The rhetorical figure of the incrementum, or scale, can help to account for how autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have been gendered as male, especially in Simon Baron-Cohen's "Extreme Male Brain" theory. The incrementum occurs when female, male, and autistic brains are placed along a scale according to systemizing and empathizing abilities. This double hierarchy reinforces popular beliefs about sex and gender, drawing on the cultural resources of hi-tech culture, the service economy, and geekiness. In so doing, these theories overlook other important aspects of ASD, including alternative theories, the presence of autistic women and girls, and the needs and interests of autistic people themselves.

In 2005, autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen opened a New York Times article with the following statement: "By studying the differences between male and female brains, we can generate significant insights into the mystery of autism" (Baron-Cohen). What makes this statement possible, rhetorically, is a process of gendering that has made autism spectrum disorder (ASD) into "The Male Condition"—the title of Baron-Cohen's piece.

Autism is an example of what Judy Segal calls a rhetorical disorder (74): in the absence of clear biological markers for autism, "discourse fills the space that certainty in medicine leaves unoccupied" (75). Instead, it is diagnosed through comparison with psychological standards, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association, which defines autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) according to behavioral signs. Persuasion therefore plays an important role in how autism is defined and diagnosed. Researchers continue to debate what features constitute autism. For instance, in 2010 the APA released working notes for the DSM-V, which offered new criteria for autism and placed Asperger's syndrome (heretofore a separate disorder) within the umbrella category of ASD. Such a shift would be fundamentally rhetorical, in that it is enacted through language, persuading practitioners to categorize individuals in a new way.

As is the case with any disability, then, autism is shaped in part by "social meanings, symbols, and stigmas" attached to it (Siebers 3). What makes this process unique, in the case of autism, is that these social meanings do not merely demarcate the "normal" (or neurotypical) from the "abnormal" (or neurodiverse); instead, they also differentiate between men and women, in such a manner that the "male condition" is pathologized alongside the autistic condition. In the case of the EMB theory, gendered discourses, in particular, offer rhetorical fodder to fill in the spaces left by uncertainty.

In rhetorical terms, sex/gender provides what Kenneth Burke would call a terministic screen through which autism is understood by some researchers and popularizers. According to Burke, these organizing frameworks "direct the attention" in some channels rather than others (45). In this way, the very terms we use to understand the world both select some elements of reality and deflect our attention away from others. In autism discourse, hegemonic notions of sex and gender provide a common terministic screen through which researchers make sense of a complex and often puzzling condition. This commonality stems from the fact that more boys than girls receive autism diagnoses, by a ratio of 4 to 1. These statistical facts, though, are extended to the disorder itself, where maleness is applied to the brains of individuals with autism. In the process, researchers espousing this theory construct a scale, drawing on the rhetorical figure of incrementum, or scale, which positions women, men, and people with autism along a continuum according to the degree to which they possess some quantified trait.

An incrementum is simply a scale, but one that can be used for rhetorical purposes. For instance, if we claim that men tend to be heavier than women, who tend to be heavier than children, we have constructed an incrementum, ordering those three groups according to weight. This claim might seem noncontroversial, but imagine constructing a scale in which we measure intelligence, instead, and order individuals according to sex. That type of scale can support a range of unsavory arguments for policies of all sorts, and would be fundamentally rhetorical both in its construction and its use.

Sex and gender offer readily available lenses for understanding autism because they are, in Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca's terminology, "present." By presence, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca refer to the fact that the selection of elements to include in an argument implies their importance and pertinence (116). By referencing culturally specific notions of sex and gender, researchers make present those elements, and, in the process, obscure others. Late twentieth-century rhetorics of technology, gender, and the service economy make it possible to order individuals along new scales, including technological ability and emotional intelligence. These scales have shaped scientific understandings of autism in ways that direct the attention of researchers to some aspects and deflect attention away from other important issues, including alternative scientific theories, the interests of girls and women with autism, and the issues deemed most important by autistic people themselves.

