Saturday, July 27, 2019

Some thoughts on Cups, the extreme male brain theories of autism and genderless society

Recently, I was unpacking the dishwasher and putting cups away while thinking about how we chose the cups and mugs and how my wife and I have very different thought processes when it comes to buying them.

I was wondering if this was a male/female difference, an autism/neurotypical difference or just a Gavin/Joanne difference. Somehow, I got to reflecting on the whole "extreme male brain" theory of autism and why I dislike that model more than ever.  ... and then of course, I started thinking about how people escape these gender stereotypes.

The art of choosing a mug

My wife used to choose cups in sets of four or preferably six. They'd all have the same pattern (or at least they'd all be related in some way).  Often this pattern would match the walls or benchtop in our kitchen.

Sometimes the mugs she'd choose would come with their own stand which meant that they annoyingly took up space on the bench or they'd have a set of special hooks on the wall which needed to be mounted.  If one of the cups was broken, the set would never be the same, there'd always be a missing space on their stand.

When I choose cups, I like to get things which are completely different, indvidual. If I do get a set, for example a doctor who themed set, they would be collected one by one and (and yes, there's plenty of gaps).

Things aren't missing because they're broken, they're missing because I haven't found them yet -- Somehow I feel that's more inclusive.  There's room to grow and become part of the family but it doesn't mean that the family is incomplete. 

I get cups that contain statements that make me smile or pictures that I relate to. The cups I buy generally belong to someone. Coffee cups that is.

As for tumblers (glasses), my concerns are in the areas of strength, stackability and dishwasher fitting (tall cups do not fit in the dishwasher).  If a cup is plain, then it needs to be functional. -- and of course, if a cup is part of a set in which each cup is a different colour, then they need to be stacked in proper rainbow order.

Venus and Mars

One of the more common theories about the differences between men and women is explored in John Gray's book "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus".  It's a great book and I've referenced it many times in this blog over the years.

In a nutshell, it states that;

  • Women are more emotive while men are more tactile
  • When it comes to problems, Women prefer to talk about things (and emote) while men simply want to fix them.

You can see this approach in our collections of cups. My wife is concerned with overall harmony, how the cup fits into the "family" of the house and how it becomes a part of the collective. I, on the other hand, am much more concerned with purpose, stackability, usefulness and even signage.

In a perfect world, where we respect each other's opinions and differences, these different approaches are complimentary and can significantly improve our decision making. Unfortunately however, most relationships are dominated (at least in certain areas) by one member of the couple; and this can lead to conflict instead. 

Male brained theories. -- Simon Baron Cohen

It makes sense that clinical psychologists, such as Simon Baron Cohen would have looked at these differences in neurotypical people and applied them to people with autism. He would have found that the special interests that many people on the spectrum have, tend to skew our decision-making process.

The sensory hoops that we often have to jump through; for example considering the crowds, smells and noises at a shopping centre before we decide to go out, also affect our decision making. Ultimately, these challenges make snap decisions quite risky for people on the spectrum.  It leads us to make decisions which are more considered and logical.

To an observer, they might appear more "male-brained" - but they're not. 

Why is the male-brained theory problematic?

The main issue with the male-brained theory is that it's far too simple and that it only looks at visible surface attributes. In classifying activity by gender, it also becomes offensive to both men and women.

The extreme male brained theory supposes that men are stronger when it comes to mathematical and spatial reasoning and that men are more able to see the details in complex systems.  It suggests that women are better at emotive concepts and multi-tasking day-to-day chores and children.

It's easy to see why the male-brained theory is offensive to women, it promotes the assumption that unless you're a geeky/nerdy female (ie: on the spectrum), you're not cut out to be a scientist. It supports traditional views the females belong at home with their families and in emotional support roles.

Essentially, the naming of the male-brained theory pushes women back into the corner they've spent the last few decades trying to escape from. 

While these pictures are amusing and sometimes feel accurate, they're ultimately unhelpful in that they promote and reinforce gender stereotypes.

