Did you know that Borat is related to a top autism researcher?
Turns out Sacha Baron-Cohen isn’t the only famous member of that family! The cousin of the inflammatory actor is one of the most respected autism researchers in the world. Simon Baron-Cohen is the author of several controversial theories about autism and its causes, one of which is that “technical” people such as engineers are more likely to have a child with autism.

Autism: Even in its milder forms, autism limits a person’s ability to form relationships and understand other people’s feelings. In more severe cases, autism is associated with intellectual disabilities and various health problems which require lifelong support. Although it is caused by several interacting factors, there is a strong genetic component to its transmission.

The question: If autism is so crippling, why does it survive? At first glance, you would think that a decreased ability to form relationships would prevent a person from having children and passing on their genes.

The theory: Simon Baron-Cohen proposed that the genes for autism are linked to the genes for the “technical mind.” He observed that people with autism share a love of systems and patterns. As a result, he thought autism could be an extreme form of the characteristics which produce successful engineers and mathematicians. If his theory is right, when two people with “technical minds” get together, their children will get a “double dose” of these genes and therefore be more likely to have autism.

The evidence: Baron-Cohen found that the fathers of autistic children were more than twice as likely to be engineers as the fathers of children with other developmental disorders, and that the grandfathers (maternally and paternally) of autistic children were more than eight times more likely to have been engineers than the grandfathers of children with other developmental disorders. Baron-Cohen took this to mean that the parents and grandparents of autistic children have technical minds. This supported his idea that the genes for autism and technical minds are linked.

Less formally, many people have noticed that places with large IT employers, such as Silicon Valley, seem to have abnormally high rates of autism. Technically minded people move to places like this for work, and meet and marry other technically minded people while they are there. If Baron-Cohen’s theory is correct, it explains the high rates of autism. But first someone has to prove that there actually are higher rates of autism in such places. Although no formal study has been done in Silicon Valley, Baron-Cohen studied the Netherlands equivalent, Eindhoven. This city is home to a renowned technical school which has been called the Dutch M.I.T. and has several large IT employers – in fact, 30 percent of the jobs there are in IT. Compared to neighbouring cities, Eindhoven does indeed have significantly higher rates of autism in its schoolchildren. This suggests that places like Silicon Valley actually do have higher rates of autism, and although we don’t know exactly why yet, Baron-Cohen’s theory fits the situation.

Controversy: Not everyone agrees with Baron-Cohen’s ideas about autism. Some critics think it is too early to make the claims he has, that more research is needed first. They worry that making statements like this now will bias the public against people in “technical” professions such as engineering, which may be damaging especially in the event that the theory is later proven false.

Katherine Christ, Honours Linguistics and Head of Research at Simone Friedman Speech-Language Services.

Source: Baron-Cohen, S. (2012). Autism and the technical mind. Scientific American, November 2012, 72-75.