Sunday, January 10, 2010

What is Aspergers: My Perspective - Part 2

I concluded my discussion last time by looking at the neanderthal theory of Aspergers. Now it's time for a couple more.


Men versus Women
There's no doubting this one. The majority of people diagnosed with aspergers are in fact male. Of course this doesn't rule out a huge undiagnosed population of female aspies. Aspergers presents quite differently in women and many aspergers traits in women are not diagnosed but simply accepted as "quirky".

Don't be fooled into thinking that this makes social life any easier for women with aspergers. While a female with aspergers is considerably more likely to find a partner than a male, they also seem much more likely to be taken advantage of and their relationships with others of their gender tend to be less successful than their male counterparts. Aspie men can often find other men who share their special interests but aspie women rarely meet other women who can communicate on this level.

It's not that either is any better or worse off. Both aspie males and females have difficulties but they occur in different areas. If anything, the fact that so many females with aspergers remain undiagnosed means that they aren't getting the kind of early intervention that males are getting.


Extreme Males
There is a theory which refers to aspergers as "extreme male brain". I'm not a supporter of this theory because I feel that it's demeaning to women. It suggests (implicitly) that women with aspergers are somehow more male (butch?) than their female counterparts. The reasoning for this is that asperger women are "less emotional" and "less empathetic". They also tend to be more focussed on more "scientific" pursuits.

Leaving aside the offensive side of the theory, there is also the problem of flawed data. At the time the theory was proposed, it was presumed that people with aspergers were emotionless and could not have empathy simply because they failed to show the same responses that neurotypical subjects showed. It's only been recognised fairly recently that although the reactions are different, the feelings are the same. People with aspergers feel do emotions and they are empathetic - sometimes they're more empathetic than neurotypicals.

The theory also seems to be suggesting that men with aspergers are more "extreme-male" than neurotypical men. This again is problematic for me because most men with aspergers that I've talked to are actually more "feminine" than neurotypical men. They tend to be interested in the "softer" disciplines of "computing", "science fiction" and "poetry" than the beer-guzzling, sports playing, randy party animals that neurotypcial men are portrayed as.


Individuality
The extreme male brain ideas have merit but the biggest problem I have with the theory is that it's too generic and it ignores the individuality of the aspie. I have no doubt that my previous few paragraphs ruffled some feathers amongst my readers. I'm sure that many people are thinking, "I'm not like that". That's great! That's the main flaw in the extreme male brain theory - and indeed in most aspergers theories. They attempt to use the aspergers label to describe "everyone" and mistakenly decide that the majority of respondants in a survey can be substituted for "everyone".

It's probably true that a lot of aspie men are less into sports than into science fiction, for example but I've met aspies who are into bodybuilding and football. Initially I struggled to see how they fit the criteria but over time I've begun to realise that the criteria doesn't take individuality into account. We're all different - and the world is better for our differences.


More?
I'm sure that I've made a lot of errors in this post - my work is currently in overdrive and my last three working days have been in excess of 16 hours each. I didn't want a week to slip by without a post but I'm afraid it's been a bit of a rush job. Hopefully next week I'll be able to cover some of the things I missed.

22 comments:

e said...

Excellent post, Gavin!

I am always hurt by the assumption that those with ASD/AS are not empathetic. I disagree! I believe that they are highly sensitive, not just with physical sensory matters, but also emotionally and perhaps intuitively. A problem lies with knowing whether one should respond, what the appropriate response should be and then biggest of all, how to accomplish the response. I know for me, my reaction more often than not, is one akin to a deer caught in headlights.
The male-brain concept is an over-generalization. I've been thinking about this - I think maybe those with ASD/AS are more androgynous and because they are less influenced by societal norms and pressures, they tend to follow their bliss (or stim!) rather than be guided by what their peers are modeling. This actually enables a more balanced nature. It also makes the Autie/Aspie more genuine and unique than their NT counterpart.
Hopeful thinking on my part, perhaps, but I do believe this about myself and my boyfriend as well, who very well might be Aspie.

marci said...

I am enjoying your blog Gavin.
I am an NT. I love an Aspie, but I am confused about certain behaviors of his. Is there somewhere that I can get answers to questions about whether behavior is typical Aspie,
and how to react to these behaviors?