Geek Syndrome, Systemizing, and the Gendering of Autism

In 2010, the film The Social Network premiered to wide critical acclaim. Reviewers praised the central irony of the film—that the founder of Facebook, the most popular social network site, was himself "almost completely bereft of people skills" (Neal). Soon, suggestions emerged that Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, (either in real life, or as portrayed in the film) has autistic or Asperger's traits. The Wall Street Journal's reviewer wrote that the character "combines a borderline autistic affect with a single-minded focus on a beautifully simple idea" (Morgenstern), while the New York Times noted that, as portrayed in the film, "Mr. Zuckerberg is a social autistic who pivots between brilliance and hubris on his way to becoming the youngest billionaire the world has seen" (Carr). The online magazine Slate called Zuckerberg "a socially autistic, status-obsessed, joyless dweeb" (Stevens). Indeed, even before the film came out, a Baltimore Sun article reported that Jesse Eisenberg, the actor who portrays Zuckerberg, studied up on Asperger's because "People have said Zuckerberg may have minor Asperger's syndrome" (Sragow). Debates emerged on the online community WrongPlanet and blog aggregator Autisable, both of which attract autistic participants, about whether or not Zuckerberg (again, real or fictional) has Asperger's, with participants weighing on both sides. How did this happen?

Since the 1980s, autism has become increasingly associated with the science, computing, hi-tech industries and, in the process, with masculinity and fathers. For one, the brains of autistic themselves are compared to computers. Diagnosing famous scientists, engineers, and computer scientists with autism has become a parlor game and cottage industry—Albert Einstein, Paul Dirac, Bill Gates, and Isaac Newton are among the most commonly cited in this category.1 Contemporary understandings of geek masculinity have become one of the more common, gendered terministic screens through which autism is now understood, producing scales that align people in order of technological or "systemizing" skill.

According to the Extreme Male Brain (EMB) theory of autism, people with autism possess hypermale brains. They can be ordered on a scale leading from those who are less adept at systemizing tasks (most women), to those with greater systemizing skill (most men), to those with extremely high systemizing abilities (people with autism). Once male and female interests are categorized as either "systemizing" or its opposite, "empathizing," they can be placed along a scale, or in rhetorical terms, an incrementum, leading from female to male to the extreme male (or autistic). In particular, the EMB theory takes the form of a "double hierarchy," in which an established series (e.g., male-female) forms the basis for a second series (systemizing-empathizing), "in the process trying to transfer implications of order or value from the first to the second" (Fahnestock 105).

The rhetorical figure of the incrementum often shows up in Baron-Cohen's writing. In a 2009 study Baron-Cohen co-authored with Bonnie Auyeung, et al., the authors provide these points of evidence for their extreme male brain theory: "The typical male brain is heavier than the female brain and individuals with autism have heavier brains than typical males" (2), and "The amygdale is also disproportionately large in boys compared to girls … and children with autism have enlarged amygdalae" (2). This incrementum not only emphasizes differences between those with autism and those without; since in each cases the differences identified are quite small, it also forces male and female further apart by exaggerating differences between average women, average men, and autistic people.

The rhetorical resource of the incrementum draws from the ready-made, terministic screen of sex and gender. The tests used to determine what counts as a "male" or "female" brain map cultural norms first onto masculine and feminine activities, and then onto male and female brains, and then present these differences as natural or biological. Baron-Cohen popularized these notions in his book The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth About Autism, published in 2003. On average, Baron-Cohen claims, men are more interested in systemizing tasks, such as engineering, computer programming, and mathematics, or hobbies based on mechanics, construction, and categorizing—metalworking, boat-building, crafting musical instruments, even bird-spotting. Meanwhile, Baron Cohen suggests, women tend to enjoy "having supper with friends, advising them on relationship problems, or caring for people or pets, or working for volunteer phone-lines listening to depressed, hurt, needy, or even suicidal anonymous callers" (12).

Based on these insights, Baron-Cohen devised a series of three tests: the systemizing quotient (SQ), empathizing quotient (EQ), and the autism quotient (AQ), all of which reflect the predetermined, gendered notions of male- and female-appropriate activities. On the Systemizing Quotient Test, testers are asked to rank their answers on a Likert Scale to such questions as "If I were buying a car, I would want to obtain specific information about its engine capacity" (209) and "If there was a problem with the electrical wiring in my home, I'd be able to fix it myself" (210). Meanwhile, the Empathy Quotient test includes such prompts as "I try to keep up with the current trends and fashions" and "When I talk to people, I tend to talk about their experiences rather than my own" (204). Clearly, these questions could easily reflect socialization as well as biology. In the first pair of examples, for instance, we might reword the questions to reflect typically feminine interests: "If I am buying a dress, I check the tag to see the specific fabric content and washing instructions" or "If the zipper broke on a pair of pants, I'd know how to replace it." Meanwhile, typical men might score high on prompts such as "I try to keep up with the latest trends in cars and technology" or "I like to help people solve their problems." In these prompts, then, stereotypically masculine activities are assumed to reflect systemizing, while stereotypically feminine activities are assumed to reflect empathizing. The test itself ignores the gendering of the listed technologies as masculine and omits technologies typically gendered as feminine (sewing machines, dishwashers, blenders, etc.).2

