Engineers and Autism

Getting into other people’s heads requires empathy, a virtue that sometimes does not come naturally to engineers. Our profession tends toward the opposing mental disposition, called systemizing, which attends mainly to rule-based systems, such as those that govern machinery.

In October, we got a big response to an article, by Web Editor Philip E. Ross, on a new theory that links systemizing, engineers, and autism, a developmental disorder that has become more common in recent decades [see http://spectrum.ieee.org/oct06/4665].

The author of the theory, Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psycho­pathology at the University of Cambridge, argues that in generations past, engineers, mathematicians, and other systemizers had little opportunity to meet potential spouses who thought as they did. Now, however, schools and professions sort both sexes by psychological types, raising the chances that people of like minds will marry and bear children. Baron-Cohen, cousin to comic actor Sacha Baron ï»'Cohen, says that such ”assortative mating” is concentrating the genes that predispose to systemizing thought. That, in turn, ought to be increasing the likelihood of having a child with the most extreme systemizing: autism.

He notes that engineers are twice as likely as others to have autistic children, and that in general, the relatives of autistic people tend to score above the average on tests of systemizing. An unusual number fall on the ”autistic spectrum,” which includes conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder that can leave children isolated, if not actually disabled. Yet even Asperger’s may not constitute a true handicap, because it is so often accompanied by countervailing powers—sometimes even by genius. Newton and Einstein have been cited as possible examples.

Author Temple Grandin, an expert on animal behavior and perhaps the world’s most famous autistic person, told Spectrum that she thought Baron-Cohen was correct. She notes that her Web site on livestock management gets huge numbers of hits from places, such as Silicon Valley, that have no particular connection with animals but plenty with engineering and computers. Because autistic people think in pictures, she says, they may be particularly good at technology. Without the genes that give rise to autism, she says, the world would be full of charming people who sit around the campfire, chatting gaily and empathizing mightily but inventing nothing.

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