top of page

Open Mind Event 'The Pattern Seekers' with Simon Baron Cohen

Simon Baron-Cohen, author of the new critically acclaimed book, "Pattern Seekers - How Autism Drives Human Invention". Daniel Geschwind, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Center for Autism Research and Treatment at UCLA joined Simon Baron-Cohen to discuss the groundbreaking argument about the link between autism and ingenuity.


Unknown Speaker 0:00

Hi, thank you for joining us. I'm Vicki Goodman and on behalf of the Friends of the Semel Institute for neuroscience and human behavior at UCLA, and the Resnick, neuropsychiatric hospital board of advisors, it is my pleasure to welcome you to today's open mind program with Simon Baron Cohen, author of the groundbreaking new book, the pattern seekers, how autism drives human invention. We are honored to have Simon Baron Cohen here with us today zooming in from Cambridge in the UK, where he is a professor of psychology and psychiatry, and director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University. Simon Baron Cohen is also the author of 600 scientific articles and numerous books, including the science of evil, the essential difference, understanding other minds and the pattern seekers. He has served as vice president and president of the International Society for autism research, and in 2021 received a knighthood in the New Year's honors list. His numerous TED talks are among the site's most highly viewed. We are also honored to have with us Dr. Daniel Geschwind, Director of the Center for Autism Research and treatment at UCLA Semel Institute, and the Gordon and Virginia McDonald distinguished professor of human genetics, neurology and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine here at UCLA. Dr. Geschwind directs the Geschwind lab, which integrates population genetics, function genomic and bio informatics with basic and clinical neuroscience to advance our understanding of neurologic and psychiatric disease and to accelerate treatment development. We would like to thank both of our scholars for taking the time from their from their extraordinarily busy schedules to join us today. A few quick announcements before we get started, please be sure to visit our website Friends of the Semel to see a calendar of all our exciting open mind programs. We hope you will find many of interest and that if you aren't already a regular open mind attendee, you will start joining our events. A few key dates April 27, film screening and panel discussion of the MTV documentary each and every day about teen mental health and suicide prevention. May 6, our inaugural open mind Film Festival for high school students and may 13 while 2021 our annual fundraising event hosted by Lisa Kudrow. A few housekeeping notes. Today's program is being taped and will be available for viewing tomorrow on our website. There you will also find videos from past open mind programs that you may have missed, so please check it out. Today's program will run for approximately one hour with the last portion reserved for your questions. Please type your questions into the q&a at the bottom of your zoom screen. And we will do our best to get to as many questions as possible during the time allotted. And now please join me in giving a warm zoom. Welcome to Simon Baron Cohen. Thank you.

Unknown Speaker 3:35

Thank you very much, Vicki. I'm delighted to be joining you I wish it was I was there in person. Let me just share my screen. And I hope you can see my slides. So I want to talk to you today about my new book the pattern seekers. And the book seeks to address a big question. Is there a link between autism and invention? I hope to lay out some of the evidence that shows that there is a link. But first, when did invention begin. So we know that our ancestors from at least 2 million years ago could use basic stone tools. Homo habilis and Homo erectus, who both lived about 2 million years ago, could use stones as hammers and made axes and even the Neanderthals who lived as recently as 40,000 years ago. Were using these simple stone tools. And when we look at non human animals who are living today, we also see simple To use. So this chimpanzee is using a rock as a hammer to crack a nut. And you can see that this Chrome is dropping a stone to raise the water level, to be able to reach the juicy bait. I think that both the behavior of our ancestors, and the behavior of these non human animals can be parsimoniously explained in terms of associative learning, that is the ability to make an association between two items A and B. But what's clear is that for this long 2 million year period, we see very little evidence of generative invention, that's to say, being able to invent more than just once, but being able to invent non stop. And then around 70,000 to 100,000 years ago, we see that the rate of invention took off. And suddenly, we see evidence of generative invention, the ability to, to invent and multiple times, in different ways. And I argue along with others that this just because there was a cognitive revolution in the brain. So what was this cognitive revolution? Well, it involves I think, at least two new circuits in the modern human brain. The first of these is the systemising mechanism. So this is a circuit in our brain, which I argue, enabled us to look for special patterns in the world. I call these if and then patterns, that if I take something, and I do something to it, then I get a particular outcome. And what the systemising mechanism allowed us to do for the first time, allowed us uniquely to do as modern humans, was to look for these patterns, to confirm these patterns, through repetition. So that we could see if the patterns hold true. And then to experiment with the patterns, either changing the F, or changing the end, to see if they if we get a new outcome. And if we do that is an invention. And I borrowed this way of thinking this logic, from the logician the 19th century logician George Boole, who you can see here who analyzed the structure of human thought. So what's the evidence? Well, if we go back to the archaeological record, we see that 75,000 years ago, the first piece of jewelry, so our ancestors, were making, in this case, a necklace. And if we put ourselves into the mind of the ancestor who made it, we can see this if and then logic at work, that if I make a hole in each shell, and thread a string through each shell, then the shells will form a necklace. So we see this if and then algorithm in the human brain inventing.