The tests also naturalize historically and culturally specific definitions of technology itself, which tend to exclude technologies associated with women, non-whites, and non-Europeans. The term technology only gained prominence in the 1930s, when it took the place of the earlier, and more capacious term, "useful arts," which had included women's inventions and objects (quilts, corsets, etc.) (Oldenziel 43).3 The term "technology" similarly excluded non-Western, non-white technologies, such as innovations in mathematics, metallurgy, medicine, transportation, textiles, pottery, furniture, architecture, agricultural techniques, and the like.4 These rhetorical constructions constitute technology users as (white) men, and (white) men as users of technology.

In particular, Baron-Cohen's scale reflects the gendering of computer and electronic technology as masculine. Sara Kiesler, Lee Sproull, and Jacquelynne S. Eccles argue that computing culture emerged in the 1980s out of the male-dominated spaces of video arcades and computing labs, both of which tended to be "highly competitive and aggressive context[s]" (460). As the hi-tech industry surged in the 1980s and 1990s, computer expertise was integrated into what Marianne Cooper calls a "newly constituted masculinity" (380), one that stressed competition based on long work hours and technical ability, combined with creativity and adaptability to a quickly-changing workplace (382). This trajectory could have been otherwise; indeed, the first computer programmers were women.5

This gendered history is clearly reflected in the way Baron-Cohen's SQ scale privileges certain kinds of electronic and computing interests as examples of systemizing. Indeed, changing a small number of questions to more gender-neutral issues could easily reduce or remove the sex differences in SQ scores. In one study conducted in Sweden, four questions from Baron-Cohens' SQ scale accounted disproportionately for the gender differences between men and women; namely, questions related to interest in computer processing capacity (item 20), wireless communication (item 57), technical features of stereo equipment (item 33) and high-strategy games (item 12) (Von Horn et al.) Clearly, these are activities in which men are encouraged to excel, activities that are regularly cast as masculine, and activities in which men might have extra motivation to demonstrate interest, given these cultural norms.6

In 2006, Sally Wheelwright, Baron-Cohen, and their collaborators published a revised version of the SQ, the SQ-R, which included a wider range of questions about systemizing. The original SQ, the authors admitted, "were drawn primarily from traditionally male domains." For this reason, the SQ-R included "more items that might be relevant to females in the general population," a feature that would allow the researchers to determine whether men would continue to score higher on the SQ "even with the inclusion of items selected from traditionally female domains" (Wheelwright et al. 48). Some of the new prompts included "When I have a lot of shopping to do, I like to plan which shops I am going to visit and in what order" and "My clothes are not carefully organised into different types in my wardrobe" (answering "no" on this prompt presumably indicates an SQ type of brain) (55-56). The SQ-R successfully shifted the results. In the original SQ, men had a higher mean score on 86 percent of the questions, while women had a higher mean on only 13.2 percent. In the revised version, men scored higher on 68 percent and women on 32 percent—a rather dramatic shift in the sex ratio (49).

While the SQ-R attempts to offer a wider range of prompts, it now includes prompts that might be considered to be gendered male or gender-neutral. The SQ-R itself demonstrates that these sex differences may largely be an artifact of the testing prompts and the specific mix of questions included. One might hypothesize that the SQ could be revised even further in ways that would equalize the scores. Yet Baron-Cohen concludes from the revised study that "in the present study, in the typical group, more than twice as many males as females had a Type S brain, and more than twice as many females as males had a Type E brain," a finding he interprets as upholding his EQ/SQ theory (53). In the EMB theory, normal men are "autismized," understood as functioning analogically to individuals with autism, only in a lesser or reduced manner. This is what allows Baron-Cohen to claim in the New York Times that understanding sex differences can help us to understand autism (a claim he also publishes in scientific studies) (Baron-Cohen, Knickmeyer, and Belmonte 819). By reasoning through the rhetorical figure of the incrementum, Baron-Cohen constructs testing tools that will provide numerical proof of concepts such as "systemizing" (SQ) or "empathizing" (EQ) or the "Autistic Quotient" (AQ).

