Seeking the Patterns Amidst the Pattern-Seekers, Book Review

Book Review: The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention

From Newsletter, Subscribe there.

“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.