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« Quasi-Scientific Cosmic Theory Fails, Again, to Get Nobel Nod | Main | SLACer Whacks Pluckers »

Are Scientists More Likely to Have Autistic Kids?

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 Spectrum. “In Silicon Valley, where systemizers of both sexes abound, the notion has been the subject of nervous jokes for years.”

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.





Autism seems to be a bit of a trash-can diagnosis. I've often thought that so-called high-functioning austistic people were just extreme types of normal human ways of being. This would be consistent with the systematizer theory. However, some people classified as autistic seem to be so disabled, unable to talk, unable to live independently, that I wonder if their "disease" has different underlying causes than the higher functioning individuals. It is harder for me to see the more severely disabled folks as just being outliers in a normal distribution. This is a problem I have when trying to understand possible causes for all sorts of spectrum disorders.


One quibble - you might be careful about passing on as fact the claim that there has been a "recent rise in rates of autism". This is far from clear or widely accepted outside of the anti-vaccine crowd. Increased rates of diagnosis, broadened diagnostic critera and past misdiagnosis (most of these kids were just labeled retarded in the past) can explain the apparant increase in the disorder.

There is a fair amount of research debunking the "autism epidemic" a good place to start is:


Perhaps there's a simple explanation for this: there is no autism epidemic. On the face of it that sounds ridiculous - just look at the figures. But talk to almost any autism researcher and they will point to other explanations for the rise in numbers. Some say it's still an open question, but others are adamant that the autism epidemic is a complete myth. And if the most recent research is anything to go by, they could be right. Studies designed to track the supposedly increasing prevalence of autism are coming to the conclusion that, in actual fact, there is no increase at all. "There is no epidemic," says Brent Taylor, professor of community child health at University College London.
[end quote]


Also, was it necessary to insert the term "idiot"? Is not "Autistic Savant" a clear enought descriptive term? Have you ever seen Kim Peek? The man is not an idiot.

Why are students "jokingly slurring" one another as autistic acceptable, while using slurs like retard or fag would be unacceptable?

Andrei Kirilyuk

Barriers to Intelligence Development

Yeah, it seems logical, from “something is wrong with our science” to “something is wrong with our scientists”. More exactly, something is wrong with science just because our savants are idiots (a bit?)! At least “idiot savant” in the sense of “narrow professional specialisation” would be a completely correct feature of the dominating kind of knowledge (contrary to its previously known kinds). In reality there is nothing new here (as anywhere under the sun), an archetype of "awkward/crazy professor/scientist" is an old enough and apparently well established image. We are just trying today to “specify” everything in terms of that same “rigorous” science, so that the old “strange sage” (or “shaman”, at a yet earlier stage) is transformed into “autistic scientist”, “systemiser” type of psyche, etc. But actually something like that is certainly true: in order to become a real scientist, one should be crazy enough (small ordinary madness they deal with in hospitals is not sufficient), where “craziness” can have infinitely varying manifestations...

But something truly interesting and practically important today can be deduced by a generalising conclusion from such half-scientific observations. Indeed, that property may imply that human intelligence development is limited by some “dynamic” (or fixed) barriers that simply become more explicitly visible each time one tries to develop his mental abilities by their application to “hard”, more-than-practical problem solution, i.e. just in the case of professional science (and similar “intellectual” activities, maybe even including advanced scientific journalism...). Of course, it should be properly understood: the tendency itself to such attempt is an inborn property, etc. But after all, details are not very important for the resulting general conclusion: there is a “hard”, intrinsic barrier to intelligence development, so that it cannot actually progress more than, for example, most advanced levels of modern scientists (and even this can be achieved at the expense of certain brain “limitations” in other, “ordinary-life” directions appearing as “autism”, etc.).

