Sunday, October 26, 2008

Where Neurodiversity Meets Feminist Theory (Part II)

This post, in case it's not clear from the title, is a continuation of the previous post, which ended up being a lot longer than I anticipated. Also, because I spent all of the previous post grappling with Kristin Bumiller's taxonomy of disability-rights-promoting strategies, it will be here that I address the gender issues I alluded to at the beginning of that post.

I'm not sure if I mentioned this in the first post, but the primary sources Bumiller uses --- what she considers the founding texts of the neurodiversity movement --- and quotes liberally in her article, are blogs and websites:, Autism Diva and Whose Planet Is It Anyway? all show up in her bibliography. It gave me particular glee to see a lengthy snippet from this old post of ABFH's reproduced in a scholarly article, complete with the citation "Autistic Bitch from Hell."* Seeing that in an academic journal made my day, and very possibly my week, too.

The context for quoting ABFH was this discussion of the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism:
While the validity of this research is subject to debate within the scientific community, it nevertheless promotes a view of autism that reinforces cultural stereotypes of gender. From a feminist perspective, the essentialist version of autism is a disturbing reconstruction of gender and disability stereotypes in the guise of new scientific knowledge. Baron-Cohen's explanation for autism has the twin effect of normalizing the condition (by suggesting that it includes all of us) while essentializing gender differences (by rooting the condition in biological maleness). On the one hand, this easily popularized idea buttresses the kind of stereotypes that the neurodiversity movement hopes to counter. For example, it furthers the idea of autistic genius as an expression of an exaggerated male attribute (Bombaci 2005). On the other hand, it is also problematic to suggest that treating autistic children is akin to treating the usual problems associated with socializing boys, an analogy that potentially reassures those who believe that mainstream education can easily respond to these children's needs.
A gender-based theory of autism grossly oversimplifies the enormous complexity of the autistic condition, including its range of atypical sensory, physical, psychological, and perceptual manifestations (Keane 2004). Autism is a neurological condition that fundamentally affects how a person experiences the world.
I highlighted in bold text the part of that passage I found most useful; indeed, apart from its mere inaccuracy, that tradeoff is the thing that most bothers me about Baron-Cohen's idea. Yes, it provides a way to think of autism as just another flavor of human experience, and one not all that different from the other flavors, but it does this by splitting human experience in two --- male experience and female experience --- and claiming autism as belonging to the male. Autism, then, might "include all of us," but only if "all of us" are men. Women, apparently, are "them," yet again. (And autistic women are not women).

The rest of the passage was hard for me to decipher. The dichotomy Bumiller sets up at the end of the first paragraph seems like both of its branches are going the same place. Her "one hand" option has Baron-Cohen's theory "buttress(ing) ... stereotypes the neurodiversity movement hopes to counter" --- i.e., the theory works against the interests of actual autistic people --- and her "other hand" has the "problematic" aspect of making people complacent about mainstream education's adequacy for autistic students --- i.e., the theory works against the interests of actual autistic people, which presumably include more and better educational supports. This doesn't seem to be a dichotomy so much as the "other hand" gives a specific example of the general trend held in the "one hand." There is, indeed, a stereotype that autistics --- autistic children in particular, but it is also applied to adults --- don't really need any special help at all, and aren't really experiencing any distress when they are overloaded; they're just bratty and looking for attention/throwing a tantrum. So maybe all she needed to do was drop the either/or phrasing and instead phrase it as "trend x, with examples y and z."

The other thing I found interesting about this article was her treatment of gender variance in autism. It came up in the larger context of normalization strategies, and the need to ask whether a given strategy is really in the best interest of the disabled person in whose name it's being implemented. She brought up ABA, which she mentioned is often used simply to get autistics to appear more "normal":
This tendency [of caregivers to try to get their disabled clients to appear as "normal" as possible, and value/reward them according to how successful they are at it] is particularly strong when applied to people with autism, whose disability is in fact medically defined by an inability to understand social conventions. The social development of children with autism is often measured in terms of their progress toward acquiring normal social skills (Gross 2003). Since autism is a form of bodily difference that interferes with the person's ability to process information (sensory, language, tactile, and visual) in a typical fashion, children learn to cope by either imitating norms of behavior or making sense of the world within their unique perceptual systems (Nikopoulos and Keenan 2004).
There is enormous pressure on parents to seek intensive behavioral training because autistic persons' lives are replete with situations where their differences matter. In their lives at home, school, and work, they constantly encounter reactions, usually negative, to their failure to conform to and understand social norms. Even relatively minor differences in social behavior are met with disapproval and rejection and are sometimes grounds for exclusion.
One of the "norms of behavior" that autistics frequently violate is gender-role compliance. I like the way Bumiller describes it:
School-age children with autism often develop likes or dislikes for possessions without attributing relevance to gender demarcation. For example, a boy could become attached to a Barbie lunch box because it relieves stress to repetitively fiddle (sic) with the latch mechanism. When professionals see such preferences as merely gender inappropriate behavior they are disregarding the child's own conception of gender relevance and/or attachments to objects that reduce anxiety. (emphasis mine)
I like her conception of gender variance in autism as simply the failure to attribute gender significance to every tiny detail of one's manner, appearance, taste and choice of hobbies. I've said before that I think gender is one of the most intensively socialized pieces of behavior a person can learn, so it would certainly follow that people who aren't very good at social learning in general would tend to develop a much smaller repertoire of gender signals. A corollary that I failed to add earlier, which I think Bumiller is getting at in the above passage, would be that people who aren't good social learners wouldn't learn to invest as many things with gendered (or other social) meaning. To someone who hasn't been marinating all their life in a culture where gender takes on such a monstrously huge significance (or someone who can't absorb that culture's messages very well), it becomes just another bit of personal data, like having blue eyes or being short. It won't have any bearing on most of the choices that person makes in their daily life.

