Autism, Men, and Stereotypes

I’ve been watching a lot of How I Met Your Mother lately. Well, kind of watching. It makes good background noise while I’m doing other things, particularly because I’ve seen most of it before so don’t need to pay close attention. That means a lot of it sort of goes in one ear and out the other, but I do keep noticing one character: Barney Stinson. To be more specific, I keep noticing some very familiar traits. Traits that make me think of autism, but in a character that is almost certainly not meant to be autistic and doesn’t have any of the disabling characteristics. I was puzzling over this and then remembered Sterling Archer.

Archer came up as an honorable mention in my “favorite autistic characters” series back in April. I was a little uncertain about including him at the time, but I didn’t know what else to do with these traits I was seeing. And to reject it because he didn’t show any of the difficulties associated with autism seemed screwy. After all, not everyone’s difficulties show. This is why we have people who think “high functioning” autistics aren’t actually autistic in a meaningful way and shouldn’t advocate for acceptance. So I didn’t want to ignore the possibility because he didn’t fit a stereotype. Ultimately I just decided he probably shouldn’t make the main list but I still wanted to talk about him.

But now I’m starting to see that he does fit a stereotype, one that happens to overlap with autism. In fact, it overlaps enough that a well-known psychologist has suggested it as a description of autism: the extreme male brain. In the case of autism, Baron-Cohen measured systematizing vs empathizing traits in subjects and came to the conclusion that men tend to be better at systematizing, women at empathizing.

I’m not going to argue that there might be a correlation, though I’d guess social conditioning plays a role. But then, I’m not a psychologist, so rather than argue I’ll just note this theory definitely has its critics. Systematizing is also a common autistic trait, and he suggested that as systematic-minded people (geeks, for example) hooked up and had kids, those kids would be more likely to have higher levels of this and other autistic traits. Since he considers systematizing a male trait, autism seemed to be just this masculine way of thinking turned up to 11.

I don’t think anyone who knows me would be surprised to hear I don’t think much of this idea. But I do agree that our culture expects men to be less empathetic. TV is full of “manly” characters who demonstrate this by being too cool to show much emotion, having rigid rules about how he should behave to maintain this level of awesome, generally behaving in a detached and logic-based manner (even if the logic is faulty in a way that’s clear to everyone else). They also tend to be womanizers and jerks, though often with a heart of gold buried deep, deep down. And often the other characters’ (and probably the viewers’ as well) response to them seems to be vague disgust mingled with begrudging admiration (or even hero worship, in the case of more emotional, less “cool” male characters).

Thinking about this, it seems maybe the reason I previously identified these two characters as autistic is that I fell into a simple trap of zeroing in on a trait that seems like it could tie into a lot more. Systematic thought doesn’t deal with emotions, so that explains difficulty with conversation and getting along with people. Except there’s a big difference here that the characters in question don’t do well with conversation because they don’t want to. They’re fine with manipulating emotions and socializing when it benefits them, they just don’t care about people enough to try. To group these together and say that systematic people don’t do emotions well ignores the actual disabilities related to things like sensory processing, reading faces, identifying one’s own emotions, etc. Similar behaviors, very different reasons.

All of the most obvious examples that come to mind are from comedy, though it occurs to me they’re probably parodies of characters like James Bond and others I don’t know well because I’m not really an action fan, or just of this Ultimate Male stereotype. That’s probably why I’m okay with these characters and sometimes even consider them my favorites. There’s no glamorizing it, these characters are disgusting and their behavior isn’t healthy. But gosh, they have fun. And sometimes they casually pull out meticulously organized scrapbooks of former girlfriends (or whatever word might better describe that relationship) or reveal intricate knowledge about alligators or perfect attention to tiny details in the environment. Ultimate…male???

I have no idea why systematizing would be a part of the male stereotype. For that matter, I don’t really know that this stereotype exists enough that young men today would still feel pressure to be like this at all, or what else might make up this idea of Manliness. It would be interesting to find out. But the prevalence of the parody suggests to me that the stereotype exists to some extent. I can see how someone might start to think this is how men should be or how others expect them to be. Organized, in control of their environment.

But it speaks to an important need: control. Just like I expect that there are social factors in men vs women displaying these traits more (even though there’s really no reason they should be mutually exclusive), I suspect there are social and environmental reasons autistic people might be drawn to systematic thinking. Emotions are chaotic, hard to predict and control. Especially when you have difficulty processing all the information that lets most people interpret emotion, it might not seem worth the effort. There are no straightforward rules, no “do x and get reaction y.” In a chaotic world where everything seems too bright, too loud, too fast, just too much, anything that suddenly makes sense and behaves predictably feels safe and secure.

I like to organize my books. I like to look at my books after they’re organized, just soak up this one spot of calm perfect order in the midst of a stressful world that never stops moving. I like brightly colored labels that let me know exactly where to find something so I don’t have to feel lost for a change. It’s soothing. So when I see characters like this, despite all the ick that comes along with them, I suppose it makes sense that I find them interesting and identify to some extent with their excessive level of control.

That doesn’t make them autistic. It might mean that some things we think of as “autistic” characteristics or “male” characteristics are really just “human” characteristics. Maybe it would be better to think of them as skills we could all benefit from learning, even if some are going to be more difficult for us than others due to natural ability and experiences. There is no “male brain” that only focuses on systematizing. We are all emotional and logical creatures. Often the characters I’ve described are shown at times to be emotionally immature. It’s not as if they perfected their male programming, they ignored half of who they are.

The idea of autistic people (or men) at one end of this systematizing/empathizing spectrum gives the impression that we’re not emotional creatures. That’s an easy trap to fall into and it’s a stereotype I see a lot, but that “spectrum” doesn’t really exist. Those are two separate categories that belong to all of us, not mutually exclusive extremes. We need to be able to claim all of it, even the parts that don’t come naturally and are hard to develop. That’s just being human.

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2 thoughts on “Autism, Men, and Stereotypes

  1. I agree. Some of the most organized people I know are women so I don’t think of this as a male trait at all. I know plenty of disorganized men, too.

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    1. Hm. I’m not sure it’s about *being* organized, because messiness is a common characteristic for autistic people (and a stereotype for men). I don’t know how else to explain it though. I guess a tendency to put things and people into categories rather than think about them emotionally. Like “I’m supposed to do this because you are family” rather than “I love you, of course I want to help you.” And that can lead to organization and makes really organized things make sense and feel right, but that doesn’t mean we’re *good* at it.

      Still though, I don’t see that as a male way of thinking in the real world. I wonder if it’s a changing thing, like maybe emotional thinking used to be discouraged in boys but my whole life everyone has been encouraged to be more sensitive so there isn’t that divide. Or maybe his study just had some hidden factors or something. It’s weird.

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