I am going to talk about one of the most damaging figures in my life, and many other Autistic peoples’ lives. ‘Sir’ Simon Baron-Cohen – famed researcher who was knighted this year during New Years Honours for “services to people with autism”. A fitting reward from a white supremacist organisation with paedophilic sympathy and colonial foundation.
There’s a rage and sadness flowing through me writing this – I am trying to account for emotional bias, but he almost cost me my life due to his poor simplistic understanding, arrogance, and the foundational authority of white supremacist cis patriarchal academia.
The structure of academia with informational authority and bias has allowed Autistic research and understanding to be stalled for at least two decades based on theories with fundamental flaws – flaws that do not apply to many Autistic people.
The underlying level of distain he seems to hold for Autistic people even now makes me wonder how much of his theories are based on his own projection. [Oh sorry I can’t do that apparently – no theory of mind].
If he had shown any sign of repenting based on new information, maybe I wouldn’t need to write this – but his latest book published last year – The Pattern Seekers – appears to make use of theories that have been disproven time and time again – and never bothered to take into account the petri-dish in which all this science has been cultivated in, with it’s foundations based on eugenics.
Not everything is bad here
Simon Baron-Cohen did advance Autistic research – that is undeniable. His mentor Uta Frith was a pioneer in undoing the previous harms of research – identifying that autism might have a biological influence rather than the result of ‘refrigerator-mothers’ as suggested by Kanner.
My problem with the research done is that it’s all been informed by white supremacist patriarchy, excluded BIPoC people, and based on primarily cis white men. There’s so much more to the Autistic community than this – and it’s very frustrating to see that things like intersectional theory only starting to become part of the mainstream core of Autistic research in the last few years.
Systemizing is definitely a shared trait among many Autistic people, if not all – and probably one of the most reliable and well founded ideas to have come from Baron-Cohen and Frith – but it’s been reduced a lot to his personal understanding of categories, rather than the categories that might exist. I will cover this further down.
The problem with most of Baron-Cohen’s science is that he’s failed to question the validity of a lot of his testing. They do not measure the things they are supposed to measure in a lot of cases, and there’s a distinct failure to consider socialisation and the effect of society in shaping the views that he has, and how those views implicitly affect everyone due to their pervasive nature. As a result a lot of his flawed tests have ended up keeping people from being diagnosed as Autistic.
The Autism Spectrum Quotient
This one actually has issues of reliability.
Developed in 2001 – this 10 question assessment for Autism has a number of glaring errors – it has been the main screening test on which all others are based.
Last year this science article came out about it:
This has been produced by the fact that it was crafted entirely on diagnosed Autistic people – but recent emergence of concepts of masking (or camouflaging) by those who are considered more conforming as a way of hiding their Autistic behaviour have been entirely missed.
This is known as convenience sampling bias – most research relies on easily identifiable Autistic people, and studies have overwhelming focused on those identified.
The people most missed in society are those with intersectional considerations – for example ethnic minorities (especially Black people who are incarcerated or killed for being Autistic at alarming rates), LGBTQIA+ people, and in a very significant way – cis women. The misdiagnosis of cis women is an issue I’ve talked about here.
The Empathizing and Systemizing Quotient Tests
Nothing is more damaging than the false science of gendered brain differences in stalling Autistic research. This test is reliable – it works across many populations with variance between them slightly – but I want to talk about whether it’s actually measuring the things it says it does…
The assumption underlying the empathizing quotient test is that empathy and understanding of emotion is not a system – but it is – and some of us have a keen interest in understanding the emotional complexity of others, it’s another system – so why wouldn’t we be good at recognizing this if we were hyperfixated on it as Autistic people.
Then you also have to consider the way the men and women are socialized – men have been brought up in a society where they have been told to mask their emotions always, women have been too – but are more willing to probably accept the fact they have them.
I spent my entire life masking the feelings I’ve had and could see in others, because the emotional complexity of dealing with my emotions while processing so much data was hard for me to understand. The expectation of ‘being a man’, unemotional, and stoic in disposition was present my whole life – so I was forced to mask for survival – with intersectional issues such as being a non-binary bisexual person I had to maintain secrecy of my identity as I was terrified of letting anything slip when I was made to feel bad for this by the society I lived in.
The second problem is the systemizing quotient – the definition of what makes up a system are actually so limited – and they are all based on a very male view of what systemizing is – they reduce it down to a white patriarchal standard of systemizing.
Baron-Cohen has somehow managed to leave out all intersectional theory from the crafting of this quotient.
Here’s a link to the test – I want you to ask yourself who generally has these roles in our current society that you could probably make a career in:
Congratulations Baron-Cohen – you’ve identified if someone is more masculine or feminine in their socialization and has corresponding systemizing abilities – you’re a genius!
Here’s my score on this EQSQ combined test of which there are a number of questions that were particularly cruel and awful.
The Extreme Male Brain (EMB) hypothesis is predicated on bad science – and there’s an entire book you can read on this subject – but this article gives a great review and overview of Gina Rippon’s excellent book ‘The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain‘
Theory of Mind
Here’s a comprehensive overview of why theory of mind is such bad science, i’ll quote the abstract – click on the article link below.
His works with a critical lens…
Patriarchy: The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism
Harmful False Stigmatisation: Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind
Implying Autistic People Have No Empathy and Excusing Violent Acts: The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty
A Greatest Hits of Bad Science: The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention
How do I know with certainty this is wrong?
Because I’ve interacted with so many Autistic people who are not like what he has said. Things like neuroplasticity and trauma can change the brain of Autistic people, just as they can for allistic people. Maybe actually consider the full spectrum of Autistic experience, not the one you’ve defined with your own bias.
My question then…
Have you ever considered Simon Baron-Cohen that you may be the one without theory of mind, empathy, and a rigid inflexibility to change?
Because I certainly have.