As you might expect, this failure to take every opportunity to perform one's assigned gender is taken as another autistic "deficit" in social skills:
The process of teaching children to understand social cues, such as teaching children to smile when they are happy to see someone, is often broadened to areas like gender appropriateness, in which children are forced to conform to conventions that are irrelevant to them. Many adolescents with autism consider themselves to be gender neutral, and when confronted with the prospect of dating either withdraw socially or choose to be regarded as androgynous. In social skills training, young autistic persons are explicitly taught about the relevance of gender performance to finding sexual partners. For example, books designed to teach autistic adolescents about sexuality often list specific examples of how potential dates will perceive their appearance or behavior as masculine or feminine. These instruction manuals for entering intimate relationships explain that gender performances have social meaning and tell why they are important to rituals of dating and marriage.
I will probably post later about my wishlist for such a reference book, but in itself I don't see explanation of gender performance as a bad thing. The important thing would be that the book isn't heteronormative or sexist --- that, though it should say what people will likely think of certain gestures, speech patterns or clothing choices, it should not contain any value judgment on those choices. And it should be aware that whoever is reading the book might well have a different goal in mind than they would --- my high-school self would have been looking to convey a masculine self-image, whether to male or female potential dates.

*The one thing I've experienced comparable to that would have to be when my Spenser professor let it slip that one of the earliest Spenser critics was named Batman. (Stephen Batman, also spelled Bateman. The professor hypothesized that he became "Bateman" because scholars felt silly citing Batman as their authority. I don't know why; I'd certainly be interested to know what the Dark Knight thinks about sixteenth-century English poetry).


abfh said...

the citation "Autistic Bitch from Hell."* Seeing that in an academic journal made my day, and very possibly my week, too.

And mine also! :)

Describing autism as an "inability to understand social conventions" doesn't seem entirely accurate to me. Autistic people do tend to misunderstand social situations more often than the average person, but I think it's more that we don't have an innate desire for conformity.

Lindsay said...

"an inability to understand social conventions"

Yeah, this definition seemed to miss the point to me, too. I also think our misunderstandings are part of a larger pattern, and that equating the whole of autism with that one part would be like calling an elephant an animal with a tassellike tail. It's true --- autistics do tend to misunderstand social situations, and elephants do have tassellike tails, but neither of those statements describes the whole thing all that well.

I think I'd also go futher than "we don't have an innate desire for conformity", even, although I think that's true, and is more specific than Bumiller's definition.

To me, autism is a way of experiencing the world that does not give priority to one's impressions of other people. I think that explanation includes the lack of a social awareness as fine-tuned as most NTs' are, and the lack of the need for social belonging/conformity that most NTs experience, and the findings that we do not focus on faces like most NTs do, or learn by imitation well. I think we award all our sensory impressions the same level of attention and mental space, while others prioritize, usually prioritizing socially relevant data.

A study on multitasking and autism would go a long way towards showing me if this hypothesis is worth anything...

Cereus said...

"While the validity of this research is subject to debate within the scientific community, it nevertheless promotes a view of autism that reinforces cultural stereotypes of gender."

Autism shares many of the characteristics stereotypically assigned to men such as a highly logical, academic bent and a disinterest in gossip. But I read a study (which I really SHOULD look up so I can cite properly) that men gossip as much as women, it just sounds different. Having been around some groups of men, this actually rings true for some groups.

(sorry if this is off tangent from the rest of the replies)

Gonzo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gonzo said...

I totally agree with abfh.
Autistics, men AND women usually don't want to conform to gender stereotypes.
The male brain theory has always been one of my pet peeves, and I bristle every time, an autistic woman claims to have a male brain.
They're kind of implying, they're not like those "inferiour" NT women.
If Baron-Cohen called it empathic, or systemic, without applying it to gender, it would be so much more accurate, because the differences within gender are far bigger than the differences between gender.

First comment was removed to correct a typo.

Amanda said...

I'm not big on the social conventions definition either. I think the main differences between autistic and non-autistic people are perceptual. Non-autistic people don't understand autistic people in a social manner any more than autistic people tend to understand non-autistic people, it's a two-way street born of very different perceptual realities among each. The fact that autistic people get labeled as "not understanding social stuff" is part of the problem and an outgrowth of seeing non-autistic perspectives as normal and right and real and autistic ones as abnormal and wrong and unreal.