Researcher Simon Baron-Cohen calls this systemizing vs. empathizing. Men are more likely to work something out by looking at patterns. Women are more likely to consider how it affects them or someone they know personally.
Baron-Cohen did some studies about men and women and how autistic people think. One study found that neurotypical (NT) men had slightly lower empathizing scores than NT women. Another study found that systemizing and empathizing compete in the brain. A few people were both, but most leaned towards one. The cool thing is that each way of thinking compensated for the weaknesses of the other. Again, women were more likely to be empathizers and men were more likely to be systemizers.
There were bigger differences between autistic people and neurotypicals than between men and women. The autistic participants were ten times more likely to be extreme systemizers than NT men. And over 80% scored lower than the expected autistic cutoff score for empathy (30 out of 80) versus 12% of NTs of either gender. They did so badly on empathy that their systemizing scores couldn’t make up for it. In the end, Baron-Cohen recommended using computer programs to teach autistic people social skills. Which isn’t a bad idea.
Unfortunately neither study looked at the differences between autistic men and women.
Overall I agree with the theory. But it doesn’t address a more common difference between the genders. We all know hyperlogical women and emotional men. The real differences boil down to interests.
Autistic men like math and science. Sometimes music. They’re very nerdy very early. They’re also more likely to get into the obscure stuff like train schedules. But autistic women generally like feminine things like literature, art, animals, TV shows, etc. In fact that’s one of the reasons it’s harder to diagnose us as kids. We like the same things the other girls like. Only more intensely.
The only difference is that autistic women have to systematically figure out feelings. I know I do. I watch people and what they do, and then when someone does something that somebody else I know did I consciously look for similarities between the two people to figure out why. I don’t think neurotypicals do that.
There’s a fair amount of gender bending though, too. Probably more than in the general population. If you know a dude on the spectrum he might be shy and kind of androgynous looking. But there’s still a good chance he’s into tech. Even if it’s in a roundabout way like a special interest in Star Wars. Women with autism might seem more feminine at the outset, even if a lot of us are less concerned with how we dress. But we’re also likely to care about some sort of traditionally masculine thing like politics. Or maybe we’re more sexually aggressive.
Take my boyfriend for example. He’s nurturing, a neat freak, and very demonstrative with his feelings. I’m messy and emotionally unavailable. But he’s still a hardcore gamer and World War 2 enthusiast while I’m sitting here writing about pain.
Women with autism are more boyish than average. But we’re still girls.
Interestingly enough, interests are the main thing that separates gays and lesbians from straight people. They follow the same sexual patterns. Gay men tend to want a lot of partners whereas lesbians are known for getting serious really fast. The difference is that you see a lot of gay guys in things like fashion and a lot of lesbians becoming electricians. I wonder if it’s hormones, not brains, that really make us who we are.
P.S. If you guys want to take the systemizing-empathizing test, it’s right here. I scored low on both of them. (19 empathizing, 21 systemizing if you’re curious.)
Image: Sigourney Weaver in drag, from samotako1 blog