Most often, the appeal takes this form: What if he's just got Asperger's? Those Asperger people, they can't tell what kind of signals they're sending, or that they might be creeping you out! Give creepy-looking dudes a chance!
This derailing tactic also commonly appears in discussions of consent, where it usually plays out like this: Feminist blogger writes about the myriad social pressures on women to say yes (or at least not say no) to sex they don't want; feminist blogger suggests that our understanding of what rape and consent are should reflect this, and proposes a model of consent resembling this one, or this one, or this one; whatever model the feminist blogger espouses, it's going to put more responsibility on men to make sure their female partners really want to do X sexual activity; male commenters pop up complaining that women's body language is just too danged hard to read, and if the feminist blogger's plan were adopted, hardly anybody would ever have heterosexual sex ever again!
The man with Asperger's usually makes his entrance here, as an extreme example of Everyman's dilemma.
Of course, this is all perfectly true --- autistic people do often fail to understand nonverbal cues, social context, or how other people are likely to interpret their actions, which does mean that straight autistic men will probably creep out a lot of strange women as they try to teach themselves to flirt (or not; I don't know how to flirt and have no desire ever to learn) --- and sometimes this fact can be brought up and discussed in a non-derailing manner**.
Far more often, though, it's brought up not to add anything to the discussion at all, but to end it. Straight men's oft-proclaimed incapacity to decipher the subtle ambiguities of straight women's facial expressions and body language places all the onus for creating a safer, more egalitarian heterosexuality back onto women's shoulders.
An example, from this comment thread at Hugo Schwyzer's blog, is this response to this earlier comment:
You [referring to previous commenter] have already said that some of the men in your experience can't read the non-verbal clues. That wasn't me. That was you.That's the way it is, and wishing won't make it change. So either do something about it (all by yourself, naturally, since we men are clearly unwilling or unable to help you) or shut up and quit bothering us!
So that's the way it is.
In other words, that's the world now.
It makes no difference if men are hardwired or if men are clueless. Your experience has told us that some aren't picking up your nonverbal clues. So what are you going to do about it in the immediate future?
Wishing won't make it change.
There are several rhetorical sleights of hand at work in the invoke-the-Aspie gambit. First, there's the handy conflation of autistic men (who, if we use the current thinking that about 1% of people are autistic, and that the ratio of autistic men to women is 4:1, should represent about 0.8% of people, or 1.6% of men --- a tiny minority, even if not as tiny as it used to be reckoned) with all men. In the first comment I quote, the argument is that because some men really can't read nonverbal signals, no man should be expected to***."saying many men currently DO NOT correctly interpret nonverbal signals (or notice them at all) is not the same thing as saying that men CAN'T. do you seriously not get the difference between those two statements?"I think this is unfortunately both true to some extent: a) men (on average) don't learn to be as good as they can be in interpreting non-verbal communication. This is something that can be dealt with if there was a real recognition that they needed help in this area, that not everything is "naturally" given or not, and b) men (people with a male brain structure) will on average ceteris paribus never be as good as women (people with a female brain structure) are on average when it comes to interpreting non-verbal communication. There are researchers who suspect that "autism is an extreme version of the male condition." (Simon Baron-Cohen)
"Many of these sex differences [in empathizing and systematizing] are seen in adults, which might lead to the conclusion that all they reflect are differences in socialization and experience. But some differences are also seen extremely early in development, which may suggest that biology also plays a role. For example, girls tend to talk earlier than boys, and in the second year of life their vocabularies grow at a faster rate. One-year-old girls also make more eye contact than boys of their age.
In my work I have summarized these differences by saying that males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize. Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the
laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those emotions with an appropriate emotion of one's own.
We know that culture plays a role in the divergence of the sexes, but so does biology. For example, on the first day of life, male and female newborns pay attention to different things. On average, at 24 hours old, more male infants will look at a mechanical mobile suspended above them, while more female infants will look at a human face."
This line of argumentation also completely erases autistic women from the discussion, by making "autism" synonymous with "clueless, socially awkward man who can't understand his mysterious female partner." Autistic women might have that kind of problem (or we might not, since I think we might be likelier than autistic men to be partnered with other autistics****, with whom there isn't quite so much of a body-language barrier), or our difficulties with nonverbal cues, social context and other stuff falling under the umbrella of "intuition" or "common sense" might take a more sinister form. Earlier in this post, I mentioned the snap decisions most women make every day to try to minimize their chances of being raped by a stranger. Such snap decisions are often going to rest on evidence of the type that's completely invisible to many autistic women.
This tactic is also a way to use intersectionality against feminists: a feminist who confesses hirself unsympathetic to the hypothetical Aspie bachelor's plight opens hirself up to accusations of ableism. (Or, in the weaker version of this appeal, where the hypothetical man is not an actual autistic but just a well-meaning, socially awkward, geeky guy, the feminist becomes the stuck-up Mean Girl who won't give the sweet but wallflowerish Nice Guy the time of day. Since most women have been socialized to be nice, and polite, and not selfish or superficial, this high-schoolish taunt can have surprising power even over grown women).
*The Shapely Prose guest post I linked to uses a wonderful phrase to describe this: "Schrodinger's Rapist." Every man hovers in a sort of quantum superposition between Rapist and Not-Rapist in the eyes of the women who have to interact with him, and often women will err on the side of caution --- assume every man you meet is a rapist --- because the alternative --- trusting a man who later rapes you --- is horrible. More horrible than having to live as if half the people you run into on a daily basis are violent criminals who will hurt you if they're given the chance.
**I think the commenter at Shapely Prose who first brought up autism accomplished this. She might've been the first person I've ever seen raise that issue in good faith, though.
***I do hate that the discussion of consent always goes there, just because there are people who can't read those signals, and such people do sometimes have sex. Where I part ways with the "What about the Aspie men?!" crowd is that I insist that, if a man can't get a reasonably clear idea of whether his partner is enjoying herself just by looking at her, he should stop and ask her. Is that really so hard?
****If you're wondering how that can possibly be true, remember there are a lot more diagnosed male autistics than female ones.