Exploring the Links Between Autism and Invention


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Simon Baron-Cohen is a professor in the departments of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, where he directs the Autism Research Center. He is the author of a new book, The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention, which makes the case that the same genes that give rise to autism are and have been crucial to humanity’s propensity to invent and innovate. He recently joined Scott Barry Kaufman—psychologist and author of Transcend and Wired to Create, among other books—on Kaufman’s The Psychology Podcast for a conversation about The Pattern Seekers. 

Below, I’ve selected several lightly edited excerpts of their recent conversation, which began with how Baron-Cohen’s thinking on autism has evolved over the past three decades. They then explore the thesis of his new book, on the origins of human invention and the link to autism. They close by imagining how society might better acknowledge and incorporate the qualities of autisitc people. You can find the full recording of their conversation at the outlets listed here, or watch their conversation here.

—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

Scott Barry Kaufman: I’d like to start this conversation on what you see as some of the biggest core aspects of the evolution of your thinking about [autism], from when you first started studying it to now?

Simon Baron-Cohen: The big change over the 30 to 35 years that I’ve been involved in autism research is that the field used to focus on the deficits that autistic people have. Which is maybe no surprise, because that’s part of how the diagnosis is made. Autistic people struggle with social skills, with communication, with adjusting to unexpected change.

A lot of the research back then was just focused on the social difficulties. What’s changed is that we’re realizing autism is more than just a disability. The second half of my career, as it were, has focused more on the strengths, on the positive aspects of autism—not just focusing on what people with autism find difficult but what they might do even better than the rest of us.

Within our changing understanding of their social deficits, let’s double-click on that before we get to talent and creativity, because the more that I dig into that literature, I see that a lot of autistic individuals have a lot greater motivation to connect and to make friends and meet than maybe they were given credit for in the past. [I’m also curious about] the difference between cognitive and affective empathy. How has your thinking in terms of the social realm changed over the years?

It’s a myth or a stereotype that autistic people don’t want to socialize. (That may be true of some and we should be careful not to generalize.) I’ve certainly met autistic people who want friends but just have difficulty making friends. Or if they make friends, maybe have difficulty keeping friends. So the motivation might well be there. 

But you raise this question about empathy. One old view was that autistic people struggle with some aspect of empathy. But what I think what we now know is they don’t struggle with all of empathy. 

Empathy is this umbrella concept, and within empathy we can distinguish at least two components, cognitive and affective. The cognitive part is being able to imagine someone else’s thoughts and feelings. It’s the recognition part. Iit does involve a leap of imagination, because we can’t directly see what someone is thinking or feeling. The affective part is having an emotional response to someone else’s thoughts and feelings. It’s more the response element. 

One old view was that autistic people struggle with some aspect of empathy. But what I think what we now know is they don’t struggle with all of empathy.

When it comes to autistic people, they seem to have more difficulty with the first kind of empathy, the cognitive empathy. Maybe it’s because they like facts and precision, and when you’re trying to imagine another person’s thoughts and feelings, we don’t have a lot of facts to go on. That’s why we have to be willing to make that leap of imagination. 

But they don’t seem to struggle with the affective part of empathy. If you tell an autistic person, “Scott is feeling really sad, because he just had a recent loss,” an autistic person, just like anyone else, will feel bad about that and want to step in and try to help or to give comfort. They have the appropriate emotions once they know the information. But it’s getting the information about what someone is thinking or feeling that they struggle with.

The main thesis of your new book, The Pattern Seekers, is that the genes for autism perhaps drove the evolution of human invention. Going back 70,000 or 80,000 years, there’s this big bang of cultural explosion in humanity that has been not fully explained yet. People have their different theories about what it was. I’d love to hear your thinking on how perhaps the genes for systemizing and autism might have played a role there.

I think it’s uniquely human, the capacity for invention and autism. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like there should be a link. Autism, as we’ve been describing, is traditionally viewed as a disability. Invention is almost like the crowning achievement of our species. If you look around the planet, what characterizes Homo sapiens seems to be our unstoppable capacity for invention. 

