The Essential Difference by Simon Baron-Cohen
Judging by some of the other reviews on Good Reads, The Essential Difference is in danger of falling victim to today’s fraught sexual politics. This is both unfair and deeply unjust to autistic people – Baron-Cohen’s first and continuing main research interest is autism.
Some background. Baron-Cohen conducted the seminal experiment on autism where he and his researchers presented to groups of children, some autistic, some neurotypical and some with Down’s syndrome, two dolls. One of the dolls then picked up an object and hid it under a cup. That doll was then taken from the room and the other doll lifted the cup, took out the object and hid it under a different cup. The first doll was then brought back and the children were asked which cup the doll would look under to find the object. The neurotypical and Down’s syndrome children said the cup under which that doll had first hidden the object. The autistic children selected the second cup.
This was one of the first major clues as to the nature of autism, and Baron-Cohen has continued to investigate the condition ever since. He developed a theory that autism is a result of what he calls the extreme male brain, and adduces evidence for this in his book. Of course, for that theory to hold, there have to be differences between male and female brains, and much of the book is concerned with demonstrating that. Which is where Baron-Cohen, a Guardian-reading liberal if ever there was one, has found himself unwittingly on the receiving end of angry feminist attacks. For among some strands of feminist thinking it is an article of faith that there are no inherent differences between male and female brains: it’s all environment and upbringing, a neurological blank slate on which a sexist culture writes boys and girls in shades of blue and pink.
You know what? That’s rubbish. If you want complete gender parity, then let’s even out autism. Let’s have just as many girls as boys remaining completely non-verbal, unreachable, sealed into their own wordless world. Let’s have some girls so acutely sensitive to sensory overstimulation that they have to wear boxing gloves all the time to stop them poking their own eyes out (the family that had to do this forgot on one occasion: their boy gouged his own eyes out). Is that the sort of equality feminists want? As the father of two autistic boys, I’d be happy to share.
And yes, yes, I know that girls are probably under dignosed with autism. But really, it’s not that hard to spot the most acute forms: watch for the boy who can’t speak, jumping up and down with headphones on. Among these most severe cases, boys outnumber girls by 10 or more to one. So let’s have some equality there.
As to whether Baron-Cohen’s extreme male brain hypothesis holds true, that requires further work. It answers well to two of the three main diagnostic criteria for autism – social communication difficulties and behavioural inflexibility – but has less to say about sensory sensitivity. But parents who are trying to stop their children hurting themselves really don’t need to be conscripted into the feminist war against the patriarchy. We’ve got enough problems to deal with – and Baron-Cohen has been on our side for many years in this struggle.