Unknown Speaker 8:31

And 71,000 years ago, we see the first bow and arrow, again, another complex tool, quite unlike what we were seeing in our ancestors before modern humans. But let's look at the logic again, if I attach an arrow to a stretchy fiber, and release the tension, sorry, release the tension in the fiber, then the arrow will fly. And 40,000 years ago, we see the earliest musical instrument that's ever been found. It was a flute made from a hollow bone from a bird. But again, imagine what was going on in the mind of our ancestor who made it that if I blow down this hollow bone, and cover one hole, then I make a particular sound. But if I blow down the hollow bone, and uncover the hole, then it makes a different sound. So our ancestor was not just inventing a new system, a musical instrument, but was also inventing a new system of sounds what we call music. And 40,000 years ago, we see some of the earliest cave paintings 25,000 years ago, we see some of the cultures And if we think about 12,000 years ago, we saw the enormous agricultural revolution, the invention of agriculture. But again, we can see that the systemising mechanism in the brain is capable of inventing in this case agriculture. Because it's using the same if and then logic. If I take a tomato seed, and plant it in moist soil, then I get a tomato plant. And we're still inventing unstoppably today. So we have just invented the vaccine against COVID. And we can see the same algorithm at work that if I take the genes for COVID spike protein, and I put them into a harmless virus, then I have a vaccine against COVID. But let's go back to that early jewelry, that necklace made from shells. Because this also tells us that there was a second new circuit in the human brain, which was the empathy circuit. This systemising mechanism can explain how we made the necklace. But the empathy circuit can explain why we made it. We wear jewelry, because we want we are aware that other people might see us and perceive us in particular ways. We might might want them to think that we are beautiful, I think that we are of high status, or the maker of this jewelry, may have been making it as the gift wanting to please another person. So this is evidence, again, in the archaeological record, that we could not only systemize by seeing systems, but we can also empathize, imagining what other people think, and what they feel. And of course, the empathy circuit gave rise to complex social interaction, including empathy, but also deception, and other forms of complex social interaction, like referential communication. But let's go back to our big question. Is there a link between autism and invention? Well, anecdotally, many of our great inventors had a high level of autistic traits. So this is the young Thomas Edison. And we know him, most famously as the inventor of the first electric light bulb. In fact, he invented unstoppably. He had hundreds of patents to his name. And as a young teenager, he was obsessed with Morse code, a system of patterns. And he even named his first two children, dot and dash. And his wife moved his mattress into his workshop so that he could continue experimenting with patterns all day and all night.