That this incrementum serves an inventive function for Baron-Cohen is also evident in Chapter 12 of The Essential Difference, where he considers whether there might exist an "extreme female brain" as well as the extreme male brain. While no such disorder yet exists, Baron Cohen says, it is predicted based on the model—i.e., the double hierarchy and the incrementum it gets mapped onto.7 The incrementum functions visually as well as linguistically, as shown in Figure 1.

multi-colored graph depicting a cartesian graph; the x-axis is labeled systematizing with three points positive and negative; the y-axis is labeled empathizing with three points positive and negative. there are diagonal stripes through the graph from the lower left toward the upper right (positive slope of one), marking off various areas of it corresponding to different brain types: balanced, empathizing and systematizing

Figure 1: Baron-Cohen's depiction of the incrementum. (Type B is the "balanced brain" (equal systemizing and empathizing ability); type E is the "empathizing" brain, coded female; type S is the systemizing brain, coded male; and the "extreme type S" brain is coded as autistic.8

Silicon Valley and the Service Economy

The persuasiveness off Baron-Cohen's EMB theory owes much to our current cultural preoccupations with hi-tech culture and nerdom as well as with sex/gender. One theory related to EMB is assortive mating—the notion that a rise in autism and Asperger's syndrome diagnoses is due to increased opportunities for high systemizers (i.e., nerds) to meet and have children. An often cited factoid suggests that rates of autism are highest in Silicon Valley, where workers in hi-tech computing are concentrated. In 2002, Steve Silberman reported in a Wired magazine article that "something dark and unsettling is happening in Silicon Valley," citing "spiraling" rates of autism in California:

The Valley is a self-selecting community where passionately bright people migrate from all over the world to make smart machines work smarter. The nuts-and-bolts practicality of hard labor among the bits appeals to the predilections of the high-functioning autistic mind […] The chilling possibility is that what's happening now is the first proof that the genes responsible for bestowing certain special gifts on slightly autistic adults — the very abilities that have made them dreamers and architects of our technological future — are capable of bringing a plague down on the best minds of the next generation. (Silberman)

This quote evokes the 1980s film Revenge of the Nerds, which parodies American cultural preoccupations with apple pie normalcy. The ideal citizen, exemplified in sports heroes, is athletic, good looking, and resolutely normal. In Revenge of the Nerds, the main characters are social outcasts who nonetheless succeed in kicking the jocks out of student government, using their mental advantages to engineer solutions to feats such as a javelin-throwing contest. In the Silicon Valley article, Silberman envisions a plague of such nerds, wreaking havoc on normal American culture by breeding with each other. In this way, the article produces a sort of post-human discourse, the suggestion that geek interbreeding might lead to "chilling" consequences, a race of geeks who will somehow hack into and destroy America.

The "Silicon Valley" factoid has become commonplace in discussions of autism; Silberman's article was cited in a Time magazine article, and by BBC news, which reported that autism could be linked to "geek genes" (Nash; BBC News). To date, these assumptions have not been scientifically validated. A search of scientific databases turned up no epidemiological studies of autism in the Silicon Valley. A 2009 study by the California Department of Public Health found that fathers with technical backgrounds were no more likely than controls to have children with autism (Windham, Fessel, and Grether). For now, it seems that the persuasiveness of the Extreme Male Brain or Silicon Valley theories lies more in how those theories fit with our notions of gender, geekiness, and the late twentieth-century workplace than in actual statistical patterns.

With the rise of internet culture in the 1990s, the figure of the tech-savvy geek grew increasingly common in pop culture, from film to television to magazines. The geek or nerd is overwhelmingly male. In his book, American Nerd: The Story of My People, Benjamin Nugent argues that there are actually two types of nerds. The first, he suggests, is "disproportionately male" (6) and takes a special interest in machines, technology, and logic (6). The interests accorded to this type of male exclude those associated with "emotional confrontation, sex, food, or beauty," such as "basketball, violin, sex, surfing, acting, knitting, interior decorating, wine tasting, etc." (6). I've already suggested how knitting, for instance, can easily be considered a systemizing type of activity. The same could be said for the rest of the list. Surfers actively monitor weather patterns, swell, and surf gear variables; wine connoisseurs chart geographic regions, vintages, and cask types on websites such as winegeeks.com or by playing the trivia game Winerd. In short, the dominant depiction of nerdiness leads us to overlook a wide range of technical behaviors and interests—those likely to be pursued by women as well as men whose interests align more closely with the stereotype of the "typical male." The second type of nerd, Nugent argues, becomes a nerd through "sheer force of social exclusion," and is equally likely to be male or female (7).

