From: Chen Yixiong, Eric (email@example.com)
Date: Tue Jan 22 2002 - 01:49:19 MST
Argument For Autism as a Genetic 'Epidemic'
"Have the airplane and the computer changed the architecture of the
mind? And is that why autism is on the increase?"
By Simon Baron-Cohen
People with autism can be affected to varying degrees, but their
principal mental characteristics are that they have difficulty in fitting in
with other people or figuring out people's feelings and perspectives (a
disability) whilst they have a natural flair for analysing the non-social
world in fine detail, and in understanding non-social systems (a talent). So
whilst they may appear socially odd to their peer-group within their own
culture, their long hours focused on understanding a system like mathematics
or calendars, car engines or music, navigation or computer-programming,
grammar and vocabulary, can lead them to high levels of expertise within
narrow domains of knowledge.
People with autism are usually male, and these men would traditionally
have not competed well in the competition for mates, as appearing socially
odd might have either put off prospective females from choosing them, or put
off prospective parents-in-law from arranging such a marriage for their
And then two massive changes hit the planet: the airplane and the
The airplane has allowed unprecedented opportunities for changing your
culture. And when you go from your native culture into another one, your
social oddness may be far less obvious. "Oh, he behaves like that because
he's English", a Brazilian might say, or vice-versa.
Social oddity can be minimised to some extent by moving cultures
because we are all experts in knowing the subtle body language and
intonation of our own cultures but might just mistakenly assume that a
foreigner's different body language or intonation is due to their different
culture. We might overlook what to people in their culture would appear odd
and off-putting. So someone with autism might find it far easier to be
accepted, even by the opposite sex, when they are abroad, compared to when
they are in their native country.
The computer has penetrated every work-place. In just 50 short years,
there is now no office in the developed world where computers are not
essential, and we need those people with the cool, razor-sharp logic to fix
them, reconfigure them, develop them, adapt them, program them. The autistic
mind was sitting around for centuries, even millennia, under-employed,
because how many jobs were there for mathematicians and scientists, who also
needed this style of thinking? Drops in the ocean. And then the market
opened up for computer-scientists - the most in-demand of workers in the
modern age. Tidal waves in the ocean.
Computer-scientists, irrespective of their social skills, could now
hop on a plane and find a job, get rich, and have something to offer a girl:
social status, a salary, a niche in which they fit, and even be accepted as
normal for a foreigner - for who of us can judge what is normal for a
foreigner? Or even if they just stayed in their own culture, they were now
more valued and accepted than before.
This is not to say that all computer-scientists lack social skill. Far
from it. We all know computer-scientists who are good socializers. Nor is it
to say that those severely affected by autism could suddenly shift and
become a successful programmer. But those who had a dash of autism could.
No longer the socially isolated, unemployed, "weird" guy who could
list every prime number up to 10,000 in minutes, but who couldn't have even
a semblance of a conversation with a girl at a party. Now the successful
computer scientist, well-paid, whose talent at "systemising" has enabled him
to learn a foreign language and be accepted, and even find a date and a
Autism is genetic: it runs in families. But whereas in 1970 the rate
of autism was 4 in 10,000 people, today it is 1 in 200 people. The rate has
gone up more than twelve-fold.
Twelve-fold? Is this an epidemic? Some have rashly thought this might
be because of some pollutant or even vaccine damage, but the evidence for
this is thin. Certainly, the increase in autism is in part because of better
detection and awareness, thanks to the tireless work of autism charities
throughout the world.
But could it also be that this has also been a result of the most
rapid evolutionary change to the human brain that we have witnessed? A
recent issue of Wired Magazine in December 2001 reported that the rate of
autism was hitting record rates in Silicon Valley, where a new evolutionary
niche was opening up for people to fly in from around the planet, sell their
mathematical and systemising talent, and find reproductive success which
would otherwise have remained beyond reach. Our experimental research is
consistent with this interpretation, and warrants further testing.
If this evolutionary change is real, should we fear it? On the
contrary, we should welcome and celebrate it. Good socializers have always
found it easy to survive and reproduce, but we need our good systemisers
too, for the benefit of the planet. These are the guys (men and women) who
are going to push science and technology forward, and create our future.
Thank Darwin that life is now a bit easier for them too.
Simon Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and
Co-Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University. He is
also a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
His research spans the developmental neuropsychology of autism, early
diagnosis, psychological intervention and neuroimaging in autism. He
previously held a senior academic post at London University (at the
Institute of Psychiatry). He was awarded the British Psychological Society's
Spearman Medal, and the American Psychological Association's McAndless
Award, for outstanding contributions to research.
He is author of numerous articles in scientific journals on the
subject of autism, including Autism: The Facts, 1993 The Maladapted Mind:
Classic Readings in Evolutionary Psychopathology; and Mindblindness : An
Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind (Learning, Development and Conceptual
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