My book, first of all, addresses what is invention. What do we mean by invention? I take as my starting point the archaeological record. When do we see the first signs of invention? Before Homo sapiens, there was Homo habilis, Homo erectus, even the Neanderthals. They were using stone tools—do those things count as invention? We could argue about whether those are inventions, but they seem to be quite limited.

Then around 100,000 years ago to 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens is on the scene, and we see this explosion of new inventions. To give you a couple of examples: 70,000 years ago, we see the bow and arrow, which I argue is a complex tool, not a simple one. We see other amazing things like the first jewelry, which was a necklace of bead shells, and the first musical instrument, which was a flute made out of a hollow bone. 

I argue that there was a new circuit in the brain, which I call the systemizing mechanism, that allowed us to look for these new patterns in the world. I call them if-and-then patterns. 

In each of these cases, you can see a particular logic that must have been in the minds of the person who invented it. I argue that there was a new circuit in the brain, which I call the systemizing mechanism, that allowed us to look for these new patterns in the world. I call them if-and-then patterns.

If we take the inventor of the bow and arrow, they would have been thinking, “If I attach an arrow to a stretchy fiber and I release the tension in the fiber, then the arrow will fly.” If we take this first musical instrument, the inventor would have been thinking, “If I blow down this hollow bone and I cover one hole, then I get a particular note. But if I blow down the bone and uncover the hole, then I get a different note.”

What we’re basically seeing is human beings experimenting, using this if-and-then logic. My thesis is that this derived from a new mechanism in the brain. No other species has got this kind of capacity for looking for these logical patterns, if-and-then patterns. I call it generative invention. We don’t just invent once, we’re generating nonstop. 

Connect the dots between that and autism.

Autistic people, when you give them little tests of this if-and-then reasoning, score above average. We’ve got a questionnaire to measure what’s called the systemizing quotient. It asks, How interested are you in how things are made? How interested are you in taking things apart to see what the components are in a system? How interested are you in numbers or in musical patterns? Or in patterns of the weather?

Autistic people score much higher on those questionnaires, and so do people who work in STEM, in science, technology, engineering, and math. There are these little clues that autistic people may think in very similar ways, that they’re systemizing mechanism may be tuned to a higher level. They’re seeing these patterns much more than other people are, they’re looking for them. They’re playing with the patterns. And they’re doing this at an above average level.

I’ve been ensconced in the creativity literature for 20 years or so. It’s not so much focused on pattern recognition ability. I like that you’re bringing this into the discussion of invention and creativity. And not only bringing it in, but you’re saying it may have been the main driving force of human invention.

[In our study of over 600,000 people, including 36,000 autistic people,] we were basically able to categorize the whole population into five types of brain. Some people score much higher in systemizing than they do on empathy. We call that Type S. And other people have the reverse profile, they score much higher on empathy than they do on systemizing, so we call that Type E. Each of those brain types is about 30 percent of the population. And then there’s a middle group who are equally good at systemizing and seeing these patterns as they are reading other people’s thoughts and feelings. So we call them Type B, for balanced, and that’s another 30 percent. 

Then we have people who are at the extremes. So an extreme of Type S is someone who sees patterns all the time. They’re always looking for these patterns, and playing with them, experimenting with them. But their empathy may just be average or below average. That’s why we see a lot of autistic people, but also that’s why we see people in the world of STEM. There’s this overlap between people who are inventors and autistic people. 

The big surprise for us was when we collected DNA. Working with the company 23andMe, we found that the common genetic variants associated with scoring high on systemizing overlap to some extent with the common genetic variants associated with autism. Even at the molecular level, not just at the cognitive level, we were seeing an overlap between autistic people and people who invent.

And what are the genes? What do the genes code for, do you know?

These genes are called single nucleotide polymorphisms. These are genes that might be anywhere in the genome, but which come in different versions, so we might be carrying slightly different versions of the gene, or the alleles. Each of these polymorphisms, or common genetic variants, has a tiny effect on behavior, which is why you need large population studies to see how they’re working in combination. There isn’t a quick answer to say, look on chromosome seven, because there are hundreds or even thousands of these things. It’s about whether you carry a particular combination. What we found was that the particular combination that hypersystemizers carry overlaps. It’s not a complete overlap—there was about 26 percent overlap with the combination that autistic people carry. 