The first type of nerd, what I would call the hegemonic male nerd, though, is the one most closely aligned with autism spectrum disorders, especially Asperger's syndrome. Nugent writes that "if you line up the traits of people and fictional characters who are nerds with the traits that compromise Asperger's, the overlap is hard to ignore" (143). The similarities include an interest in technical objects or machines, a lack of understanding of emotions and nonverbal communication, and the like. However, Nugent is critical of the tendency to pathologize these preferences, noting that in doing so, we take behavior "once considered merely eccentric" and turn it into "hard-wired neurological difference" (150). A disability studies perspective would corroborate this assessment, stressing that autism offers an example of an alternative neurological condition.9

Nugent suggests that one reason for the persuasiveness of the EMB theory lies in shifts in our understanding of masculinity. While nineteenth-century men might not have been expected to exhibit empathy, over the course of the twentieth-century, definitions of normal masculinity gradually began to emphasize empathy and emotional competence. For one, the United States economy has shifted toward a service industry, which values emotional and communication skills. Even technological jobs now emphasize teamwork, communication, and interpersonal skills. Some might call this the feminization of the workplace, insofar as traditionally female jobs have often emphasized emotional skills, epitomized in the labor of the waitress, stewardess, or nurse.

The notion of social or emotional intelligence gained in prominence in the 1990s, around the same time as the technology boom and a wave of interest in autism and Asperger's—especially when understood as "geek syndrome." While the notion of social intelligence was developed in the Progressive Era,10 it was in 1995, with the publication of Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, that the idea took off as a pop culture reference, educational objective, and indicator of middle-class marketability. Emotional intelligence, Goleman argues, may be more important than any other type of ability in determining success on the job. Goleman argued that late twentieth-century workers were "being judged by a new yardstick" (3). In rhetorical terms, EI offered a new type of incrementum, or scale, along which humans could be ordered, in this case according to emotional skill rather than intelligence. Intelligence, training, and expertise no longer constituted the key measures for success on the job; instead, Goleman writes, workers were being judged by social skills, such as "initiative and empathy, adaptability and persuasiveness" (3), which determined "who will be hired and who will not, who will be let go and who retained, who passed over and who promoted" (3). Here again, a double hierarchy argument appears: the established business hierarchy, with leaders at the top and minions on the bottom, is aligned with the new scale offered by the EI. In this way, EI naturalizes the workplace hierarchy, detaching it from education, class, and gender, all of which may influence whether individuals are perceived as leaders.

Goleman links emotional intelligence specifically to the values and ideals of the so-called "service economy."11 Not surprisingly, corporations, business schools, and consultants jumped on the EI bandwagon as traditional manufacturing jobs in the United States all but disappeared. Notably, women had always worked in the "service sector," in what used to be called "Pink Collar" jobs. It was men, in particular, who were most affected by the shift towards a service economy, who must now develop skills required to work with people rather than (or in addition to) things. Thus, the EI and the concomitant rise of the service economy generated a new form of masculinity, the emotional equivalent to the "metrosexual"—a man who was expected to take on some of the trappings of femininity in order to increase his economic power.

Gender and Empathy

Empathy has historically been described as an emotion. In rhetorical theory, it has been associated with a capacity for feeling emotions, not identifying them. Quintilian noted that the most effective rhetors possess a capacity to feel the emotions they seek to evoke (Quintilian 6.2.26). For Quintilian, though, empathy is also performative, since orators who can "best conceive such images will have the greatest power in moving the feelings" (6.2.29). In his formulation, empathy represents a capacity to conjure for oneself the emotional states that move the feelings, and to project those emotional states to an audience.

When it became a topic for psychological inquiry, empathy originally enjoyed a much broader definition. In the early twentieth century, empathy was as likely to refer to aesthetics, cognition, or embodied emotion. In 1925, Herbert Ellsworth Cory declared that dance was "the most direct elaboration of empathy (those movements by which we seek to become one with the object we contemplate" (394). As an embodied, aesthetic reaction, empathy could be directed towards objects, not just people. Cognitive definitions of empathy drew from Husserl, who viewed empathy as a method of philosophical inquiry into other minds (in German, Einfuhlung, or "sympathetic participation"). This definition maintained that the actual feelings of another are unknowable and unsharable, but that meanings of emotions could be shared to the extent that one could project his or her own feelings onto others (Urban 281). Finally, psychologist Titchener referred to motor empathy, or the mirroring of the embodied, physical behaviors of another.

