Monday, 30 May 2011

Begging the Question: Autism in Trans Men

From Medical News Today, an article based on research by a notorious transphobe,
Professor Baron-Cohen.

Whether he's transphobic or not I can't say, but he certainly has that reputation. Nonetheless, facts are facts, regardless of who discovers them, and whether we want them to be true or not.
The researchers measured autistic traits using the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) and compared AQ scores from transmen; transwomen (male-to-female); typical males; typical females; and individuals with Asperger Syndrome (AS, a form of autism). They found transmen had a higher average AQ than typical females, typical males and transwomen, but lower than individuals with AS. The findings are published today in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Professor Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre, interpreted the results:
"Girls with a higher than average number of autistic traits tend to have male-typical interests, showing a preference for systems over emotions. They prefer not to socialise with typical girls because they have different interests, and because typical girls on average have more advanced social skills. Both of these factors may lead girls with a higher number of autistic traits to socialize with boys, to believe they have a boy's mind in a girl's body, and to attribute their unhappiness to being a girl."


Rebecca Jones, who led the study with Professor Baron-Cohen, added:

"If such girls do believe they have a boy's mind in a girl's body, their higher than average number of autistic traits may also mean they hold their beliefs very strongly, and pursue them to the logical conclusion: opting for sex reassignment surgery in adulthood."
The problem here is that they assume trans boys are girls. Let's re-write that with the opposite assumption made, one at least as likely (I think more so, but let's say "equally" for the sake of argument).
"If such boys do believe they have a boy's mind in a girl's body, their higher than average number of autistic traits may also mean they hold their beliefs very strongly, and pursue them to the logical conclusion: opting for sex reassignment surgery in adulthood."
Well yes. Obviously. Not controversial. The only "pathology" here is caused by begging the question, and the circular argument that because they're girls, they must be disordered for thinking they're boys, thereby proving they're really girls who only think they're boys.

Let's look at Prof Barron-Cohen's statement in the same light:
"Boys with a higher than average number of autistic traits tend to have male-typical interests, showing a preference for systems over emotions. They prefer not to socialise with typical girls because they have different interests, and because typical girls on average have more advanced social skills. Both of these factors may lead boys with a higher number of autistic traits to socialize with boys, to believe they have a boy's mind in a girl's body, and to attribute their unhappiness to having a girl-shaped body."
Well yes, once more. See how this becomes almost tautological once the unspoken assumption is removed?

Interesting though that he found no increase in Autism-Spectrum Quotient in Trans women. That's not been in accordance with my observation of several hundred of them. Less than in Aspergic males yes, but rather more than in neurotypical females. Still, the data there's pretty clear.



So let's look at the actual article...Brief Report: Female-To-Male Transsexual People and Autistic Traits by R.Jones et al, Online First™, 30 March 2011
The ‘extreme male brain’ theory suggests females with Autism Spectrum Conditions are hyper-masculinized in certain aspects of behavior. We predicted that females with Gender Identity Disorder (who are masculinized) would have elevated Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) scores. AQ scores from five groups were compared: (1) n = 61 transmen (female-to-male transsexual people); (2) n = 198 transwomen (male-to-female transsexual people); (3) n = 76 typical males; (4) n = 98 typical females; and (5) n = 125 individuals with Asperger Syndrome (AS). Transmen had a higher mean AQ than typical females, typical males and transwomen, but lower than individuals with AS. Transmen have more autistic traits and may have had difficulty socializing with female peers and thus found it easier to identify with male peer groups.
The rest is behind a pay-per-view wall, but here's what it says in part:
Given that in all the studies of ASC cited above, females with ASC are hyper-masculinized in specific aspects of behaviour and cognition, it may well be that they identify more readily with the other sex. A recent study of play by girls with ASC found they show masculinization in choosing toys that do not require pretend play (Knickmeyer et al. 2008), and women with ASC report higher rates of tomboyism in childhood (Ingudomnukul et al. 2007). Females with ASC may therefore feel that they don’t belong in a typical female peer group and in a minority of cases it may even lead to develop Gender Identity Disorder (GID). An elevated number of autistic traits would confer a rigidity on their perceived gender identity, similar to that which is observed in individuals with persistent GID from childhood to adulthood (Di Ceglie 1998).
Er... hold on...