At this point one recalls that, indeed, there is only one human property that did not show any visible progress during “modern” species existence (at least several thousand years), it is its “major” property, intelligence, constituting the species distinctive attribute (sapiens) and essence. It is a formally well-known, but very strange situation, when one thinks about it. Even really tremendous and spectacular “scientific and technical progress” of the last century, liberating in addition many millions of “highly educated” (and strongly interacting!) humans for the most active intellectual progress and providing such extraordinary, useful tools for it, does not change the situation. Moreover, it even appears that the “amused to death” species becomes ever LESS intelligent in the last decades, after a certain maximum in the second half of the 20th century! (We are talking, of course, about true intelligence, rather than just “technical skills”, like ability to logic operations, calculation, etc.) And to be honest, scientists, the “intellectual elite” of humanity, is definitely not in its best form in the epoch of ending science....

The strangeness of such severe limitations becomes even more evident when one takes into account really huge, practically infinite potentialities of interacting neuron system of the human brain. Rather simple estimates taking into account the unreduced complex dynamics of brain interactions provide a mathematically rigorous basis for such conclusion (see e.g. ). There is also a popular old thesis about “brain being used in a minor proportion to its real possibilities”, which can probably be considered as generalisation of various theoretical and empirical data. But why, why this major and so apparently “flexible” system becomes “suddenly” so rigidly stable against any attempt to raise, at least a little, the level of its dynamics (or complexity level, in terms of the above theory)? Various speculations are possible, but an “optimistic” and practically important assumption is that the above characteristic “craziness” of scientists is but a transient effect, a sign of the emerging (or at least possible) big transition leading to the next, really superior level of intelligence and consciousness... Want to be more clever? Go! But transient autism can be the smallest of payments for such major progress... And then, ironically, society that generally tolerates “idiots savants” without problem may appear to be much less friendly with respect to “really different” but ESPECIALLY intellectually “superior” humans (hints are not missing already now, including this blog comments!).


No "autism epidemic" ? I recommend a reading of David Kirby's "Evidence of Harm". The rise in autism is hardly as innocent as "systemizers" mating other systemizers.More likely injecting a neurotoxin (mercury) into small babies in amounts that exceed the safety exposure levels for adults could spike up the autism rate.

mark neuwelt

not to be too picky but the guys name is simon baron-cohen..He is actually the cousin of the famous sacha baron cohen (ali -g, borat and bruno) for those familiar with the HBO show. As for the autism thing, I think obviously there's a grain of truth in that and it's just left up to the APA, the writers of the DSM to decide whether this is a disease or not. Obviously the rain man character would probably fit most poeple's defintion of severely abnormal. But any scientist that can function socially can be a systemizer and doesn't need to be thrown the label autistic. I mean this kind of intelligence involved in science is inherently systemizing.. The logic of calling that a disease and people who don't do science normal as opposed ot idiots doesn't make sense. That's why there is a wide rang of normalcy; basically if you can function, then your normal.. If your like the rain man your not. No need to make such a big deal and diagnose intelligence itself (which inherently involves sysemizing.


TJH wrote:

"No "autism epidemic" ? I recommend a reading of David Kirby's "Evidence of Harm". The rise in autism is hardly as innocent as "systemizers" mating other systemizers.More likely injecting a neurotoxin (mercury) into small babies in amounts that exceed the safety exposure levels for adults could spike up the autism rate."

Thimerisol has been out of vaccines for 5 years now and there is no sign that autism rates are dropping. No credible scientific evidence exists for the vaccine / thimerisol hypothesis. Kirby is the worst sort of hack writer and he has done a grave diservice to autistic people and their families by promoting his pseudoscientific nonsense.


Kirby is a respected NY Times writer and not a hack. You sir,BWV, are most probably a doctor, no ?
Thimerisol is still found in many vaccines today, including flu and tetanus. If not for concerned parents who ventured beyond the advice of their doctors , it would remain in many more vaccines. It certainly wasn't easy to remove it from many vaccines.


TJH Wrote:
"You sir,BWV, are most probably a doctor, no ?"

No, just a parent of an autistic child who resents the fact that anti-vaccine pseudoscience has:

-diverted attention and resources from real research into the condition

-spawned dangerous quack therapies such as chelation (one variant widely used in DAN circles involves chemically castrating children)

-Given parents both a false hope of a "cure" and a scapegoat to blame

-Given autistic individuals the impression that their identity is merely a symptom of poisoning


Andrei seems to be laboring under the misconception that "crazy" and "stupid" (or "idiotic") are synonymous.

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