Unknown Speaker 13:21

What about the other way around? Do we see autistic people who have a talent in pattern recognition? Well, again, anecdotally, we do. This is Max Park, who some of you will know he is autistic. But despite his social and communication issues, he is the number one champion in the world at performing the Rubik's Cube, and in competitions, and again, the Rubik's cube is a system of patterns. But anecdotes are not evidence. Let's look at some scientific evidence for a link between autism and the ability to recognize patterns and invent. So we tested 600,000 people in an online study in the general population. And we asked them to take a measure of autistic traits, the autism spectrum quotient. What we found was that those people who work in STEM science, technology, engineering or mathematics had a higher level of autistic traits on average, than those who did not work in STEM. So this was some empirical evidence for a link between autism or at least autistic traits, and the capacity for invention or for understanding systems. We also asked the same 600 times asking people to fill in two other questionnaires, the empathy quotient, the EQ, and the systemising. quotient, the Sq what we found, what we found was that you could divide the population into five brain types. Some individuals lean more towards empathy. Others lean more towards systemising. What we found was that you can see the data on the right here was that more women showed a Type II brain, they they lean more towards empathy that's shown in yellow in the dots on the right. And more males in the population showed a type s brain, they lean more towards systemising. And they're shown in green in this scatterplot. But we also had the opportunity to test 36,000 autistic people. And the majority of them showed a brain of type s towards systemising, or an extreme of type s, and you can see them represented by the red and purple dots in the scatterplot. So again, more evidence that autistic people have a brain that shows an aptitude for understanding systems, the basis for invention. But is this link genetic, we had the opportunity to work with the personal genomics company 23andme, to be able to see whether there was a link even in our DNA between the capacity for systemising and autism, what we found was that the common genetic variants associated with highest scores on the systemizing quotient overlapped significantly with the common genetic variants that are that are associated with autism. So even at the genetic level, we see a link between autism and the capacity to invent.

Unknown Speaker 17:12

So this leads us to a prediction that autism should be more common in places like Silicon Valley, where people who are strong at systems thinking and move to work and start families. Well, as you can hear, I live a long way away from Silicon Valley. So we went to a Silicon Valley closer to Europe. We went to the city of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Eindhoven has the Institute of Technology. They're much like MIT. And Eindhoven also has been home to the Philips factory for over 100 years, attracting people who are good with it with technology to move there to start families, and raise their kids. So we looked at the autism rates in that city compared to two other Dutch cities matched for demographics. This was Utrecht and Harlem. And the results are very clear that the autism rates were more than twice as high in Eindhoven compared to those two other Dutch cities. So again, more evidence for a link between autism and the capacity in the parents for invention. So we've seen some evidence that the genes for autism have driven the human capacity for invention. But how is our society treating autistic people? We know that the majority of autistic people, autistic adults, are unemployed. And they also have poor mental health, likely to be a reflection of insufficient support for their disability. We owe autistic people, a huge debt of gratitude for the role that that genes have played in human progress. And it's time to make a change in society to ensure that autistic people and any group of individuals do not feel excluded from society. And so that their human rights for employment, for education and for participation in society are being met. We can learn a lesson from the Israeli army who who have a special unit who are hiring autistic adults, to look at 1000s of aerial photographs so that they can use The excellent pattern recognition skills to see if there's anything that might be suspicious, a potential sign of a terrorist threat. So this is just one example of how autistic people can be welcomed into the workplace included and can participate, participate and play their role in society. Let me finish with the word neurodiversity. We've seen examples in our big population study, that there is diversity amongst brains in the population. neuro diversity simply means we do not all have the same kind of brain. And Temple Grandin, who is autistic, who many of you will know, says I'm different, but I'm not less. Thank you very much. And I'd like to invite my friend and colleague, Dr. Dan Geschwind to join me for the discussion. Dan.

Unknown Speaker 21:12

Hi, I first before we get into things, I want to thank the friends for inviting Simon, for what I think is going to be a very already has been very stimulating. But we'll be even more stimulating, hopefully, as we get questions from the audience. And I also want to thank Simon, who, when he was invited, said, Oh, you should please invite Dan to come talk with me about this. And so anyway, I want to thank both of you for, you know, for giving me the opportunity. I think, if I can just, you know, frame things from the standpoint of, you know, somebody who thinks a lot about genetics and brain evolution, I think the book makes a very important and strong argument about the fact that different people have different brands and different styles of learning and different ways of thinking, this diversity in thinking and learning styles is extremely important. And is a challenge to societies where we tried to do one size fit all in a lot of different areas. So, you know, if we just back up, I'll start at kind of 30,000 feet at that, at that level. And I think we also have to ask, you know, the question from an evolutionary standpoint, what is genetic risk for mental health disorders in general? And, and, and autism? You know, we haven't inherited risk for these disorders, these disorders at some level, have, you know, and there's a variety, there's a very wide range, we have to acknowledge that it's very heterogeneous, and they're, you know, very distinct forms of, you know, of many of these disorders, but, you know, especially autism. But I guess, you know, one question is, you know, kind of, you know, which I think you're trying to get to, which I know you're trying to get to in this book that I think is very important is kind of reframing of differences and diversity, instead of as diseases and disorders as differences and to make accommodations where we can for this, right.

