Sunday, 25 September 2011

Autism and the Engineer's Brain

The August 29, 2011 issue of Time magazine had an article "Could new marriage patterns explain autism?" I was intrigued, and read it with interest. The full article is only available to subscribers, but a summary can be found here.

The theory is that a certain type of autism (i.e., Asperger's syndrome) is remarkably similar to the normal functioning of an engineer's brain. Quite aside from the ribbing that engineers are likely to receive from their spouses and others thanks to this theory, there is a serious implication to this.

In the late 1990s, [researcher Simon Baron-Cohen had] come to believe that a common cognitive profile — a tendency toward what he called systemizing (focusing on systems and how they work), combined with noted deficits in empathy, or the ability to read and relate to others — existed both in people with autism and, to a much lesser extent, in many of their relatives. He'd begun to theorize that this sort of brain type would be common in any population that brought people with very strong math, science and tech skills to cluster together — and to think that if these high systemizers were choosing one another as mates, they might be particularly likely to have autistic children.

The article goes on to describe research from the Netherlands, where a survey of schoolchildren from three similar regions (i.e., similar by area and socioeconomic profile) - Eindhoven, Haarlem and Utrecht - showed that two to four times as many children in Eindhoven had been diagnosed with autism compared to the other two regions. Eindhoven is known as the Dutch Silicon Valley and has a higher concentration of IT workers and engineers compared to the others.

The article also says the change in marriage patterns (i.e., more marriages between engineer types) does not adequately account for the rise in cases of autism, so one shouldn't rush to conclusions here. However, this could be one of the factors responsible.

The article prompted me to think about myself anew. I'm comfortable with the way I think, because that has always been me, but the article was a bit of a jolt. Did I have a brain that was "normal" for an engineer but also autistic to some degree? The prospect was a bit chilling, because it implied that had I married another engineer, our children, with reinforcing traits from both parents, could very likely have been autistic. As it happened, my wife turned out to be an accountant with a brain that functions (exasperatingly to me) totally unlike that of an engineer! Our son was assessed as moderately gifted but not autistic. Of course, I also derive lots of pleasure from interacting with people, so perhaps I myself have balancing traits. I believe this is referred to in the literature as a "strong female brain" (though why they don't call it a "sensitive male brain" is beyond me).

I began to see myself a bit differently after reading that article. For instance, I have always had a breakfast of eggs and toast in the same way for many years (the routine is itself a telltale sign, I guess). I watched myself recently as an impartial observer as I went about fixing this breakfast, and I realised that "normal" people would go about it very differently. The many steps along the way are probably undertaken unthinkingly by normal people, but to me, they represented problems that had certain solutions that were superior to others. I had to find the "best" solution to each of these problems before I could have a satisfactory breakfast.

Here are three of the "problems" I identified when fixing myself a breakfast of fried eggs on toast. I wonder how many people can identify with this kind of thinking.

Problem 1: How to take two eggs out of a box of twelve

To most people, this is not a "problem". Just take any two eggs out of it and put the box back in the fridge! But this was a serious issue to me. I thought about it in many ways before arriving at the "correct" solution. If someone else takes eggs out of the box anytime in-between, I have to rearrange them to get them back to a "correct" configuration, and I absolutely hate it if an odd number of eggs is left in the box.



Problem 2: How to place a fried egg on a slice of bread

This is a fiendish problem! There is no clean way to place something circular (infuriatingly, not perfectly circular!) onto something square without bits sticking out. But I did find a solution to that, too.

Problem 3: How to apply ketchup to a sandwich

After getting the eggs out of the box correctly and placing the fried egg on the bread equally elegantly, it's time to add ketchup. This is another hard problem, and the many solutions I tried were all unsatisfactory. Finally, I hit upon one. This is not symmetrical (which bugs me a little), but it has characteristics of uniformity on average. I'm pragmatic enough to settle for a "good enough" solution.

This is what I have been doing for years, and this is perfectly natural to me. I solved all of these problems years ago and I enjoy the satisfaction of an elegantly and "correctly" prepared breakfast every morning.

But then I read the article on autism and saw myself doing all this, and I thought to myself, "Oh...my...God!"

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