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Autism and the Treatment of Women Again

Background

I’ve previously written about the claim that people use Autism as an excuse for bad behavior [1]. In summary it doesn’t and such claims instead lead to people not being assessed for Autism.

I’ve also previously written about empathy and Autism in the context of discussions about conference sexual harassment [2]. The main point is that anyone who’s going to blame “empathy disorders” for the widespread mistreatment of women in society and divert the subject from the actions of average men to men in minority groups isn’t demonstrating empathy.

Discussions of the actions of average men are so often derailed to cover Autism that the Geek Feminism Wiki has a page about the issue of blaming Autism [3].

The Latest Issue

Last year Shanley Kane wrote an informative article for Medium titled “What Can Men Do” about the treatment of women in the IT industry [4]. It’s a good article, I recommend reading it. As an aside @shanley’s twitter feed is worth reading [5].

In response to Shanley’s article Jeff Atwood wrote an article of the same title this year which covered lots of other things [6]. He writes about Autism but doesn’t seem to realise that officially Asperger Syndrome is now Autism according to DSM-V (they decided that separate diagnosis of Autism, Asperger Syndrome, and PDD-NOS were too difficult and merged them). Asperger Syndrome is now a term that refers to historic issues (IE research that was published before DSM-V) and slang use.

Gender and the Autism Spectrum

Jeff claims that “autism skews heavily towards males at a 4:1 ratio” and cites the Epidemiology of Autism Wikipedia page as a reference. Firstly that page isn’t a great reference, I fixed one major error (which was obviously wrong to anyone who knows anything about Autism and also contradicted the cited reference) in the first section while writing this post.

The Wikipedia page cites a PDF about the Epidemiology of Autism that claims the 4.3:1 ratio of boys to girls [7]. However that PDF is a summary of other articles and the one which originated the 4.3:1 claim is behind a paywall. One thing that is worth noting in the PDF is that the section containing the 4.3:1 claim also references claims about correlations between race and Autism and studies contradicting such claims – it notes the possibility of “ascertainment bias”. I think that anyone who reads that section should immediately consider the possibility of ascertainment bias in regard to the gender ratio.

Most people who are diagnosed with Autism are diagnosed as children. An Autism diagnosis of a child is quite subjective, an important part is an IQ test (where the psychologist interprets the intent of the child in the many cases where answers aren’t clear) to compare social skills with IQ. So whether a child is diagnosed is determined by the psychologist’s impression of the child’s IQ vs the impression of their social skills.

Whether a child is even taken for assessment depends on whether they act in a way that’s considered to be obviously different. Any child who is suspected of being on the Autism Spectrum will be compared other children who have been diagnosed (IE mostly boys) and this will probably increase the probability that a boy will be assessed. So an Aspie girl might not be assessed because she acts like other Aspie girls not like the Aspie boys her parents and teachers have seen.

The way kids act is not solely determined by neuro-type. Our society expects and encourages boys to be louder than girls and take longer and more frequent turns to speak, this is so widespread that I don’t think it’s possible for parents to avoid it if their kids are exposed to the outside world. Because of this boys who would be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome by DSM-IV tend to act in ways that are obviously different from other kids. While the combination of Autism and the the social expectations on girls tends to result in girls who are quiet, shy, and apologetic. The fact that girls are less obviously different and that their differences cause fewer difficulties for parents and teachers makes them less likely to be assessed. Note that the differences in behavior of boys and girls who have been diagnosed is noted by the professionals (and was discussed at a conference on AsperGirls that my wife attended) while the idea that this affects assessment rates is my theory.

Jeff also cites the book “The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism” by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (who’s (in)famous for his “Extreme Male Brain” theory). The first thing to note about the “Extreme Male Brain” theory are that it depends almost entirely on the 4.3:1 ratio of males to females on the Autism Spectrum (which is dubious as I noted above). The only other evidence in support of it is subjective studies of children which suffer from the same cultural issues – this is why “double blind” tests should be used whenever possible. The book Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine [8] debunks Simon Baron-Cohen’s work among other things. The “look inside” feature of the Amazon page for Delusions of Gender allows you to read about Simon Baron-Cohen’s work [9].

Now even if the “Extreme Male Brain” theory had any merit it would be a really bad idea to cite it (or a book based on it) if you want to make things better for women in the IT industry. Cordelia’s book debunks the science and also shows how such claims about supposed essential difference are taken as exclusionary.

The Problem with Jeff Atwood

Jeff suggests in his post that men should listen to women. Then he and his followers have a huge flame-war with many women over twitter during which which he tweeted “Trying to diversify my follows by following any female voices that engaged me in a civil, constructive way recently“. If you only listen to women who agree with you then that doesn’t really count as listening to women. When you have a stated policy of only listening to women who agree then it seems to be more about limiting what women may feel free to say around you. The Geek Feminism wiki page about the “Tone Argument [10] says the following:

One way in which the tone argument frequently manifests itself is as a call for civility. A way to gauge whether a request for civility is sincere or not is to ask whether the person asking for civility has more power along whatever axes are contextually relevant (see Intersectionality) than the person being called “incivil”, less power, or equal power. Often, people who have the privilege of being listened to and taken seriously level accusations of “incivility” as a silencing tactic, and label as “incivil” any speech or behavior that questions their privilege. For example, some men label any feminist thought or speech as hostile or impolite; there is no way for anybody to question male power or privilege without being called rude or aggressive. Likewise, some white people label any critical discussion of race, particularly when initiated by people of color, as incivil.

Writing about one topic is also a really good idea. A blog post titled “What Can Men Do” should be about things that men can do. Not about Autism, speculation about supposed inherent differences between men and women which are based on bad research, gender diversity in various occupations, etc. Following up a post on “What Can Men Do” with discussion (in blog comments and twitter) about what women should do before they are allowed to join the conversation is ridiculous. Jeff’s blog post says that men should listen to women, excluding women based on the tone argument is gross hypocrisy.

Swearing

Jeff makes a big deal of the fact that Shanley uses some profane language in her tweets. This combines a couple of different ways of silencing women. It’s quite common for women to be held to a high standard of “ladylike” behavior, while men get a free pass on doing the same thing. One example of this is the Geek Feminism article about the results of Sarah Sharp’s request for civility in the Linux kernel community [11]. That’s not an isolated incident, to the best of my recollection in 20+ years my local Linux Users Group has had only one debate about profanity on mailing lists – in that case a woman (who is no longer active in the group) was criticised for using lesser profanity than men used both before and after with no comment (as an experiment I used some gratuitous profanity a couple of weeks later and no-one commented).

There is also a common difference in interpretation of expressions of emotion, when a woman seems angry then she invariably has men tell her to change her approach (even when there are obvious reasons for her anger) while when a man is angry the possibility that other people shouldn’t make him angry will usually be considered.

The issues related to the treatment of women have had a large affect on Shanley’s life and her friend’s lives. It’s quite understandable that she is angry about this. Her use of profanity in tweets seems appropriate to the situation.

Other Links

Newsweek’s “Gentlemen” in Technology article has a section about Jeff [12], it’s interesting to note his history of deleting tweets and editing his post. I presume he will change his post in response to mine and not make any note of the differences.

Jacob Kaplan-Moss wrote a good rebuttal to Jeff’s post [13]. It’s a good article and has some other relevant links that are worth reading.

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