Saturday, May 21, 2011

Math, Science and Autism

The link between autism spectrum and scientific talent seems to be as controversial as ever. I recommend this article to Lee, Arun, and Wolfgang particularly. Some excerpts:

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen has spent much of his career championing the positive side of autism. His most recent finding, to be published shortly in the Journal of Human Nature, is that talented mathematicians are at least twice as likely as the general population to have the condition. He also found, by comparing maths undergraduates at Cambridge University with undergraduates of other disciplines (law, medicine), that mathematicians are more likely than students of other subjects to have a sibling or parent with autism.

That, he says, points to genetics: his theory is that there is a group of genes that codes for both mathematical ability and autism. “This association between maths and autism keeps cropping up,” he says. Finding these maths genes could be a milestone on the way to finding the genes associated with autism. He would now like to recruit Times readers to help him find these genes. He has DNA from people who are good at maths but he would now like to be contacted by readers who are good at English but have always been numerically challenged.

Baron-Cohen has previously found that autism is much more common among engineers than in the general population. It is no coincidence: mathematics and engineering are very ordered, rigorous disciplines in which there is usually a right answer.

In Baron-Cohen’s framework, they are “systemising” disciplines as opposed to “empathising” disciplines such as counselling. Autism arises, he says, when our capacity for empathising is impaired, but our capacity to systemise is intact or even enhanced. This leads to the popular “Rain Man” notion of autism, in which individuals cannot “read” others but show striking intellect in other ways, such as mathematical ability, musical talent or artistic flair. They may also be able to recite calendrical facts, railway timetables or remember details with photographical precision.

Baron-Cohen is not some fringe nut. He is a University of Cambridge Professor and has more than 250 peer reviewed publications, with well over 10,000 citations.