It's harder to see why this theory is problematic for men. After all, most men would be happy to be identified as "men".  Unfortunately, the damage is once again in the definition of the stereotype. Not only does the theory promote the idea of male savants and mathematical prowess but it also assumes that people, particularly men, on the autism spectrum are hamstrung in terms of empathy.

This is not true on a number of levels. For a start, it's very clear that not everyone on the spectrum is great at maths and science. Even males who are quite competent academically, may be competent in English, religion, geography or computing without necessarily being good at maths.

More importantly however, the male-brained theory pushes men (and women on the spectrum) back into a corner in which they've been trapped for decades; that of the unsympathetic, unfeeling male who cannot empathize with those around him. 

The Rise of Ungendered People

One of the more interesting developments of modern times is the rise of "ungendered" people. I can't pretend to know a great deal about this -- there are plenty of much more expert people out there, but from what I can gather, this isn't always happening for sexual reasons.

True, a larger than average portion of ungendered people seem to show bisexual, gay/lesbian or even transgender tendencies. I don't think that this necessarily equates with being ungendered. People become ungendered for a variety of different reasons. 

I believe that there's at least a reasonable social component to being ungendered. That some of the rules and stereotypes perpetuated in our society have left people feeling like they can't belong to either of the main descriptive genders.  That by trying to force others to fit into a set of traits that don't apply to them, we've essentially ostracized them from society.

It's especially concerning to me because the proportion of ungendered people on the spectrum, seems to be noticeably higher than it is among neurotypicals. We need to be doing more to help our people to feel accepted in society. 

What can we do?

There's a few things that we can do to make this world a better place for everyone;

  • Educate ourselves: I've deliberately written this post "off the top of my head" without looking up the language of the LGBTQIA+ community. I've since realized that I should have been using Non-Binary instead of ungendered (I think).  I also have friends that I could have asked. I'm hoping that my choice of words makes it clear how new I am to this (and I'm very happy to be corrected in the comments).

    I'm not alone. It's okay that so many people don't know the right words to use. We're going to make mistakes. Hopefully as the new words filter through society, we'll all start to learn and improve. It's up to our LGBTQIA+ friends to teach us patiently and it's up to us to make the effort to listen, learn and improve.
  • Stop trying to put everything into neat little boxes: Just as the male-brained theory is no longer relevant to autism, so too, my cups theory is not about gender. It's about differences between individuals. Labels and boxes are perfect for getting treatment or funding (and sometimes for getting a bit of respect due to numbers) but they alone can't describe everyone. Instead of arguing about identity-first language, (person with autism vs autistic person), we should really be pushing for individual-first language; "fred".

    The same goes for gender labels, we keep labeling people in extreme terms; talking about hot and cold without allowing for various degrees of warm.
  • Stop making it all about Sex: I've learned that a transgender person isn't necessarily gay and that people who become non-binary don't simply flip once from one gender to another but may lean towards one gender one day and another gender on a different day. 

    For some reason, whenever I see a person who isn't on board with these modern ideals (usually bible or equivalent "holy book" in hand), they're overly concerned with sex and genitalia (or toileting, or the effects on parenting) instead of the individual and their thoughts and feelings. 
We've obviously got a long way to go but I'm pleased to feel like I'm taking my first steps towards a greater understanding. True equality between the sexes means letting go of our preconceived notions of male and female traits. Being gender neutral doesn't have to be the answer but it's okay if it is.

To all my LGBTQIA+ friends, I'm grateful for your understanding and continued teaching. I'm learning so much from you. Hopefully I haven't offended you all with this post but if I have, my apologies are unreservedly offered. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Forget "Normal" - Set Personal Goals for a Happier Life

There's no doubt about it, autism, Asperger's syndrome and all of the associated co-conditions including ADHD/ADD, anxiety, OCD, ODD, Bi-Polar disorder and BPD can really make it difficult to live "normally".