Unknown Speaker 23:42

I mean, maybe I can just just respond to that point. Because, you know, there's a lot of discussion about whether we should think of autism as a disorder, and certainly in the US. It's widely called Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD, not everyone sort of is comfortable with the term disorder. Sometimes, you know, it's even called a disease. So using a very medical model. Certainly, it's called a disability. And I think, you know, part of what we're discussing today is it's also a difference. So we have these four DS, if you like. And actually, I think probably all of them apply, you know, so there's no question that autism is a disability, that's why they get the diagnosis that you know, that they're struggling. I've shown you some evidence that autistic people have different sorts of minds. So it's a difference. But some aspects clearly are a disorder where where somebody is having symptoms that are causing distress, and even disease, you know, which is effectively a disorder where we know the mechanism and which is causing distress. epilepsy would be one example. gastrointestinal pain. Wouldn't be another. So all you know, there are there are lots of ways in which you can look at autism. But we shouldn't just think of it as a disorder. It's much more than that.

Unknown Speaker 25:10

Right? And, you know, in fact, it kind of fits with the notion that just like everything else in the human body, every other, you know, the brain is an organ. And things fall on a, on a distribution. And, you know, we decide medically, when you're overweight, or when you're, you know, because it and you know, we draw a line somewhere, but we know that it's a continuum. Same thing with blood pressure, blood sugar, etc, if you're above one, you know, number your, you know, but we know that things are continuous, you know, anyways, and that, and then, and then.

Unknown Speaker 25:45

Yeah, the big surprise for us when we did the the population study was that autistic traits are also on a bell curve in the population. So we so we all have some autistic traits. People with a diagnosis shifted over to the right, that they have more than, than other people. But it is a seamless, seamless distribution or continuum.

Unknown Speaker 26:10

Yes. And you know, and that, that, that is basically how how traits work. And in fact, you know, for measuring something that is, you know, that is a value. I think, another interesting thing that I took out of the book that I'd love to get more, you know, and well, that I think fits with things, as you know, is this evolutionary perspective? I'm not sure I agree 100% with it, and we'll get to that in a second exactly what it is. But I think the general framing in this way, is extremely important. For example, you know, why do we have genetic variants that lead to various, you know, that underlie or associated with various things that in our society, we're calling disability, we have to acknowledge that, that certain things, not all of them are, are related to being societal, or psycho educational constructs? And so, you know, why would that persist? In, you know, in human populations, if there weren't advantages over over 1000s and 10s, of 1000s of years, and one of the clues there also comes from recent work in genetics that shows a almost a point three, sharing and correlation between higher educational attainment and risk for autism. Yeah, again, you know, again, there's certain, you know, you know, strengths, you know, obviously, in terms of educational attainment that come with a certain aspect of the common shared genetic risk.

Unknown Speaker 27:44

Yeah. And that was, that's, I think that's being reflected or echoed in the result, I reported of, again, a correlation of almost point three, between scoring high and systemising. Understanding systems, which is likely to be useful in educational attainment, and autism. But this is kind of really talking about common genetic variants. I know, I know that your lab has also looked at rare genetic variants. And we should probably, you know, in order to see the full picture, we should probably talk about both, because in autism, we do see, you know, rare mutations, which, which can have quite a big impact on on learning. So that an individual may not just have autism, but may have general developmental delay, or language delay, I think it's maybe an important distinction for for the audience to appreciate that, you know, or you can have autism, plus or minus developmental delay, you know, autism plus or minus language delay, that many individuals have more than one diagnosis.

