In “Scientists and autism: When geeks meet” (Nature, 2 November 2011), Lizzie Buchen looks at Simon Baron-Cohen’s claim, re autism, that it’s in the genes, in the sense that “ scientists and engineers could be more likely to have a child with autism.” In the jazzy popular version, famous geeks are “on the autism spectrum.” There are lots of reasons for wanting to derail this train, right from
The notion has an intuitive plausibility. In the public mind, it meshes with the stereotype of the scientist or computer geek as smart but socially awkward. (Baron-Cohen has speculated that luminaries such as Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton had Asperger’s syndrome.)
In other words, it caters to existing popular prejudices. Always a bad sign. Real autism is a serious, sometimes catastrophic, developmental disorder, not a party game for people who always knew that there was “something wrong with” high achievers.
But critics of Baron-Cohen’s theories aren’t hard to find. Autism researchers say that his work has focused primarily on a subset of people with ‘high-functioning’ autism — such as Asperger’s syndrome — who have good language capabilities and at-least average intelligence. They say that the data are insufficient to support his theories and that many experiments cry out for independent replication.
When researchers get around to trying independent replication, they might also try to impose some discipline on the classifications: The difference between Deep Geek, whose laptop is his life, and the five year old who cannot speak, dress, or toilet himself is qualitative as well as quantitative. One suspects that Deep Geek’s frustrated ex-girlfriends have encouraged the notion that it is all just a spectrum, not a chasm …
Meanwhile, it doesn’t help that
Some critics are also rankled by Baron-Cohen’s history of headline-grabbing theories — particularly one that autism is an ‘extreme male’ brain state.
This sort of theory also has a dishonorable history in “evolutionary” psychology: Supposedly, natural selection conserved the trait because it was useful. Oh, and did you know, atheism is linked to autism?
There. See what we mean? Just now we can’t quite put our hands on the paper that says autism is also linked to smoking and to lack of support for green causes and social justice candidates; someone must have borrowed that file …
Constantino is testing related ideas. He has developed the ‘social responsiveness scale’ — a questionnaire to measure autistic-like traits in the general population. He found hints that parents with more autistic-like traits tend to partner with each other, and that when they do, their children have even more of those traits than their parents Those children, however, are not more likely to be diagnosed with autism What is needed now, Constantino says, is a large study that determines whether having two parents with autistic-like traits is more common among people with autism than in the general population. “Those are the kind of data one needs,” he says, “rather than to infer, from an epidemiological cluster in a place where people tend to be a little nerdier, that that’s why you’ve got more autism there.”
We don’t necessarily know that we do have more autism in those places. We may have more people who can afford diagnostic labels than would be the case in a decaying rust belt town from which the kids’ doc who used to do that stuff relocated years ago.
Meanwhile, meet the big losers:
On the other hand, she says, “a large number of children with autism have significant intellectual disabilities and no speech. For their parents to be surrounded by people spotting all these famous people and saying they have autism, it must be absolutely infuriating.”
This is what goes wrong when the chattering classes suddenly decide they’re “pro science.” While they are busy labelling their current fads n’ mads as “science,” real science – attempting to address profound development delay – gets drowned out.
“You know, Mavis, I really think Steve Jobs was an autist too. I was reading in Brainfuzz the other day that … and it just so reminded me of my ex-nerd, I mean, more and more, science is showing that … ”
If only they would all just be “anti-science” for a while … ,
Earth to chattering classes: El Geeko’s ex-girlfriends do NOT have the same problem as the single mom who is wondering what to do with her asocial fourteen-year-old who cannot physically care for himself, is now bigger than her, and is subject to inexplicable violent rages. That’s where science (please, not more “science”) must step up to the plate.
Here’s a kid with moderate autism – and a sensible uncle:
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