Music Colloquium: “Thinking in Music and Hearing in Color: Autistic Women Speaking for Themselves”

Date(s) - 02/07/2018
5:30 pm - 7:00 pm

Rm. 3491 (Large Seminar Rm.), Graduate Center

“Thinking in Music and Hearing in Color: Autistic Women Speaking for Themselves”
Michael B. Bakan, Professor of Ethnomusicology, College of Music, Florida State University

In his 2002 article “The Extreme Male Brain Theory of Autism,” Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge argued that the “male brain” is associated with “those individuals in whom systemising is significantly better than empathising, and the female brain is defined as the opposite cognitive profile. Using these definitions,” he suggested, “autism can be considered as an extreme of the normal male profile. There is increasing psychological evidence for the extreme male brain theory of autism.”

While there is no denying that the incidence of autism spectrum conditions is significantly higher among males than females—conservative estimates place the ratio at about 5:1—Baron-Cohen’s related claim that autistic individuals are inherently less empathetic than their neurotypical peers is far less credible. It is an assertion that makes easy work of the project of disenfranchising autistic people—male and female alike—as this purported deficit in empathetic capacity comes to be quickly equated with the negation of autistic people as fully human beings.

In this provocative presentation, ethnomusicologist Michael Bakan turns the tables on Baron-Cohen’s “male brain” theory of autism on two levels. First, through the re-presentation (as opposed to representation) of his conversations with autistic individuals over a span of several years, the deeply empathetic qualities of autistic subjective experience are revealed. Second, by focusing specifically on transcripts of his dialogues with female collaborators from his forthcoming Oxford University Press book Speaking for Ourselves: Conversations on Life, Music, and Autism, Bakan and his interlocutors offer a much-needed corrective to the customarily male-dominated tenor of public autistic discourse.


Michael Bakan is Professor of Ethnomusicology and Head of the World Music Ensembles Program at Florida State University, where he directs the Sekaa Gong Hanuman Agung Balinese Gamelan and Omnimusica intercultural ensemble. His more than fifty publications include the books Music of Death and New CreationWorld Music: Traditions and Transformations, and Speaking for Ourselves: Conversations on Life, Music, and Autism, forthcoming from Oxford University Press in June of 2018. His research on music and autism has been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Bakan edits the Routledge Focus on World Music Series and serves on the Board of the Society for Ethnomusicology. He has been a visiting faculty member or invited speaker at numerous institutions, including Harvard and Columbia, the University of Chicago, and the Kunstuniversität Graz in Austria. As a percussionist, he has performed with John Cage, Tito Puente, Rudolf Serkin, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic.



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