That means I shouldn't exist. Neither should Prof Lynn Conway, nor Diane Schroer, nor Stephanie Lanfhoff, nor Amanda Simpson, nor any of the high-AQ Trans women of the world. The same traits that make Trans men, men, should prevent Trans women with those traits from existing. And half or more of the female engineers of the world, the non-trans variety, with high AQ should actually think they're male.

They don't. To state the obvious.

And that means the "hyper-masculine" theory of autism has a few holes in.

Observations by Blanchard et al have shown that late-onset Trans women, those who could live with their situation past their mid-20's without actually dying without treatment, tend to go into engineering, science, and computer science. So do early-onset Trans women, but there the correlation, while strong, is far weaker.

An alternate explanation is that the same hormonal glitch in the womb that causes Transsexuality, also tends to cause atypical neurological development in other areas too. While Trans men and Trans women aren't mirror-images of each other - there's certain differences in hearing for example, they're close when it comes to ambidexterity and many brain structures. Things that would appear normal in men are just normal in trans men too - and to some degree in trans women whose conditions are not as severe as early-onset cases.

Note also that it's high-AQ, not full-blown autism. There may be different causes, two or more syndromes with superficially similar effects, but with significant differences. I think they confuse correlation for causation: that we have two manifestations of the same underlying cause, hormonal anomalies in the womb that cause cross-sexed neuro-anatomy.

One area where they may grasp a part of the truth: that of two people, both with female bodies and somewhat male minds, the one with the higher AQ may identify as male earlier, rather than later. Just as with two people, both with male bodies and somewhat female minds, the one with the higher AQ may identify as female later, rather than earlier.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Here's another look at some of the flawed methodologies of Baron-Coehn's study and how the results can be used for abusive purposes.

http://jessie-c.livejournal.com/

Frank said...

It seems to me like it's a case of Baron-Cohen arriving at a conclusion and then presenting the data to support it.

He's starting from the position that trans people are deluded and therefore decides trans men with Asperger's are deluded women who think their Aspergers-related traits make them male.

Somebody starting from the position that transsexual people have the brain structure of one sex in the body of another (to put it crudely) could argue from the exact same data that since cis men are more likely to have Asperger's than cis women, the fact that trans men are also more likely to have Asperger's than cis women is just more evidence that trans men have male-structured brains.

People can make statistics say anything they like.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I had the same thought Frank offers above - naturally a male brain (even if in a female body) will have more characteristics in common with a male brain (in a male body) than a female brain - in whatever body.

Anyway, just because someone has traits associated with the autistic spectrum doesn't mean that's a problem, does it?

Ada A. said...

"Observations by Blanchard et al have shown that late-onset Trans women, those who could live with their situation past their mid-20's without actually dying without treatment, tend to go into engineering, science, and computer science. So do early-onset Trans women, but there the correlation, while strong, is far weaker."

Do you have a specific citation for this? I'd like to find out more about this phenomenon. I'm a trans girl who's into math, computer science, and computer science (among other things), and multiple people have mentioned to me based on their own experience that there seems to be an unusually high concentration of trans women in fields like CS and engineering, and I'm quite interested if there's actually data on this. Thanks!

Bad hair days said...

I like to throw in that not everyone liking computer science has a high AQ, mine is extreme low, my systemizing quotient, too (and the EQ very high).

It all makes pretty much sense when you keep in mind that the AQ quotient rises with prenatal testosterone, while the identity part is done by estrogen.

Anonymous said...

There are a bunch of studies now showing that there is an unexpectedly high number of children and teens with an autism spectrum disorder who apply to gender identity clinics. (This includes both Aspergers and autism.) They are a minority of the kids with gender dysphoria, of course, but way more than in the general population.

It's unclear what the connection is and therapists disagree about the appropriate treatment, etc.

In any case, many of these kids were born male. The extreme male brain theory does not explain what is going on.

There is also more research questioning the idea of the extreme male brain theory. One study found that people with ASDs are more stereotypically feminine in certain ways.

Anonymous Me