Book Review: The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention
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“Al” was a weird dude, Simon Baron-Cohen explains in the opening chapter of The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention.
When “Al” finally talked at age four, he asked a lot of questions. He chanted the same poem over and over. When his mom finally pulled him out of school, because the teachers were frequently annoyed by him, he conducted science experiments in his basement constantly. He read books in order on a shelf. He became obsessed with Morse Code. As an adult, he formed few human relationships and worked on his various inventions for 18 hours a day without the benefit of a shower.
Who is this mysterious “Al?” It’s Thomas Edison, Baron-Cohen triumphantly reveals, and compares Al with his gifts and weirdness to a young man with a form of high functioning autism. While Edison was a highly successful person, who brought great inventions to the human kind, this young man with autism is unemployed and unappreciated.
There are two dominant types of cognition, says Baron-Cohen. The first is the Systemizing Brain that looks for patterns everywhere. The other type of brain is the Empathetic Brain that is more tuned into human emotions. Baron-Cohen says that everybody is somewhere on the spectrum between those brain types with autistic people on the far end of the systemizing brain. (Take the quiz in the image above.) This systemizing brain, he maintains, is the root of all human scientific accomplishment, since some caveman decided to amp-up his spear with a bow thousands of years ago.
Clearly, I have an empathetic brain type, because I have little interest in classifying different brain types with Baron-Cohen’s typology or other popular variants. Baron-Cohen doesn’t offer any evidence that there are two brain types — why only two? why not twelve? He also gets all caught up in some History Channel-style anthropology that is amusing, but not terribly convincing.
Smart guys in history, who are semi-autistic or full-on autistic, is a well-worn narrative of the autism industry. And frankly, once you have a family member with autism, it really changes your ideas about normality. Just after Ian got diagnosed, I was like that kid from the Sixth Sense who said that he saw dead people — I saw autistic people everywhere. Around that time, in the mid-2000s, I was teaching a class on political theory and realized that St. Thomas Aquinas, “The Dumb Ox” sounded like a typical Asperger’s person.
As part of my crash course on autism during those early years of panic and awe, I picked up two books by the economist, Thomas Sowell — “Late-Talking Children” and “The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late.” Sowell argued that kids like his son, who talked late weren’t actually autistic, which he describes as a severe condition marked by low intellect. Rather than autistic, kids like his son were just very smart. Sowell then did a survey of parents of autistic kids and found that these families frequently had family members with occupations in engineering and accounting.
Baron-Cohen makes that same observation about the children of engineers and accountants, but comes to a different conclusion. He says those late talking kids that Sowell identified as super smart/normal, were actually autistic. In the past twenty years, we’ve come to define autism in broader, and in more positive terms, so that even the misfits at Cornell and MIT meet the autism criterion.
How many of those math nerd-types are actually autistic? Baron-Cohen explains that he tried to nail down the autism rate among the children of MIT alumni, but the college administrators shut his efforts to do a formal survey. They thought if he found more autistic kids from MIT matings, it would give the college a bad reputation. I would love to see an MIT t-shirt that said “No Autism Here!”
While I may be a skeptic of brain typologies and one who has read too many “Famous People in History With Autism” articles (there’s even a wikipedia page), I do appreciate Baron-Cohen’s efforts to have autism normalized and appreciated, which isn’t always easy given the politics within the autistic community.
There are two camps in the autism world. Parents of kids with autism with intellectual and severe behavioral issues have no patience for “Oh, Look At Their Gifts!” school of autism. They’re like, “My kid just smeared poop on the wall, so don’t talk to me about Bill Gates and his autism.”
While people whose autistic kids have an average to superior intelligence have a different agenda. They are freaked out because their kids, despite their gifts, aren’t finding jobs and aren’t being helped at school. They are upset that teachers, who are empathic brain-types, don’t appreciate their kids’ gifts and aren’t developing their weaknesses either. They need the world to be more rah-rah autism, while the other side wants more money for social supports.