Unknown Speaker 29:07

Right, and, and so again, you know, genetic variation is as heterogeneous as human populations and in autism, because Autism is not defined by its etiology. It's not defined by the brain circuits that it is affecting Autism is defined, you know, kind of broadly by, you know, you know, alterations in social behavior and repetitive restrictive behavior. So, it's not surprising that the, that'll be different cognitive styles and people with autism, it's not one thing. And so, you know, my sense is what you're talking about probably describes a certain subset of people with autism, but isn't doesn't explain autism, you know, fully. And so as you point out these rare mutations that occur, actually, even though they're individually rare, they might account for as much as they're predicted to account for as much as 10 To 20% of autism. Yeah.

Unknown Speaker 30:02

And I find that an interesting statistic, because when you look at the prevalence, the epidemiology, the data is now telling us that three quarters of autistic people do not have a learning difficulty. And you and I have both been in the field a long time. We know that that that picture has changed over time. You know, when I started in autism research in the 80s, it was the, it was the exact reverse, you know, the textbooks from Mike Rutter and colleagues, were saying that three quarters of autistic people had a below average IQ. And it's it's flipped dirt flipped around. So, you know, so these rare mutations, rare genetic variants, may be accounting for the smaller fraction of autism, and that the larger fraction, may be more attributable to common genetic variants, which, as you've pointed out, may have been positively selected for an evolution. If we think about the Thomas Edison's of this world, going back over the last 70 to 100,000 years, what they were doing, maybe in a solitary way, experimenting and inventing, and playing with patterns, could have been very positive could have could have had evolutionary advantages.

Unknown Speaker 31:32

Yeah, no, absolutely. And, you know, and certainly, you know, one of the things I think that that kind of struck me as well as I think about, you know, when I think about the if then kind of logic, Boolean logic that you bring up here, it was hard for me to, to fit that in with the notion of thinking in pictures, right, Temple Grandin is framing. And when I've talked with a lot of really, really accomplished folks who have, let's say, a developmental condition, like dyslexia, yeah, we're who were not severely autistic, but what people might call more, you know, with, with normal or high IQ in the Asperger's area, many of them don't, things come to them as holes, rather than as part and the kind of if then is a, you know, see, ya conjures up, you know, a kind of, you know, a part, you know, which is part of how perception is occurring. There's, you know, some evidence for that, but there's another side of it, which is this kind of visualization capability and the ability to see things in a way that other other people are, like, I, I'm just gonna tell one little quick story. Okay. I remember talking with somebody who's a famous person who was at Caltech, who had several children, actually daughters with dyslexia. And he told me that he invented the automated sequencing machine, and he visualized that it wasn't a series of kind of engineering things, he kind of visualized the whole thing almost at once, and can spin it in his mind, etc. And you hear stories like that over and over again, going all the way back to get you lay, you know, when he had the dream about the benzene ring and the snakes? So I'm wondering, are you afraid that?

Unknown Speaker 33:21

Yeah, so, um, first of all, it's not just if then, because there are three little words if and then and the end is very important. So the F is the input into any system, the end is the causal operation, that you that you observe on the input, you know, something happens to the input, and the then is the output. So it's if and then, and I am, I imagine that Temple Grandin, you know, she's very gifted at designing equipment, for farming, especially like humane handling of cattle, there was one particular thing, you know, she would be thinking about the equipment. With this, even if she's thinking in pictures, she has to think about the variables within the system. And the the variables are the if the and, and the them, you know, if you if you think of an autistic kid, who becomes fascinated or obsessed, as we say, with a particular item in the house, it may be the toaster, in the kitchen. And they, they, they become fascinated with how it works, and they want to take it apart. So they can see the hole, but they want to take it apart to understand the components, and then often they reassemble it. And they do the same thing with jigsaw puzzles, they can see the big picture, but they're looking at each piece. You know that if I take this piece of the jigsaw, and I rotate it in this way, then it will fit into the pattern. So I think Thank you In pictures, and this, if and then logic, they're not incompatible. It's just how big things break down into their component parts.

