Last weekend, I watched the 1988 film “Rain Man”, whose title character is an autistic idiot savant, played by Dustin Hoffman, lacking empathy and social aptitude but able to perform astonishing mnemonic and calculational feats. I’d seen the movie before, but only this time did I appreciate its central irony, that the solipsistic Rainman helps his slick, car-salesman brother, played by Tom Cruise, overcome his own self-absorption.
The movie anticipated the modern cocktail-party hypothesis that many men--and especially those with a scientific bent--are mildly autistic. I’ve heard my students at Stevens, the engineering school where I teach, jokingly slur each other in this way.
It’s no joke to Simon Cohen-Baron, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge. He proposes that autism is just an extreme version of a trait he calls “systemizing,” which involves focusing on “those aspects of the world that form regular, repeatable, law-governed patterns.” Systemizers are often socially awkward and lacking in empathy for others.
Cohen-Baron estimates that 44 percent of all males and 14
percent of females are systemizers, and he contends that a recent rise in rates
of autism stems in part from the fact that systemizers are meeting and mating
more often now than in the past. Surveys have shown that children of two engineers have a two-fold risk of being autistic. “The theory is new, but the idea that mating
patterns may have increased the incidence of autism is not,” Phil Ross (a
veteran science writer and an old friend) writes in “When Engineers' Genes
Collide,” a story in the online version of the technology journal IEEE
I usually whack coverage of human genetics, which has a history of sensational claims that don’t stand up to scrutiny, but I’m giving Ross's fascinating story a cautious pat. I’d love to know what systemizing readers think.