Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Autism and Engineer Hypothesis

Links below are to an article interviewing Simon Baron-Cohen about his Autism-Engineer Hypothesis. Excerpt:

"If Baron-Cohen is right, today's male engineer is more likely to leave the house wearing a stained tie than his professional forebears, simply because he is more likely to be married to a woman who is herself of the systemizing persuasion...Such "assortative mating," as he calls it, would have served to concentrate the critical genes, increasing the chance that such a couple will give birth to the most extreme systemizers of all those with autism."

Baron-Cohen's latest article is Two new theories of autism: hyper-systemising and assortative mating.

In fact, older studies like Autism occurs more often in families of physicists, engineers, and mathematicians had claimed higher rates of autism among families with fathers or grandfathers in engineering, but as personality / MBTI studies of engineers have shown, a majority of engineers are of an introverted and thinking temperament, and current at autism diagnostic criteria being what it is, I can't help thinking that this alone would qualify many engineers (or children who will grow up to become engineers) to meet a few "spectrum" checkpoints just on the basis of some reduced eye contact, fewer peer relationships (especially compared to extroverts), and suboptimal conversational ability. But is this a disease?

Introverted children are often slower to warm up when meeting new people, and this may include being interviewed at a doctors appointment as well as in performance situations in conventional classrooms.

The figure below shows what Baron-Cohen and his group originally found when they administered psych questionnaires to students at Cambridge University. Autism higher in the maths group, whereas manic-depression higher in the English / Humanities crowd.

What the field needs is a better tool to distinguish normal differences in the criteria of behavioral diseases such as autism of Aspergers syndrome. Every field has its own differences in the personalities and temperament types it attracts. What is difference and what is disability needs to defined.

BTW, it didn't seem so long ago that Baron-Cohen wrote about The Extreme-male-brain theory of autism. Could Baron-Cohen Be linking extreme maleness with the engineering profession?

Thanks, John, for the HT.

Autism and Engineers- IEEE
Personality Types in Engineering pdf
Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child
Activities Where Introverted Children Can Win

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  1. Anonymous7:14 AM

    The problem with wanting to neatly divide those who are merely "different" from those who are "disabled" is that it can deemphasize the challenges faced by those who are "different" and overemphasize the supposedly "alien" nature of those who are more obviously disabled.

    Adult autistics and parents of autistic kids are working to challenge the idea that we can neatly pigeon-hole an autism spectrum kid into a "low-functioning" or "high-functioning" category based purely on IQ, or verbal skills, or some other category.

    If we remove the stigma from all autism, if we stop assuming that a kid who is non-verbal and non-typical lacks empathy or is unable to learn or communicate, everyone benefits, even the most "high-functioning" merely "odd" kids. All kids need to be treated as individuals, not just those who are closest to "normal."

    If we worry so much that our kid is going to be tainted by being associated with the "low-functioning" kids, everyone loses.

  2. There is no relationship between children of engineers who are scientific and shy with the children of older fathers who cannot speak, are unable to play at all, and who have tantrums and fears and hide all the time.

    Yes, there may be social deficits in some of the children of very bright parents and they are also genetic, but these children can find a way and do find the way of functioning in society.

    I guess there can be a combination of having old and very bright parents.

    When discussing autism it is important to understand who changed the definition of autism in 1980 to speculate as to why that change was made.

  3. Children with severe communication and social difficulties are rarely a diagnostic dilemma, but being on the front lines examining the neurological, family, and birth histories of children who are in the gray zone, we can say it's more complicated than DSM IV criteria might indicate.

    Another article on the autism-Asperger distinction can be found here at the APA site. Here clinical researcher disagree about whether existing guidelines can reliably distinguish these groups... they don't even address the point at which the spectrum of normal can be recognized.

  4. Anonymous10:20 AM

    I really hope we can look back on all this one day as CRAP. Going so far from the classical definition of autism has ruined the lives of countless families. Children cant be experts at everything. The schools have certain expectations and expectations focus on communicative skillsets when kids are very young. How many anecdotal stories have we heard of late talkers (after two) and very late talkers (3 and 4) who went on to be normal enough to function and even succeed! Now kids who cant draw are in drawing therapy, will we take the tone deaf kids and diagnose them too? I have a theory! Engineers are more likely to give birth to kids with specialized skills especially if they are TALENTED engineers but they're also more likely to pay too much attention to their kids progress. this explains why autism is so much less diagnosed in the non-western world and in lower income groups. The kids arent under a microscope. I cant help but to believe ASD is constantly misdiagnosed but because kids arent exactly as their peers, no one will lift the diagnosis. Google around and you find kids with asd whose parents say crap like "my kid is almost normal."