In the early twentieth century, it was unclear that empathy could be measured at all. Wilbur M. Urban wrote in 1917 that the notion that one could "know" other minds was always an inference, and often a projection of one's own feeling onto others (281). Feeling, Urban insisted, was "unrepresentable and unsharable," so claims to know what someone else is feeling can only refer to judgments about the meaning or intentions of someone else (282). In 1949, Rosalie F. Dymond published the results of an initial attempt to quantify empathy, which she defined as "the imaginative transposing of oneself into the thinking, feeling and acting of another and so structuring the world as he does" (127). Notably, females did not score better on the test she devised than did males, although the females did show greater improvement on the test when given a chance to retake it (130). Baron-Cohen's version of the test draws on this precedent, which reduces the full range of empathic activities to ones that can be tested, such as "correctly" identifying or predicting someone's state of mind.

Recently, psychologists have disputed the double-hierarchy that places men and women along an incrementum based on empathy. In 1983, Nancy Eisenberg and Randy Lennon published a review of psychological studies of empathy. They argued that the tendency for women to score higher on a range of empathy tests was largely a function of the method used (124). Women's superior scores were most evident "when it is obvious what behavior or trait is being assessed" (124) or on self-report studies where women might feel pressure to present themselves as more empathetic (125). When empathy was measured less obtrusively (i.e., by observing male and female participants react to a situation or by measuring physiological responses), sex differences disappeared. In other words, the existence of the incrementum, or the "common sense" notion that women are more empathetic than men, serves a persuasive function in testing contests, goading women into choosing responses that will align them with femininity and empathy rather than masculinity and indifference.

Evidently, extrapolating from commonplaces based on gendered stereotypes to explanations for brain-based differences requires a number of speculative leaps. Notably, this underlying theory links sex, gender, and sexuality in neatly ordered rows: males are masculine, aggressive, systematic; women are feminine, passive, and empathic. Such a theory clearly flouts current understandings of human sexuality, sex, and gender as itself multiple (Fausto-Sterling). Baron-Cohen does not address the question of where homosexual, transsexual, or transgendered individuals might fall on his Empathizing-Systemizing spectrum.

New Scales

Despite the problematic sex/gender incrementum underlying the EMB theory of autism, many scientists continue to search for biological factors to add new dimensions to the scale. Recently, researchers have sought to determine whether higher fetal testosterone levels in utero correlate with an autism diagnosis.12 One method researchers use to test prenatal testosterone exposure is by measuring the ratio between the second and fourth finger (or digit), called the 2D:4D ratio. According to this hypothesis, people exposed to higher levels of testosterone in utero tend to have a longer fourth finger than index finger—or a low 2D:4D ratio.13

This measure, then, allows researchers to draw on the figure of incrementum more explicitly, positioning individuals along a scale based on their 2D:4D measurements. Those with the lowest ratio, presumably, have the highest risk for an ASD diagnosis. The 2D:4D ratio provides an incrementum that, unlike the SQ or EQ (which relies on qualitative, self-report data), can be quantified without relying on individuals' own self-perceptions. Similarly, Mark Brosnan and Ian Walker have extended the EMB theory to question whether mothers of autistic children may be masculinized in some way, a proposition they test by examining a different ratio, the waist-hip ratio (WHP), which is calculated by dividing the woman's waist circumference by the hip circumference. The average woman's WHP falls between .7 and .8. The authors hypothesize that "if some men were found to show a preference for higher-than-average-WHR mates, this would encourage greater prenatal testosterone exposure for those men's offspring"—a hypothesis they test in a population of parents of children with ASD.

Both the 2D:4D ratio and the WHP ratio enable researchers to deploy the rhetorical resources of the incrementum, ordering individuals according to a quantifiable, biological trait. The attraction of these formulations may be that measuring a biological quantity (as opposed to self-report measures from a survey) enables researchers to depict sex-gender relations as particularly hard-wired and natural, and hence immune to social and rhetorical constructions.

