I’m thinking about all this now thanks to a paper published this week in the journal BioSocieties. In it, science historian Sarah Richardson of Harvard University and her colleague Eva Gillis-Buck argue that autism’s male bias has been greatly exaggerated. What’s more, they say, autism’s purported sex differences are often exploited by scientists outside of the autism field who want to take advantage of the recent influx of funding directed specifically at autism research.
And this whole situation, Richardson and Gillis-Buck worry, is not only bad for our understanding of autism, but is fueling unfounded cultural stereotypes. “Giving the gloss of scientific integrity to claims that autism is a disorder of gender I think contributes, mostly unintentionally, to negative stereotypes about women’s innate capacity for math and science,” Richardson says.
She also found 442 studies related to autism and sex differences that have been published since 1980. Of these, 86 percent came out after 2001, and 10 percent were authored by Baron-Cohen. The rest came from laboratories in a variety of fields, including endocrinology, genetics, brain imaging, and molecular biology. Since 2001, animal research on this topic has exploded.
This is all evidence, Richardson says, that autism has become a “biomedical platform” for scientists of all stripes who are looking for funding, particularly in this era of shrinking science budgets.
“We show how, over time, researchers have begun to link their very basic research — even if it’s on nematodes — to frame it as a contribution to autism,” she says. “In the funding and publication structure, there’s been a real shift toward opportunistically using extreme-male-brain-type theories to gain research funding.”