My kid, who has had dozens of IQ tests and other assessments over the years, does have a classic systemizing brain. He scores somewhere between the 92-99th percentile on pattern recognition IQ tests, but in the bottom tenth for conversational and social skills. He taught himself to read at three. He looked at the multiple table once and just knew it. I showed him the first three notes on a page of music, and by the end of the week, he figured out the rest of the notes and was composing his own music on Garage Band.
However, we don’t trust him to get a job in a supermarket, because he’ll be rude to the customers. He’s going to graduate from school in a few months, and rather than watch him fail at college and the job market like other smart autistic kids, we’re going to keep in the public schools for another two years, where they’ll work on his social skills. It’s very tricky to be gifted and disabled at the same time.
As these math and science-types increasingly congregate in tech corridors and make babies together, Baron-Cohen predicts that we are going to see more and more autistic children. He said we need to figure out a world that serves those kids.
Baron-Cohen’s book adds to the growing literature that calls for a greater appreciation of human differences and for changes in how schools and the work world respond to the needs of these unusual, but talented folks. Some people can make you laugh and inspire warm feelings. Other people leave you cold, but can unclog your dishwasher. We need all those types in the world.
12 thoughts on “Seeking the Patterns Amidst the Pattern-Seekers, Book Review”
I do feel that the current diagnostic practice (it does keep changing) of classing a whole range of neuro-diverse behaviors in Autism Spectrum Disorder – doesn’t do anyone many favours.
Kids at different places on the Spectrum need very different supports and services (as do their parents).
And the education system is just not set up to help individual children be the best they can be (whatever that ‘best’ might be).
I also agree that we need the people with poor social skills, but who can diagnose the fault in your car, or washing machine – due to their encyclopedic knowledge. However, I’m seeing that more and more trades are emphasising social aspects over technical ones – especially in training/qualifications – as well as inflating the qualifications required for entry.
It seems to me that we’ve gone down the wrong pathway somewhere.
“Just after Ian got diagnosed, I was like that kid from the Sixth Sense who said that he saw dead people — I saw autistic people everywhere.”
I’m kind of like that about ADHD women right now–I see them everywhere.
“They thought if he found more autistic kids from MIT matings, it would give the college a bad reputation.”
That’s hilarious and terrible.
“My kid, who has had dozens of IQ tests and other assessments over the years, does have a classic systemizing brain. He scores somewhere between the 92-99th percentile on pattern recognition IQ tests, but in the bottom tenth for conversational and social skills.”
My oldest absolutely crushes Set.
” little interest in classifying different brain types with Baron-Cohen’s typology or other popular variants. Baron-Cohen doesn’t offer any evidence that there are two brain types — why only two? why not twelve?”
There are two kinds of people in this world – those who think there are two types of people and those who don’t.
I score 9 on systematizing, 4 on empathy. So at least my psychological gender matches my sex assigned at birth, or something. But I don’t see why these are two exhaustive types, rather than 2 of the many dimensions on which people can differ. Why can’t a person score high on both scales, or low?
Megan McArdle (I think it was she) wrote once about the mistaken belief in some sort of general law of compensation, that people who are good at one thing must be bad at something else, and vice versa. The fact is, there’s no reason that the captain of the football team can’t also be first in the class and handsome and good with girls and end up a billionaire. I think that some highly successful people would score high on both these scales.
“Clearly, I have an empathetic brain type, because I have little interest in classifying different brain types with Baron-Cohen’s typology or other popular variants. Baron-Cohen doesn’t offer any evidence that there are two brain types — why only two? why not twelve?” Though you might have an empathetic brain, I wouldn’t rule out having a systematizing brain, too, since, you, unlike Baron-Cohen, can count higher than 2. Or, alternatively, one could propose that being a super successful pop-science writer is improved if you pretend you can’t count higher than two.
I’ve interacted with Baron-Cohen over research (specifically, on face recognition in newborns and whether there is a gender difference, because sloppy gender science is also in Baron-Cohen’s bailiwick). I was deeply unimpressed with the quality of the science and that’s reflected in the simplistic, black/white description you’re passing on from this book.
