When Two Minds Think Alike

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

Simon Baron-Cohen says that autism is more common When Two Minds Think Alike:

Over the years I’ve been struck by a pattern among the parents of children with autism. The mothers often say things like “my child is a lot like my husband — just writ large. My husband has to watch the weather forecasts every night, and my son has to watch them every hour.” When I ask about their parents, the mothers comment, “Well, my father was rather similar to my husband — he collected model trains and knew everything there was to know about each one.”

Such observations don’t amount to evidence about the cause of autism, but they do give us clues about where to look. Autism is at root genetic, but new research from my lab at Cambridge University implicates genes inherited from both parents. From this and other observations, we’ve formulated the “assortative mating theory.” Its central idea is that both mothers and fathers of children with autism (or its milder variant, Asperger Syndrome) share a common characteristic and have been attracted to each other because of their psychological similarity.
Furthermore, our studies have uncovered four findings that implicate assortative mating in autism. First, both parents of children with autism are likely to be super-fast on attention tasks, in which the aim is to spot a detail as quickly as possible. Second, both parents have an increased likelihood of having had a father who worked in the field of engineering. Third, both parents are more likely to have elevated scores on subtle measures of autistic traits. And fourth, both parents show a trend toward a more male pattern of brain activity when measured using MRI.
Consider that in the late 1950s, less than 2 percent of undergraduates at MIT (a university that caters to people with good systemizing skills) were women. Today female enrollment has jumped to 50 percent. This microcosm is just one example of how society has changed in ways that would bring strong systemizers into greater proximity. Over the same period, air travel has also meant far greater opportunities for people from widely differing backgrounds to meet, possibly brought together by their common interest in systems. Finally, over this same timeframe, individuals who are systemizers have enjoyed new employment opportunities as the result of the digital revolution. Where 50 years ago a strong systemizer might have found a job as an accountant, today every workplace needs computer-savvy employees, and the financial rewards for good systemizing skills can be immense.

Leave a Reply