People seem to be obsessed with living a "normal" life instead of trying to live a happy one. Sometimes these things can co-exist but most of the time they do not.

In this post, I want to go over some of the ways you can adjust your life goals to find happiness.

The Trouble with being "Normal"

Unless you fit a certain restricted set of cultural, racial, sexual, economic and medical criteria, you're not "normal". This is a sad fact of life and one that's usually beyond our control to change. I'm not here to talk about most of these restrictions. I acknowledge that they're important but I'm just here to talk about the neurological part of being "normal".

These neurological differences make it difficult to find work and keep it. To build relationships and keep them and to find happiness and keep it. It's not impossible but sometimes the amount of work required to do these things is so insurmountable as to be too difficult for everyday living.

Often it drives us to the edge -- and sometimes it drives us over. 

While it's clear that society itself needs to change, history has shown that these changes can take several lifetimes to have the desired effect.

Source: Bloomberg This is how fast America Changes its Mind (2015)

Personal change however is something that you have much more control over. It's achievable and if done with care and purpose, it can lead to a happier life.

Define the new "Normal"

Advocates love using the phrase "normal is just a dryer setting" but what does it really mean?

It means that "normal" is as individual as the self.  You need to stop worrying about what is "normal" for other people and work out what is normal for you.

If you ask them, most people will define "normal" lives in terms of a bunch of stages;
  • Birth
  • School, High School
  • College / University
  • Work
  • Marriage and Family 
  • Retirement
  • Death
Apart from the first and last of these stages, there's nothing that says that these steps need to be your personal life-goals or that they have to occur in the order that's specified.

As a general rule, I'd start by amending these goals to simply;
  • Birth
  • Happiness
  • Death
You'll want to flesh out what happiness actually means to you but now at least the pressure is off and the main goal in life is to happy. 

Be Realistic about your Goals

Happiness by itself is a great thing to strive for but as a lifetime goal, it's a little too vague. You need to determine what it is that you need in order to be happy.

We all have similar overall "needs"; education, relationships, housing, work, assets and leisure.


Education is a fairly common need and most of us will have completed at least the basics in the "normal" way, at school. Depending upon socio-economic circumstances and academic prowess, you may or may not have advanced beyond this. It doesn't matter. Throughout our lives, we never stop learning. You can pick up new skills at any point during your life. You really can teach an old dog new tricks. 

Age is no barrier to education
There are two very important factors to keep in mind with regards to education;

  • Education isn't simply a career step:  If you're doing a class simply because you think it will "get you a job" then think again. If your heart isn't in it, you won't do well. Education does not guarantee work.  If work is a critical goal, then consider trying to get work before worrying about further education.
  • Certifications aren't always important: Don't let worries about your performance in exams prevent you from trying new things. The end result is not as important as the journey. If you're open to this, you'll find plenty of FREE education online and plenty of low-cost courses at community colleges. 
Find your special interests and study the things you love.  It may not make you rich but it will make you happy.


In today/s society, there's a lot of pressure on young people to get boyfriends/girlfriends and to pass through the various stages of relationships which ultimately end up in procreation. What people don't tell you is that not everyone needs to be a parent. Not every relationship needs to be between a boy and a girl and that not being "with someone" is not the same as being unable to have a relationship.

Some people, particularly men, place far too much emphasis on the sexual side of relationships to the point where they become so "needy" that they're actually dangerous to others.  A good example of one of these dangerous groups is the "incel" group; the "involuntary celibate" group who don't seem to realize that the "creepiness" of their nature and intent is the very reason why they can't find a date.

Groups like this can be very dangerous.

Be clear about what you are seeking. If you're looking for sex, you may not actually be looking for a relationship. Instead of focusing on what everyone else has, or on what a group of others think is an idea, concentrate on what you as a person want, how much you're willing to contribute to a relationship and whether your goals in this area are realistic. 

You'll find that people who are generally happy and fun to be around will attract others who are seeking happiness.

