The Spectator

Why women can’t read maps

The high incidence of male autism reveals basic mental differences between the sexes, says Rod Liddle

by Rod Liddle
The Spectator (U.K.)
30 November 2002

Almost everything we find out about autism is disturbing. Our worry increases exponentially with every new nugget of information, just as the numbers of those children diagnosed as suffering from one or another autistic disorder seem to increase exponentially year on year.


‘You’re disqualified from the cloning race, Jones. You’ve spilt your baby.’

There are the middle-class parents who, terrified, keep their children away from those frightening MMR injections, believing, with ferocious conviction, that the government is deliberately inflicting autism on the under-five population either for reasons of economy, or out of stupidity, or through some undisclosed malevolent intent.

There are plenty of wacko conspiracy theories, evolved from the minds of paranoiacs and other assorted madmen, about the state and autism; cruise the Internet and see for yourself.

But even discounting these, the picture is pretty grim. Look at the figures for diagnosed cases of autism (and the milder Asperger’s Syndrome) and you’ll see that they have risen from four cases per 10,000 children only a few years ago to one in 200 in some areas. (Or one in 150 if you live in Silicon Valley, California, where autism is referred to, with a certain cruel accuracy, as Geek Syndrome.) Much of this rise is down to an increased likelihood of diagnosis these days — autism, like asthma, has a sort of horrible fashionableness about it.

But it’s probably not the sole reason for the astonishing jump in the number of children afflicted. And nobody is very sure what, actually, is responsible.

So, all of that is certainly worrying. And then there’s the stuff the researchers are coming up with in order to understand the condition better — and this, in a way, is going to give us a lot more to think, and worry, about.

Autism, in its many guises, is an overwhelmingly male affliction, characterised by an abnormality in social development and communication skills and, usually, an obsessional interest in all sorts of weird, mechanistic stuff, from an early age (usually between three and five years). The current thesis among those studying autism holds that the condition is simply an extreme example of male behaviour.

Simon Baron-Cohen, at the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, has put forward the ‘Extreme Male Brain’ theory of autism; simply that those abilities typical of the ‘average’ male brain — an ability to systematise, a facility for mechanistic analysis such as mathematics, computer programming and engineering — become, in their extreme form, part of what is now called a spectrum of autism. At the other end of the scale, the extreme female brain would be characterised by an extraordinary ability to empathise but a greatly impaired ability to, as he puts it, systematise. By ‘systematise’ he means an ability to read maps, do mathematical calculations, understand technical systems and so on; all those things which, colloquially, over the years, men have accused women of being hilariously useless at. The trouble is, men may now have the beginnings of scientific proof for what was previously seen as chauvinistic prejudice.

Baron-Cohen’s latest work, published in the magazine Trends in Cognitive Science and to be developed in a book early next year, is quite clear about the division between the average female brain and the average male brain. ‘Systematising and empathising are two key dimensions in defining the male and female brain ...not all men have the male type brain and not all women have the female type brain ...the central claim ...is only that more males than females have the male type brain.’

Whatever these careful caveats, the implication is pretty straightforward: the average male is biologically suited — the crucial phrase — to certain kinds of occupation; the average female is suited to other, very different, kinds of work.

Now this runs counter to those attempts at social engineering, de rigueur for the past 30-odd years, which insist — with mounting hysteria and, more often than not, government-approved targets — that there be an even distribution between men and women across the multifarious professions and trades.

Obviously, Baron-Cohen’s argument does not run counter to the notion of equal opportunity — we are talking only about ‘average’ female and male brain types, and not about individuals. But for those people who howl in complaint when it is found that, for example, the engineering profession is overwhelmingly male, the answer is pretty clear: the reason for this may be a natural disinclination and, even more than this, a biologically determined lack of ability among women as much as a ‘sexist’ recruitment process.

(Engineering, actually, is a good case in point. Asperger’s Syndrome is sometimes called ‘the engineer’s disorder’; the child suffering from Asperger’s is almost always obsessed by the design and mechanism of some kind of machine or other. It is virtually a precondition of the affliction.)

In fact, the idea of a natural division of sexes within the labour force seems to be borne out already, and for anyone looking in at our society from the outside it is a case of the glaringly obvious.

It is in those professions where equality of opportunity between males and females is most advanced that one sees the greatest diffusion between men and women towards certain types of job. In the medical profession, for example, there are very few female surgeons and very few male speech therapists. One job requires many of those attributes associated with the male brain type, the other demands those attributes one associates with the female brain type. And so, naturally, men gravitate towards surgery and women towards speech therapy.

The essential difference between the two sexes has been noticed in babies as early as one day old — i.e., too soon for their lives to have been blighted by our ghastly and injurious attempts at gender-stereotyping. Day-old girls will become responsive to human faces shown on a television screen; boys go for things such as guns and trains and other inanimate, mechanical objects.

So, quite apart from helping us understand the nature of autism, this may also have a profound impact on social policy. Should we still insist that women constitute half of the workforce of computer programmers, engineers, maths and physics teachers and, conversely, men take up jobs in speech therapy and pre-school teaching?

Other researchers, though, have taken the theory even further. Chris Badcock’s paper ‘Mentalism and Mechanism’ suggests that there are two distinct types of cognition — male and female. They are, he argues, essentially ‘non-commensurate’ and incompatible. This should give the liberal social scientists a bit of fun. They will have to face the idea that we are different, men and women, and that legislation designed to negate those differences will be worse than useless.

© 2002 The Spectator.co.uk