Thank you for helping me understand.

spunkykitty said...

great post, totally agree that part abt the empathy - actually i think some of us feel too much too deep and go into overdrive freeze...

but i disagree on the generalisation abt female aspies finding it easier to find a mate / companion - this has been the total opposite from my perspective and observation of those aspies i kw abt... and of my own life per se...

NT males r far less likely to want to make things work with quirky weird eccentric aspie girls, and the more intellectual the worse it becomes... as if NT intellectual females dont hv it bad enough hahaha, the aspie ones? totally geek-land sorry babe... yes attractive female aspies may get more attention than our male counterparts, but beyond the initial physical attraction, it's downhill all the way mostly... OR an uphill struggle,,,

but that said... wld i exchange it for the world? nope... i love being aspie... even tho i sometimes baffle me hahaha...

OriNebula said...

Thank you for your blog. I'm NT but my son shows various aspie traits and looking at it again, I think my husband does too. Your blog has helped me understand their view of the world better. Every aspie is different, but some of the more generic traits do apply in their cases, and hearing them from an aspie's perspective gives me a chance to look at ways I can respond better - esp with my son who is still learning the self control/disciple that is so critical to an aspie.

bludancer said...

i agree with the possibility that a large number of women tend to go undiagnosed, and that the lack of dx can make things even more difficult. (if you don't identify for many years, for instance, that you take things at face value and can be fairly gullible, it makes that trait even more difficult to combat; you can become even more vulnerable. i think Donna Williams addresses this too in one of her "oddpod" discussions, but aside from this blog, i haven't seen it anywhere else.)

as usual, i enjoy this blog. there's something very sane and balanced about it. when i'm a little jangled by the polarization, black-whiteness that can creep into discussions about AS (including my own black-whiteness)---i come here for a respite. it's nice to breathe.

eaucoin said...

I like that about your blog too, Gavin, that it maintains that we're all individuals while discussing what we may have in common. I wonder if the reason girls go undiagnosed is because the mainstream media is often contemptuous of women and so they do not have high expectations (in a sense, for women, being demeaned and ridiculed is the norm). Also girls growing up are ususally expected to do more household chores which prepares them for low-wage menial jobs that a man with Aspergers might not consider doing, especially if he's used to being waited on by sisters or his mother.

Anonymous said...

Just came upon your column. Very interesting. I've been surrounded by Aspies my whole life! I KNOW it's genetic. They are all over the spectrum.
Too tired to write more at the moment.
Carol

Emma C from Facebook said...

Well as Gavin is aware, I am in the process of undiagnosing my official Asperger diagnosis - because I don't fit the impairments in the criteria.

However I have still benefited from, an awareness of Asperger traits and relationships. It is interesting because these overlap with a lot of "co-morbid disorders" like OCD, Social Anxiety, just a few that come to mind, OCPD, Tourette's, Epilepsy..Anecdotally I have had friends offline (pre Internet) and online who have these similar personality traits.

So any discussion of this Aspie culture, although mostly anecdotal I think is helpful to this end, in resolving problems and creating understanding.

Carlyle said...

I recently started reading your blog, and I appreciate the work you've done here. I'm an aspie myself, and though I might disagree with you on some of the details, reading your perspective has helped me sharpen my own.

I'm very glad that you brought up the male/female issue, as well as individuality, and (in your last post) the concept of AS as a difference rather than a disability. My own view is that issues in these areas have arisen because ASDs have primarily been defined and diagnosed behaviorally, but they aren't really behavioral conditions. Behavior, in my opinion, is the result of what a person perceives and what the person believes about the perception. One's beliefs are formed over time by one's perceptions and conclusions drawn from those perceptions. Looking at it that way, we can see that a significant difference in how one perceives or processes information will tend to cause significant differences in behavior. However, the exact nature of the behavioral differences will still be heavily influenced by that person's specific experiences, not to mention a variety of other factors.

On that note, I love the idea of describing aspies as more androgynous. That word doesn't mean genderless. Rather, it means having traits of both genders.

That's my two cents. :)

Emma said...

It's a true pleasure reading your blog Gavin, so far pretty much every post has been an "ah-ha!" experience for me. I have poured through your posts and they have helped me greatly, bringing much needed insight into some tough questions. So, thank you for that!

