Does the ‘Extreme Male Brain Theory’ Of Autism Spectrum Disorder Extend to Sexuality and Gender?
Every Saturday, The CSPH highlights news or recent research in the field of human sexuality. This week we’re looking at “Sexuality and Gender Role in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Case Control Study.” This study was featured in the January 2014 issue of the Public Library of Science and wanted to find out if the “Extreme Male Brain Theory” of cognitive function is consistent with gender and sexuality expression for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
First proposed in 1944 by Hans Asperger and revisited in 1997 as a valid scientific possibility, the Extreme Male Brain Theory attempts to account for the generalized perception that individuals on the autism spectrum are more likely to use brain function to systematize rather than to empathize. Additionally, this is linked to another theory which claims that high levels of fetal testosterone may play a role in ASD. However, it is obvious that both of these theories are loaded with normative assumptions of gendered behavior and fails to acknowledge the significance of socialization in terms of gender expression.
Demographics and Methodology
This particular study included 103 Swedish adults: 50 adults diagnosed with ASD and 53 “neurotypical” adults as assessed by neurological parametrics. All participants were assessed on gender role and perception, as well as sexual debut and behaviors. Methodology primarily consisted of a series of surveys, self-rated questionnaires prepared for the purposes of the study, and The Reading the Mind in the Eyes test which claims to measure a person’s ability to understand the emotional states of others (this is a contested test accused of high gender bias that affects the test’s reliability).
Gender identity was divided along the male/female binary for this study, and questionnaires included normative assumptions about gendered behavior and sexual interest. For example, the documents included the claim that someone who is sexually attracted to a woman is “masculine” and that it is “masculine” to be sexually aroused more than four times a month.
What Did They Find?
Gender and sexuality traits commonly associated with masculinity were less common in the autism spectrum disorder group than anticipated. While both men and women were expected to lean more towards masculine presentation and sexuality, the study found the group with ASD to present a “gender atypical” pattern, suggesting a gender binary defying role (defined by the study as transsexual, androgynous behavior and gender non-typicality).
Additionally, the researchers found that “Tomboyism” and bisexuality were more represented by women in the autism spectrum disorder group. The autism spectrum disorder group also reported lower libido. Therefore, the proposed “extreme male brain theory of autism” does not appear to extend to gender role and sexuality. In fact, clean-cut gender identity and sexuality was more emphasized between men and women in the control group than it appeared in the ASD group. However, given the number of participants, this is not a large enough sample size to draw any conclusive results, but it can be a start into replicating this research across a larger, more varied population.
Understanding the intersection of gender and (dis)ability is certainly a valuable cause. However, seeing as both gender and ability are very fluid concepts and categories, future researchers may want to expand this study to encompass up-to-date definitions and conceptions of gender and sexuality. Nevertheless, it is always heartening to see scholarly research not only addressing individuals with ASD, but also their sexual health and behaviors, rather than attempting to sweep this entire population under the rug.
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