Housing and Living Conditions

Housing is one of the basic needs of life. Everyone needs a place where they can feel safe, store their belongings and sleep without worrying that they'll suddenly have to defend themselves against attack.

Basic housing and living is a human right -- and in most (western) circumstances, it should be achievable depending upon the amount of government support available in your area. Unfortunately, you can't control other people in sometimes other residents do not respect your boundaries.

While many people dream of living in a giant spaciously furnished house, the reality is that this lifestyle is often completely out of reach. Your goals in terms of housing should start off simple;

  1. Safety for you and your possessions, 
  2. Access to things you need, such as power, water, communications, transport, food and shops.

If you're living anywhere in the western world, chances are that you're already living a more comfortable life than most of the world's population. 

Group homes can be a good option for people on the autism spectrum who find that they can't fully support themselves but they need to be selected carefully. Individuals who don't respect the privacy and possessions of others should not stay in these places and there needs to be someone who can oversee and resolve any of these kinds of disputes before they get "ugly".


There are two major reasons why we work. The first is to earn enough money to support ourselves in life and the pursuit of our interests. The second is to get the feeling that we're contributing back to society.

"Normal" work is not always possible for people on the spectrum. Sometimes the various social or sensory issues that come with autism get in the way and sometimes there just aren't enough jobs to go around.

One of the most common challenges of work in the western world is the issue of being "over-qualified". People with autism can sometimes be particularly skilled in their special interest areas but may find it impossible to get a job. It's very important to realize that qualifications alone will not get you a job. You can however significantly increase your chances of getting a job by working in the field while you're doing your degree or certificate.
It's been widely reported that people on the autism spectrum often find employment impossible. In the western world, where there's a degree of government support, this will place a cap on your lifestyle but will not make life impossible. In other parts of the world however, the consequences can be more severe.

If you find yourself supported but without paid employment, don't let this stop you from contributing to society. People without employment who retreat from society risk making their other issues unmanageable. You'll feel much better if you have a regular routine, contribute and feel valued by others. 

To do this, follow your special interests and where possible join local groups which in some way border on your special interests. Volunteer work will go a long way towards giving you a feeling of purpose and it may lead on to real job opportunities.

Assets and Leisure 

The last needs which drive happiness are the freedom to do things that you enjoy. This may be in the form of assets, such as collecting or owning items that you desire or in the ability to do activities that you want to do.

Once again, the problems of autism can reduce your capabilities in this area. This may be because you don't earn enough to buy what you want, don't have a safe place to store it or can't go to places because of various sensitivities or executive functioning issues.

It's important that you don't strive for things that are obviously far out of your reach (strive for a car, not a Porsche) but that you continue to strive for things that you want. The more you strive, the more you'll find your reach will extend and the closer you'll get to your goals.

Be flexible and allow for those goals to change -- and remember to celebrate the little victories too.

Keeping Happy

The things that give you happiness will change over the years, so you'll want to revise your goals accordingly.  In your younger years, you might be more concerned with assets but you may find that this shifts towards family as you get older.

Think about what you can achieve rather than what you can't and try to take opportunities as they arise. If you miss a good opportunity, don't berate yourself. This happens to everyone. Just make a deal with yourself to jump on the next opportunity when it arises.

If you find that general life stories are getting you down, you'll discover that it helps to shield yourself from bad news. Personally, I find that reading news stories about social injustice only makes me annoyed. If I'm already in a bad mood, I avoid the news entirely. 

Remember that this is your path, not the path of others. You must walk it differently and not try to compare your progress with your peers. If you find that the good fortunes of others weigh upon you heavily, consider getting off social media like Facebook as people mainly post positive (and fake) news about themselves there. Sometimes it can become very distracting.

No matter what happens, we only get one shot at life, so if you experience a little failure, keep trying and remember, there's always someone out there who's willing to help but sometimes you have to ask before they realize that they're in a position to give it.