Autism, Feminism, and Shy Nerdy Men

David Finch writes about autism as it affected his marriage in his book, Journal of Best Practices. This one was tough to read; David’s relationship with his wife was far from a storybook one. He was a socially awkward man with ugly beliefs about gender, which he had to adjust to make his marriage work.  It works out OK for David and Kristen, reminding me of this note from another wife to her autistic husband. The “autism” label allows David to forgive, change, and “normalize” himself; and allows Kristen to forgive him as well.

You can find a short essay version of their story here and even a few articles from Kristen on the book’s website.

I read David’s book over the holidays, and then encountered an interesting Internet uproar started by MIT professor Scott Aaronson about the intersection between “shy nerdy men” and feminism. Here’s a summary from the Chronicle of Higher Education,  but you might read Scott’s follow-up, Laurie Penny’s article, and this response from Scott Alexander (Scott Alexander is a different Scott from Aaronson). For an Internet discussion of a controversial topic, these posts were much more thoughtful and interesting than usual.

None of those links mention autism specifically — except to note that it’s often thrown as an insult at “shy nerdy men” — but Scott Alexander links to this short post from his girlfriend where she makes the connection.

Are “shy nerdy men” sometimes, often, or almost always autistic? I don’t know.

Do autistic men and boys really tend to become angry at women more often than other men and boys? I suspect part of the answer is that they can be relatively unsubtle and clumsy about it when they do, but again I don’t know.

As Laurie Penny points out, there are shy nerdy women, too. As many have suggested, the autism stereotype (and therefore autism diagnosis) may be biased toward men. To what extent, I don’t know.

Here’s what I believe, though.  As I argued at more length earlier, there’s something harmful at work whenever we need the autism label to forgive ourselves and one another. And as the Scott Aaronson conversation uncovers, there’s something harmful about trying to establish who among us suffers the most. A working model of compassion, for self or others, has few conditions on compassion; it doesn’t start from a question about whether we’ve suffered enough yet.

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One thought on “Autism, Feminism, and Shy Nerdy Men

  1. Rob McMillin

    “Somewhere on the Aspergers spectrum” is how I would express it. And answering your questions about prevalence — to some extent — is this USA Today summary of a recent large-scale study of autism which concluded that autism strikes males at seven times the rate of females, but when women develop the disorder, it is at the more severe end of the spectrum. Men, it seems, frequently have an autism that is less thoroughly damaging, but the failure to pick up emotional and social cues that Aaronson describes could very easily be Aspy in nature.

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