I'm a female aspie about your age. I keep a blog about it myself, although the purpose of that is less to explain and educate and more to put all the thoughts that have been running through my head for years into writing. It is also really helpful for Dan, my fiancë, as it enables him a better insight into what is really going on in my world at "the Far Side".

Anyway, sorry about getting wordy. To comment on this post I have to agree with spunkykitty when it comes to ease of finding a partner. I agree that it is easier as a female aspie to meet someone, but developing the relationsship - that's the tricky part!

Since showing empathy, caring and being a social wiz seems to be near enough what defines womanhood in our culture, a woman with severe troubles in these departments is often not only considered odd but outright freakish. Add on the intellectuality and not many NT men are willing and able to go those extra 100 miles :S

xine said...

Great post!

I am constantly frustrated by others in my field who have the assumption that people on the spectrum are incapable of "normal" emotions... even when daily examples seem to be rampant.

Your blog is so insightful, I'm a newer reader and I adore it. :)

Skyler said...

It’s an excellent post. The powerful focus and propensity to work things out understandably often grants those people with Aspergers a high level of aptitude in their field of interest. When these extraordinary interests correspond with a considerably or socially useful task, the person with Aspergers often can lead a profitable life.

desifeminists said...

OMG! i was just commenting about empathy on another post and right afterwards i read this one!

i couldn't agree more both on the point about empathy and the point about "extreme male" notion. i'm pretty sure that i have undiagnosed asperger's, and although many have found me "extremely male" i.e. aggressive/dominant, i'm only that way about "extremely feminine" subjects!! i'm an INFP woman, which is probably the most empathetic and "feminine" personality, yet people find me unemotional and all-logic!!

desifeminists said...

"I think maybe those with ASD/AS are more androgynous and because they are less influenced by societal norms and pressures, they tend to follow their bliss (or stim!) rather than be guided by what their peers are modeling."

exactly. i first read about asperger's on Feministing.com, and there seems to be a connection between having asperger's and being a feminist. the difference is, even among other feminists, i'm unable to connect and feel very lonely. before i used to think i just disliked traditional people. but after being lonely among like-minded women i realized there's more to my problem.

Anonymous said...

"...but i disagree on the generalisation abt female aspies finding it easier to find a mate / companion - this has been the total opposite from my perspective and observation of those aspies i kw abt... and of my own life per se...

"NT males r far less likely to want to make things work with quirky weird eccentric aspie girls, and the more intellectual the worse it becomes... as if NT intellectual females dont hv it bad enough hahaha, the aspie ones? totally geek-land sorry babe... yes attractive female aspies may get more attention than our male counterparts, but beyond the initial physical attraction, it's downhill all the way mostly... OR an uphill struggle..."

"...Since showing empathy, caring and being a social wiz seems to be near enough what defines womanhood in our culture, a woman with severe troubles in these departments is often not only considered odd but outright freakish. Add on the intellectuality and not many NT men are willing and able to go those extra 100 miles :S"

Good points!

Further, add on the NT guys *and* guys with ASD who assume stuff like this: http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=15912303964&topic=8017

"women do have it a lot easier, love just comes to them, us men have to fight tooth and nail for it."

"Women have it easier initially, they have the part easy when it comes to getting the guy, entering the relationship"

...as if women to whom love *doesn't* just come don't even exist!

Priscilla said...

Hi Gavin,

I am just wondering if you can recommend any good online support groups for Aspies living in Australia. Thank you.

Gavin Bollard said...

Hi Priscilla,

Asperger Services Australia
http://www.asperger.asn.au/
Have forums which are reasonably popular but for best results, you should ignore the national boundaries and head to the big forums like;

WrongPlanet
http://www.wrongplanet.net/
Which is probably the best but can get quite political if you're outspoken with "clashing" views.

Aspies for Freedom
http://www.aspiesforfreedom.com/
Which is much more "moderate"

and

Zomg
http://www.zomgaspies.com/
Which is very tolerant of "bad behaviour but might offend as a result.

You'll probably find more "Aussies" on these forums than you will on the Australian ones.

Anonymous said...

I think the reason some consider us to be non-emotional is that we are more logical. I have been told my emotions(when rarely presented) are strait forward and only with meaning. If someone is hurt but says their fine it clicks that they are fine. But then you tend to see they aren't fine. Our emotions seem to rely more on fact, as most Aspies can be very technical.

