I’ve gotten several messages about the new NBC series Hannibal, based on cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lector and other characters from the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon. Some have been elated about an autistic hero. Others have been apoplectic about negative stereotypes wrongly associating autism and violence.
It’s interesting that both the executive producers of Heroes have gone on to autism-related shows. Tim Kring did Touch, which I hate. Bryan Fuller is doing this one, which, based on the pilot, I sort of love, even though I understand why other autistic people may hate it.
The thing that makes Simon Baron-Cohen genuinely dangerous is that his half-truths about autism become a foundation for others to build on. Jennifer Bremser provides a particularly obnoxious example of this with her theory of the "extreme female brain." Baron-Cohen thinks autism is an "extreme male brain" in part because more males than females are diagnosed with it. So, since more females than males have diagnosed eating disorders, why not assume that anorexia is a manifestation of the extreme female brain?
Bremser goes to ridiculous lengths to find evidence that eating disorders show excessive empathy:
Clinicians will often ask whether someone is a vegetarian, because it is a good predictor of whether that person is vulnerable to an eating disorder. This connection is generally understood in terms of health-conscious, restrictive eating patterns that go along with disordered eating. But we have started to ask whether maybe it is a reflection of greater emphasising – a person with the extreme female brain could be expected to be more sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, and more likely to choose a vegetarian path.
People use autism as a megaphone to amplify their own agendas. The pop science approach taken by Baron-Cohen encourages opportunists like Bremser to use us in this way.
Because autistic people with eating disorders?
That never happens, right?
A couple of days ago I wrote about the perils of giving Simon Baron-Cohen's Autism Quotient to a group pulled from the general population and saying it tells us anything about autistic people. It's just as dubious to use his work to test the members of a specific group, and then insult them by calling them autistic if they score high on it.
But that's exactly what a group of researchers have done to Libertarians:
Libertarians have the most “masculine” style, liberals the most “feminine.” We used Simon Baron-Cohen’s measures of “empathizing” (on which women tend to score higher) and “systemizing”, which refers to “the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system.” Men tend to score higher on this variable. Libertarians score the lowest of the three groups on empathizing, and highest of the three groups on systemizing. (Note that we did this and all other analyses for males and females separately.) On this and other measures, libertarians consistently come out as the most cerebral, most rational, and least emotional. On a very crude problem solving measure related to IQ, they score the highest. Libertarians, more than liberals or conservatives, have the capacity to reason their way to their ideology...
Libertarians are the most individualistic; they report the weakest ties to other people. They score lowest of the three groups on many traits related to sociability, including extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. They have a morality that matches their sociability – one that emphasizes independence, rather than altruism or patriotism.
That's Jonathan Haidt, author of the recent bestseller The Righteous Mind, talking above. Emily Esfahani Smith of the Washington Times and lead author Ravi Iyer make the link to autism explicit:
The libertarian style of thinking can even verge, in extreme cases, on autism.
The University of Cambridge-based psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism researcher, famously has shown that people with autism exhibit two critical features: They test exceptionally low on empathizing scales and exceptionally high on systemizing ones. Empathizing governs social relationships — Are you able to relate to other people? — while systemizing governs understanding and analysis of the outside world. Everyone falls somewhere on the empathizing-systemizing scale.
Libertarians score very low on the empathizing scale and very high on the systemizing scale. In other words, they are highly rational moral thinkers, less emotional than both conservatives and liberals. Two of the leading moral thinkers of Western history — utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and deontologist Immanuel Kant — were also incredibly gifted systemizers but deficient empathizers. Today, Bentham and arguably Kant would might be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
There are upsides to such a coolly analytic cognitive style. For instance, libertarians are better at logic problems, says Mr. Iyer, a research scientist at the University of Southern California and the lead author of this study. The downsides include a “greater susceptibility to autism,” he says.
“Any ideology or philosophy, taken to an extreme, likely resembles some pathology or another,” Mr. Iyer explains.
I am depressed, both about what passes for "autism research" and about how that research is shared with the public in ways that reinforce stereotypes about autistic people.
Sometimes studies are presented to the general public as giving us information about autistic people, but no actual autistic people are used in the research. Instead, scientists take a group from the general population and give them some variety of the Autism Spectrum Quotient. Although there is a high correlation between a high score on the AQ and autism, there is no question that is based on stereotypes about autistic people popularized by its creator, Simon Baron-Cohen. It's based around the idea that people with autism are "extreme male brain" types, who like science and don't like talking to people. It identifies the sort of geeky person you see on The Big Bang Theory, who may or may not have autism. It does not identify real autistic people who don't match that stereotype.
So it's very dubious to begin by taking a random group of people and giving them the AQ, then expect those results to generalize to autistic people. Reseach about autistic behavior needs to include actual autistic subjects.
Catrin Finkenauer's study of autism and compulsive Internet use is shockingly stupid and twisted, and The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders should be embarassed to have published it. She gave a group of married couples the AQ, then asked them about their Internet use. She did not find that people who scored higher on the AQ used the Internet more often, but she did find that their usage tended to be more compulusive. The problem with that conclusion is that the questions used on the AQ indicate that people would prefer to avoid other people and fixate on subjects of interest-- the same things one would ask about to indicate compulsive behavior. So-- she found that people described their Internet usage in a way that matched the way they describe their behavior in general.
And this is what reporter Traci Pedersen claims that proves about actual autistic people:
Previously, Internet use had been considered positive for people with autistic tendencies as it allows them to communicate with others in a safe and structured environment without a lot of distractions.
Finkenauer warns, however, that it is important to monitor Internet use in individuals with many autistic traits to prevent damaging the contact they have with the off-line world. She believes that followup research is needed to study the exact nature of the relationship.
“For example, we would like to know if the relationship between compulsive Internet use and autistic characteristics is important for the type of activities that people undertake on the Internet,” said Finkenauer.
So-- actual autistic people may be prevented from using the Internet because parents or caretakers will see this overhyped article based on a terribly designed study that involved no actual autistic people.
So-- no, not all autism research helps autistic people.
And-- no, autism awareness for its own sake is not always a great thing.
The Telegraph publishes a consideration of why some people are more religious than others in which Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London, makes some very offensive and biased comments about autistic people. After writing that men score less well than women on tests of sensing the emotions of others, Jones continues:
People with autism score even lower. Those severely affected live almost detached from the world around them. They lack empathy, concentrate on themselves and may be obsessed with a particular talent (such as being able to tell what day of the week any date will be), combined with loss of other mental abilities. Children with a milder version of the condition, Asperger’s syndrome, are often clumsy, shy and tongue-tied.
Others do much better, for they have “high-functioning autism”. Such individuals are successful, but have little insight into the emotions of others and often show a deep interest in things mechanical and numerical. The personality type is much more frequent among males than females and, at least in its most severe forms, has a strong genetic component.
On the emotion-sensing tests, those with autism proper do worst, then Asperger’s patients, followed by the high-functioning group, and then — in order — by scientists, professors and men. Women come top.
People with autism are mainly interested in the banal reality of what surrounds them and find it hard to consider the abstract world. They are, as a result, highly resistant to the idea of an invisible deity for whom no tangible evidence exists and whose thoughts cannot be penetrated. Teenagers with the condition are far less likely to express a belief in God than their unaffected classmates. The high-functioning group are also much more willing to class themselves as atheists than are their fellows — and, in decreasing order of scepticism, people with autism, Asperger’s patients, scientists, professors, men and women (in some studies, men are only half as likely to be believers as are their partners).
This is what happens when experts on snails read Simon Baron-Cohen and think that means they have something intelligent to say about autism.