The link with autism suggests that maybe we need to rethink autism, that we shouldn’t just see the disability. The genes that make them autistic are also the genes that have allowed human progress.

The fact that we find any association with genetics and pattern recognition is quite important, because it’s telling us that natural selection may have shaped people to either be better or be worse at pattern recognition. There may have been some advantages to a person who could see these patterns more quickly and build new systems. The link with autism suggests that maybe we need to rethink autism, that we shouldn’t just see the disability. The genes that make them autistic are also the genes that have allowed human progress.

Beautiful. So the natural next question is, why don’t monkeys skateboard? [Laughs]

This is the title of a chapter in my book and I’m curious—when you look around at other species, we just don’t see them experimenting. Skateboarding is a great example of experimenting. If you watch kids out in the street, it might irritate you that they’re skating up and down a ramp, and doing it for hours and hours, and they’re trying to perfect a particular move. 

There are at least 101 different things you can do with a skateboard. We don’t just do one thing with it, we’re always experimenting to see what we can do with it. Kids who go out to do this, they’re not doing it because their parents told them they’ve got to study harder to improve their skateboarding. They’re doing it because they love to experiment. And we just don’t see this in monkeys or apes or in any other species really. What this is shouting out is that other species don’t experiment.

I’m still not clear on—I don’t expect you to have all the answers to all of life’s mysteries figured out—what enabled this ability? Couldn’t one argue that it was the emergence of consciousness to a certain degree or that even language enabled us to have this kind of scientific thinking?

Language would have been of huge benefit—if we could talk to ourselves or talk to other people, we could pass on some of the lessons we’d learned. Or we could do some of this hypothetical thinking through language. I’m struck that there are humans who don’t have language as a result of a stroke. There are autistic people who have very minimal language, but they still can do some of this pattern recognition and playing with patterns to invent, including with music. So I’m not sure that language is a necessary precursor for invention. 

But I guess the other way you could look at this question is, we know that monkeys and apes can see patterns. [Many different species] can use associative learning, to see the relationship between A and B. Using the hammer, A, leads to the outcome, B, which is to get the juice from inside of the nut. But that’s not necessarily going to give you invention, just being able to learn the association between two items. Or even doing that in sequence, because monkeys and birds can often do associative learning across many different steps. They’re pairing lots of associations in a sequence. But that doesn’t add up to this if-and-then logic, which I think is the thing that gives us generative invention.

Where did that come from? How did we get that add on?

I suppose there are two answers to this. One might have been that we’re looking at an abrupt change in the human brain that was almost a quantum leap. The other possibility was that we’re looking at incremental changes. But I don’t think there’s any evidence to settle that debate yet.

You made another really good point in your book. You said, “When we acknowledge the debt we owe autistic people and make our society more inclusive and autism friendly, this will benefit society, lead to innovation, and enable autistic people to lead more fulfilling and successful lives.” I’d love for you to elaborate a little bit on some ways we can make the workplace and even education more autistic friendly. 

If this theory has any merit, then autistic people, right through the last 70,000 to 100,000 years, have been the individuals who have been above average in systemizing, in playing with these if-and-then patterns to come up with new inventions. If we owe them this huge debt when we look at what’s around us today, and then look at their situation today, I personally find it really heartbreaking. 

We published a study back in 2015 looking at suicide rates, or suicidality in autistic adults. What we found was that two-thirds of autistic adults had felt suicidal. One-third had attempted suicide. This is way above the rates you’d see in the general population. If you look at their situation, the majority of autistic adults are unemployed. Despite these talents that we’ve been talking about, they’re not finding jobs, they’re not having that sense of being valued by society. It may be no surprise that the majority of autistic adults have depression and anxiety. 

On the one hand, we’ve got this amazing realization that autistic people have been contributing enormously to human progress. On the other hand, at least with modern society, we seem to have left them out to languish with high levels of suffering. The book is also a call to action, that it’s time for these things to change. We need to redesign the way we hire people, redesign the workplace, redesign the educational settings to make them more autism friendly. 

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to speakingofsuicide.com for a list of additional resources.