Implications: Alternative Screens

Because sex/gender difference provides such a pervasive, and persuasive, lens through which we understand humanity, it is not surprising that it tends to inform studies of autism. Unfortunately, though, competing theories tend to be marginalized, especially if they conform less easily to our common understandings of sex/gender difference.

Some researchers question the EMB theory for its failure to account fully for the range of features that characterize autism. Elise B. Barbeau, Adrianna Mendrek, and Laurent Mottron object to the EMB theory, arguing that "The autistic brain functions differently, sometimes more like men, sometimes more like women, but we should consider that it might actually function in its own unique way" (27). In essence, Barbeau, Mendrek, and Mottron argue against the incrementum that positions men, women, and people with autism along a scale; instead, they suggest, autism might present a different type of pattern altogether, one that does not fall neatly on a male-female continuum.

Another alternative understanding of autism comes from Henry Markram, Tania Rinaldi, and Kamila Markram, who have suggested that autism might be understood as an "intense world syndrome." In their theory, autism is characterized not by an extreme-male brain, but by a hyper-reactive and hyper-plastic brain that makes the world seem over-stimulating. Autistic individuals, then, may experience an excess of sensory and emotional input—not a lack thereof, as the EMB theory would have it. Symptoms such as repetitive behavior and withdrawal—which are not explained by the EMB theory—can be understood according to the "intense world" hypothesis as coping mechanisms individuals use to deal with overstimulated senses.

Notably, this explanation seems to accord best with how many autistic people themselves describe their sensory experiences. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, who maintains a blog called Journeys With Autism, writes that "To my (autistic) mind, Intense World Syndrome theory is the closest that the scientific community has ever come to understanding autism." Another woman, a self-diagnosed "Aspie," writes that, in her experience, sensory input "comes in faster than I can process it," so she must look away in order to "process all the 'data' coming in" (Neshamaruach). What may appear to be lack of empathy may be, according to these autistic women, an excess of emotional and sensory input.

Women who have autism or Asperger's syndrome are effectively marginalized in the EMB theory—an elision that has been addressed in popular books and scholarly work in the humanities (Davidson "'In a World of Her Own…'"; Davidson "'More Labels Than a Jam Jar'"; Bazelon; Ernsperger and Wendel) but that so far has not greatly impacted psychological studies that continue to follow the paradigm laid out by Baron-Cohen's theory. Listening to autistic women might lead to a revised notion of "systemizing" as a way of thinking that can be applied to a full range of interests, not as one connected to particular types of (typically masculine) interests. One participant in an online forum for women with Asperger's, who uses the screen name "gimpyzebra," offers the following reflections:

I've noticed a difference between my interests, and those of male aspies. I love computers, but where a male aspie would be more into programming and internal workings of the computer, I am more into graphic design and web design. With the sciences, I am more interested in human science like biology, medicine, psychology, sociology where a male aspie may be more inclined towards technocoly [sic], computer programming, etymology, etc. I also have intense interests that fall under Tony Attwoods assessment [sic] of female interests (animals, poetry, etc). A few of my intense interest are penguins, language and linguistics, knitting/crafing [sic], art and art history.

Baron-Cohen's SQ test might capture only a few of this woman's wide range of interests. If used as a diagnostic tool, the SQ could skew the ratio of diagnosed males versus females even further.

Moreover, the EMB theory relies on a binary model of sex/gender that forces individuals into two categories, rather than accounting for a wider, more fluid understanding of sex and gender. Some autistic people find traditional gender categories in applicable to their experiences. As one individual, a biological male who uses the screen name "shiva", writes on his blog:

being thought of as "male" is just as odd to me as being thought of as "female". I don't consider myself to have any sort of "internal" gender identity whatsoever - it always feels like "gender" is simply not a valid category in which to place myself. When i see "gender" as a tick-box category on a form, i feel similarly to if, on a form asking for details of a vehicle, it asked for "miles per gallon" when my vehicle was powered by something completely different (and that can't be measured in gallons), like say solar electricity - i just don't really consider myself to belong to the category of beings that have gender.

While not all autistic people find traditional sex roles restrictive, this particular blogger's post suggests that a broader understanding of sex/gender could complicate Baron-Cohen's theory. What does it mean if a supposedly "male-brained" individual actually feels ungendered? Or if an autistic woman likes wearing "shiny objects," "gaudy jewelry," and long, flowy skirts, despite her admittedly masculine "persona and self-concept"? (Lindsay). These examples suggest that a binary model of brains, like a binary model of sex/gender, is insufficient to account for the complexities among actual individuals.