(I have aspergers, not trying to offend anyone, just my opinion)

Anonymous said...

I find the term "aspie" to be very demeaning to people with aspergers and also you mentioned an intervention almost as if people need help, as if it is a disability. Basically we think differently and it's a very facist way of thinking. Because we think logically, it's different and because we think differently when compared to other people it doesn't mean it's wrong. Who are you to dictate whether or not your way of thinking is the 'right' way?

Gavin Bollard said...

@Anonymous.

Sorry if the term aspie offends you. It's difficult to speak about people who share a common label without offending someone. Yes, I know that everyone is different but I guess the most correct term is; Individual who also has a diagnosistic label of either Aspergers Syndrome or High Functioning Autism.

If I were to use this in my posts, they'd be twice as long, much less readable and would probably still offend someone.

I don't use the word to offend. It's used as form of short-hand in the same way that AS, Aspergian & HFA are used.

Regarding the need for intervention; If we all lived in our own society, we would not need any help. We're all quite capable.

Unfortunately, living in a neurotypcial-based society, people with Aspergers Syndrome are always going to need some form of assistance to blend in, stay employed and to be less of a target for intolerant elements of society.

It's not the fault of the aspie. It's the fault of society.

Most AS individuals will tell you that they would welcome assistance - and in fact, many campaign constantly for it.

As both a father of two Aspergians - and being one myself, I can assure you that early intervention makes a whole world of difference when it comes to individual success.

Anonymous said...

The intervention based thing .. If you look up aspergers they call it a disorder or a disability, not a difference. The words they use, symptoms of aspergers, not characteristics. The way they've worded it makes society seem quite narcissitic and like people are to blame. They lower peoples self esteem. I was reading a post of a person with aspergers he said he was looking for a cure. Society has made him think he needs to be cured. Aspergers has been labeled as a disease for far too long and we need a change. In my experience as a child with aspergers I was treated inferior to my psychiatrists, they looked at me as if I was dumb. Society needs to change the way they think about differences, it's the same with racism, sure it's died down a lot but I see this as just as bad as racism, instead of the skin colour they're judging on, it's the neurological differences, they think of us as different;therefore bad and treat us as inferior.

PM said...

(Oops - apologies for length.)

Well, I think it is a disability - in the sense that it has disabling properties. It's not an illness, however.The diagnosis tends to hang off the observation of behavioural aspects, but these are the result of coping with the condition, not the condition itself.

But what is the nature of that condition? After struggling and experimenting for years, for me I think it comes down to having a fixed, narrow, intense and concentrated centre of attention, with only very low level peripheral attention. Thinking of my personal "first person experience" as a big open space in which my world arises, that centre tends to sit in my "head" area, where my thoughts tend to appear, then a little bit in my body, but not enough that I get very strong gut feelings, but enough that I get emotional awareness but not in a very refined way, and hardy out into the world at all.

I definitely have empathy - and all the other emotional responses - but I don't experience people and situarions directl because my attention is never out there; I'm responding to my thoughts about them. I'm responding to the facts I have been told or that I have managed to work out from the minimal input I got from the world. And I tend to see it all in terms of myself, because the central thought that I organise everything around if the thought of "me".

Meanwhile, I can find emotions confusing because I'm not aware of them in detail; I know I feel something but it doesn't translate easily into understanding. Also, because I only have small part of my attention in that area, which gets overwhelmed easily.

Experimenting with trying to reach out into my body and the world by trying to "feel the space" they occupy seems to gradually be improving things - it makes my body feel more like part of me, or more like I am in it, and the world and people feel less esternal and threatening. My breathing naturally deepens, my neck and body relaxes, when I do this.

How that tight focus came about initially, I don't know. It might relate to trauma and fight-flight response early in life (didnt breathe initially at birth). Or perhaps inherited physical structure. I'm loathe to go for the "brain wiring" route, since it doesn't seem to have much explanatory power to me...

Interesting books maybe, on space and awareness, that I found helpful:
- The Open Focus Brain and Dissolving Pain, Les Fehmi.
- On Having No Head and Head Off Stress, Douglas Harding.
- Presence Vol I and II, Rupert Spira.