Also, though MIT might not have facilitated pseudoscience surveys I’d guess institutional review boards for research would humans might have more to do with it than the concern that MIT has too many scientists who are systemizers.
I scored quite high on both. But I definitely feel that the ability to, or tendency to, systematize in non-autistic people is a mental feature that can be learned/encouraged by the home environment, while the tendency to be empathetic is more inborn (although of course watching empathetic adults while you’re young might open you up to the possibility).
Just read the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism interview of Simon Baron-Cohen and though I stand by my issues with his science, I do think that he is raising awareness and consideration of the variety and complexity and contributions and needs of people with autism.
To play devil’s advocate, all the common IQ tests do distinguish between verbal intelligence vs. non-verbal intelligence, so there is some common agreement that people do have two different sorts of brains. But whatever….
According to Baron-Cohen’s test, I am like a 0 on the systemizer brain-types. I have no interest in train, planes, or weather patterns. I can’t say that I have ever thought for a second about how a plane is flying when I’m on one. I’m thinking about a million other things, but not aerodynamics.
What I do systemize really well are people. For example, a news outlet asked me to help them come up with some ideas about angles for a special ed during COVID article. They had no idea of what I should ask, and I didn’t either. So, I talked to a bunch of people and asked them very broad questions, like “how’s it going right now?” After I talked to a bunch of people, I compared their answers and looked for commonalities. That’s pretty much what I did as an academic and policy researcher, too. I’m a social scientist, so I look for patterns in human behavior. I have to have an empathetic personality to gain trust and have people tell me their life stories. I have to know what follow up questions to ask. Typically, I’m on the phone chatting for an hour. So, I have no idea what that means.
Steve is, however, super interested in trains and planes. He’s gotten good at working with people, because he manages a staff of people at his bank. IDK. I think that this test is kinda like a Ouiji board. We find what we want to find in it.
If autism has its five minutes of attention in the media, that’s a good thing for Ian. If Pop science gets people’s attention, then it’s fine by me.
“To play devil’s advocate, all the common IQ tests do distinguish between verbal intelligence vs. non-verbal intelligence”
I’m most familiar with the Wechsler IQ test, and, indeed the WISC is designed to distinguish between different kinds of cognitive skills. Wechsler designates 4 indexes (Verbal Comprehension, Perceptual reasoning, Working Memory, and Processing Speed), based on subtests that are designed to distinguish among the different cognitive skills. But, even designed with the goal of separating the different forms of “intelligence”, the individual subtests are still interrelated. There is no “pure” Verbal or Perceptual reasoning test and people can score well on all of them or a subset
And, I don’t think there’s any significant evidence that Baron-Cohens SQ-C and EQ-C are anti-correlated (In this paper, examined in children in children, they were uncorrelated (r=0.086, p=0.37): https://www.nature.com/articles/srep23011).
In Baron-Cohen’s characterization there’s a “two kinds” of people (systemizers/empathizers) implication which I find suspect. They may be independent skills and people who are good at both will be rarer (like it’s less likely for two coins to turn up heads than there to be one head and one tail).
Why do I care? Because I’m a systemizer? Or because the brain is actually my field of study? There might be ways in which the brain doing one task well might trade off with doing another task well (an example, whether light detecting cells in the eye pool information over space as to increase their sensitivity to even some light or pool over less space allowing greater accuracy of location with a tradeoff in sensitivity). But I don’t think there’s currently any evidence that empathy & systemizing trade off. It is far more likely that certain social pressures and job qualifications chose people who either have (or have developed) one skill more than the other.
And, we are, as I’ve said before, living in a world where we are more and more demanding that people have all of the qualities we want, win the lottery in every category of skill.
bj said, “And, we are, as I’ve said before, living in a world where we are more and more demanding that people have all of the qualities we want, win the lottery in every category of skill.”
But maybe not at the very top.
We were watching The Social Network a couple months ago, and man, Zuckerberg is presented as having very low emotional IQ.
My son came out slower on processing speed than other stuff, which probably explains why he never does things until I’ve told him four times.
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