crack the code” of the “mysterious opposite sex.” Nah. We did it by (a) taking one another seriously as complex human beings and (b) talking. A LOT. Deciding we were in this for the long haul, so we’d better communicate until we got it right.
The Grand Secret to Making Aspie-NT Relationships Work is never going to fill a book, and it’s never going to sell. Because it’s the grand secret to making any relationship (not just romantic ones, either) work: both parties have to feel sufficiently safe with one another to say the words “I don’t understand, but I want to help.”
That’s it. And that takes a lot of communication and good faith and also trusting oneself enough to hear one’s own internal alarms and bail in internally-alarming situations, even if the rest of the world is telling you to “just give it a chaaaaance!”
But that doesn’t support popular fantasies of how men are Logical Stalwarts and women are Nurturing Snugglers. It doesn’t enable the continuing pressure on autistic people to Turn Into Non-Autistic People Or Else. And it certainly doesn’t lend itself to marketing Top Secret Lists of How to Put Coins in the Lady Vending Machine So That Sex Falls Out. It won’t sell. But it works.
*thanks to Justice Scalia for this tasty and fiber-packed alternative to “bullshit”