Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Autism, extreme maleness, and male culture

This past Saturday, as I listened to my 11-year-old autistic son recount the day's TV highlights ("At 5:00, Phillies game.  At 8:00, Nascar Racing [where did he get that idea???]"), and again later as I watched him, crouched forward towards the TV on his large shoulders and bulging biceps, yelling "Go Phillies!  You! need! to! score! a! point!," I thought of Simon Baron-Cohen.  

Autism, says Baron-Cohen, is a form of extreme maleness.  Baron Cohen's maleness includes a preference for objects over people, reduced empathy, and linguistic delays.  He notes that:

--newborn males, unlike most newborn females, gaze longer at mechanical mobiles than at human faces.
--baby males make less eye contact and respond less to other people's distress.
--toddler males talk later and expand their linguistic repertoires more slowly.
--adult males score higher on Baron-Cohen's Systematizing Test and lower on his Empathy Test

Underlying all of this, Baron-Cohen believes, is testosterone. The higher the concentration in the fetus's amniotic bath, research suggests, the lower his or her eye contact, and the slower his or her language development.  Too much testosterone, Baron-Cohen speculates, exaggerates these traits into autism.

So far as I'm aware, Baron-Cohen doesn't mention biceps, sports fanaticism, and Nascar racing. While I'm pretty sure that testosterone promotes muscle growth, I'm not so sure about the other two. Where does biology end and culture begin?

To that age-old question, my autistic son, as wild about baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and Nascar as he is oblivious to culture in general and gender stereotypes in particular, poses an interesting challenge.

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