Further, the EMB theory does little to address the needs and interests most commonly expressed by autistic people themselves, such as issues of community support, education, employment, and language. By pathologizing the hyper-systemizing brain of the autistic person, who is cast as a near-robot or cyborg, researchers de-emphasize not only their abilities, but also their fundamental humanity.

By considering autism through the terministic screens of sex and gender, researchers have historically shifted their focus towards some features of autism and away from others. In the example of autism, masculinity itself has been cast as a disability, at least in its so-called "extreme" form. This analysis demonstrates that rhetorical and cultural conditions play an important role in how disabilities become gendered. For disability theorists, the example of autism suggests that sex and gender offer persuasive theories through which disabilities can be cast, and that the incrementum, in particular, offers one rhetorical figure through which sex/gender differentiations are constructed.

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  1. For examples, see http://www.2-b-well.org/famousautistics.html or http://www.asperger-syndrome.me.uk/people.htm.

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  2. On gendered technologies, see Judy Wajcman, Feminism Confronts Technology (State College: Pennsylvania State UP, 1991).

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  3. On the gendered assumptions informing definitions of technology, see Katherine T. Durack, "Gender, Technology, and the History of Technical Communication" (Central Works in Technical Communication, eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber, New York: Oxford UP, 2004, 35-43).

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  4. For a review of the racist and Eurocentric assumptions undergirding mainstream histories of science and technology, see Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women's Lives (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991), Chapter 9.

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  5. Originally seen as an extension of the calculations work women performed during World War II, programming of the ENIAC computer was assigned to six women. Only later, when it became apparent that programming was to be a high-status activity, did it come to be considered a man's job. See Jennifer Light, "When Computers Were Women," Technology and Culture 40.3 (1999): 455-83.

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  6. Notably, the authors of this study do not question the validity of those measurements, concluding that men in Sweden are indeed more likely than women to have the SQ type of brain.

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  7. That the brain can be gendered in this way is no surprise, of course. See Londa Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1989).

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  8. Image from Simon Baron-Cohen, Rebecca C. Knickmeyer, and Matthew K. Belmonte, "Sex Differences in the Brain: Implications for Explaining Autism," Science 310 (2005): 819-823.

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  9. See, for instance, Sara O'Neil, "The Meaning of Autism: Beyond Disorder," Disability & Society 23.7 (2008): 787-99; Molloy Harvey and Latika Vasil, "The Social Construction of Asperger Syndrome: The Pathologising of Difference?" Disability & Society 17.6 (2002): 659-69.

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  10. In 1920, psychologist E. L. Thorndike used the term "social intelligence" in an article in Harper's Magazine, noting that it was one of three core types of intelligence (the other two being mechanical and abstract intelligence). See E. L. Thorndike, "Intelligence and Its Uses," Harper's Magazine 140 (1920): 228. The term "emotional intelligence" gained scientific purchase with the publication of Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer's article, "Emotional Intelligence," in 1989. There, Salovey and Mayer define their key term as "ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions." See Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, "Emotional Intelligence," Imagination, Cognition and personality 9.3 (1989): 185-211.

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  11. Beginning in the 1960s, experts warned that economic growth in the United States would increasingly depend on the service sector. Victor Fuchs declared in 1965 that "we are now a 'service economy'—that is, we are the first nation in the history of the world in which more than half of the employed population is not involved in the production of food, clothing, houses, automobiles, and other tangible goods." See Victor R. Fuchs, "The Growing Importance of Service Industries," Journal of Business 38.4 (1965): 344. Starting even before the second world war, Fuchs noted, employment in the United States was gradually shifting toward trade, finance, insurance, real estate, professional services, and the like—a trend that continued into the 1980s and 1990s, when the term "emotional intelligence" began to circulate.

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  12. While both men and women produce androgens, men do so in larger quantities, a fact that accounts for secondary sexual characteristics, such as body hair, a lower voice, and, presumably, aggression and similarly male-associated qualities. Some evidence suggests that boys with autism go through puberty earlier than other boys do.

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  13. See, for instance, Bonnie Auyeung, Simon Baron-Cohen, Emma Ashwin, Rebecca Knickmeyer, Kevin Taylor, Gerald Hackett, and Melissa Hines, "Fetal Testosterone Predicts Sexually Differentiated Childhood Behavior in Girls and Boys," Psychological Science 20.2 (2009): 144-148.

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