An opinion piece in the Dominion Post, a New Zealand newspaper, recently put forth Simon Baron-Cohen’s theory that children with autism are the result of “geeks” having children together (http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/comment/6044577/Scientists-baffled-at-rise-in-autism). Citing a San Francisco psychologist, it was suggested that “a lot of geeks do not make eye contact… and they don’t have a lot of social understanding.” Difficulties with social skills is an integral part of autism. The author went on to say that most children with autism are a “problem” who are often dependent into their adulthood, but that some people with autism have particular talents, such as being able to multiply large numbers, draw in extreme detail, and having great visual acuity. He then suggested that somewhere in the middle are a group of people with autism who are “adept at spotting recurring patterns in large sets of data and don’t forget things,” making such individuals perfect for work in information technology and engineering. The author concludes by saying that the incidence of autism has increased greatly over the last few decades and that “older parenting accounts for some of the rise (in rates of autism).” He goes on to state that “changing diagnostic criteria and greater awareness of the condition account for more of the increase but nearly 50 percent of the rise remains unexplained.”
Many people commenting on this article were offended by the way both people with autism and “geeks” were written about in this piece. There are also several factual inaccuracies. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen’s (professor at Cambridge University and the Director of Autism Research Centre) actual theory is not that “geeks’” reproduce and are more likely to have autism. Rather, he suggests that some people are more likely to have highly systematic minds, meaning that they can easily see, and prefer, patterns and rules (Baron-Cohen, 2006). Thus, when two highly systematic people have children, their offspring are likely to be even more systematic. This is linked by Baron-Cohen to autism because people with autism often have an interest in patterns, predictability, prefer routines, and have difficulty with highly unpredictable situations, including social interactions. However, this is just a theory at this stage and requires further research to be substantiated. The author’s suggestion that people with autism have greater visual acuity was also incorrect. Although Ashwin and colleagues’ (2009) research suggested that this was the case, a replication of the study conducted this year showed otherwise (Tavassoli et al., 2011). Finally,the article claimed that the rise in autism was partially explained by people having children at an older age. Research that has suggested that older parents might be more likely to have a child with autism (e.g. Croen, Najjar, Fireman, and Grether’s, 2007) has been flawed. For example, this study was historical, meaning it just looked back for correlations between the age of parents and who had a child with autism. This is in no way controlled and a correlation does not mean that the age of parents caused autism. The rates of autism in this study were also much larger than the rates in the general population, which seems strange and gives reason to think that indeed there may well be something else going on aside from the age of the parents. So again, further research is required before this could be stated as fact.
The way in which the author of the piece talks about the lives of people with autism is offensive to many. It is true that people with autism face difficulties associated with the condition, often involving communication, social interaction, and repetitive and routined behaviours. However, having autism does not equate to being a “problem” and being forever dependent. And while it is also true that some people with autism display special talents, people with autism should not be stereotyped as excelling at work that others might find repetitive and boring. Individuals with autism are just that; individuals. Each person has different strengths and weaknesses. People with autism also have the ability to learn more skills to help them in the areas that they find difficult. For many children with autism, applied behaviour analysis (ABA) has been shown to be an effective means of teaching skills involving language, social functioning, and learning how to cope in this unpredictable world.
If you have questions about this article or ABA treatment, please feel free to contact the author here:
Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD)
72 Apollo Drive, Albany
PO Box 30-519, Trition Plaza
Auckland, New Zealand
Phone (09) 419 5025
Ashwin, Ashwin, Rhydderch, Howells, & Baron- Cohen. (2009). Eagle-Eyed Visual Acuity: An Experimental Investigation of Enhanced Perception in Autism . Biological Psychiatry, 65 (1), 17-21.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2006). The hyper-systemizing, assortative mating theory of autism. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry 30, 865–872.
Croen, Najjar, Fireman, & Grether. (2007). Maternal and paternal age and risk of autism spectrum disorders, 161(4), 334-340.
Tavassoli, Latham, Bach, Dakin, & Baron-Cohen (2011). Psychophysical measures of visual acuity in autism spectrum conditions . Vision Research, 51(15), 1778-1780.