Unknown Speaker 35:14

Yeah, no, that's very interesting. You know, another thought about this is the repetitive behavior part, which you touch on in the book a little bit. And I'm wondering if you, you know, that's, that seems, you know, there's kind of focus and kind of attention to things. And then there is the kind of repetitive behavior and an autism at some level, that kind of severe repetitive motor behavior is generally associated with motor delay, and even larger effect size mutations, and, in some studies have been shown to be associated with the lower IQ. So I'm wondering how you how you kind of, you

Unknown Speaker 35:56

know, you know, so I think so. So for the longest time, repetitive behavior was seen by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists as a very negative thing, you may remember when, when you were training, that, you know, we were taught that we should prevent the child from engaging in repetitive behavior, it just wasn't good for the child. You know, and if you think about different kinds of kids, you know, you've you've met, who are autistic, you know, a child who becomes obsessed with light switches in the house. To me, you know, that could be a sign of intelligent learning, that the child says, if the light switches up, and I turn it to the down position, then the light comes on. And they repeat, and repeat and repeat, in order to try and understand in this case, an electrical system in the house. And that's kind of intelligent, kind of testing the system testing your understanding of, of these FM, then rules. But you're absolutely right that some autistic people show repetition at a more motor level, like rocking back and forth, or stereotypies, where they're twiddling their fingers in the periphery of their vision, or waving a piece of string, repetitively. And often those kinds of more motor repetition is more associated with also having learning difficulties. And so I think it probably is mediated by the individuals, more general intelligence or cognitive function as to whether the repetition is focused on something more abstract. The light switches the electrical system, where if you think about music, or mathematics, it's kind of abstract patterns, or more sensory patterns, like rocking back and forth, mediated probably by IQ.

Unknown Speaker 38:01

You know, that? You know, yeah, to kind of, thank you. That's really helpful. I think, you know, we, the, the, I think we'll have some time for questions in about five minutes, I have a couple more, you know, kind of, you know, one area that's very interesting as well, is kind of motor and sensory hypersensitivity, I mean, I have a biomedical view of, of kind of autism, that is that, you know, there aren't genes that cause autism Autism is is is, like other developmental disorders occurs because of the of a difference in the way the brain is, is developing, with a large effect size mutation, the brain has been kind of knocked off its normal developmental track and can't compensate. But in many cases, right, we, you know, we, you know, we compensate over an enormous amount of environmental perturbation during pregnancy, etc. And so, you know, it seems to me, you know, again, and, and, and just this notion that, you know, we have to recognize that we make, we draw lines in the sand as physicians to make diagnoses of things that are continuous. And there's a very, very wide range and a lot of heterogeneity. And I think that's really, really important to understand. As, as I'm thinking about autism, another piece of your work comes to mind that has to do with synesthesia, which is a absolutely fascinating observation and synesthesia has been related to extraordinary memory. In fact, the really famous Luria book, the mind of the numinous, you know, really, you know, feeds into that narrative. And so I'm I'm thinking about synesthesia. Yeah. You know, and how that. Yeah, you know, I

Unknown Speaker 40:05

agree. So I mean, you've you've, you've touched on a couple of really interesting phenomena. One is the sort of sensory hypersensitivity, which we now We now recognize is, is very common in autism, you know, it was never part of the diagnostic criteria. But now is fortunately, you know, and that could, that could be a product of more neurons in the brain or more connections between neurons in the brain, you know, that the individual is able to, to literally detect more information in the world, because of having more neurons or more neuronal connections. So the sensory differences may reflect, you know, a proliferation of neuronal connections. And you know, that a similar argument has been made for synesthesia, when you get crosstalk between sensory areas, and our workers has shown that synesthesia is more common in autism than in the general population. So there's a lot still for us to understand. But much of it may reduce to the the differences in brain development prenatally. And, you know, we're just beginning to explore the causes of that in breath, genetics, and possibly, prenatal, sex, steroid hormones, and other line of work.

Unknown Speaker 41:40

Yeah, now, thanks. But it is kind of remarkable that synesthesia is, is certainly increased in most people don't recognize that synesthesia is present in about five, four to 5% of the population, many people don't even know they have it, because it's the way that they perceive the world. And nobody's told them not to, but it's it's increased in autism, isn't it around 15% or so?

Unknown Speaker 42:06

Exactly. So you know, the common the common forms of synesthesia include college hearing, where if I'm listening to your voice, I might also be getting a whole series of colors triggered by the sound of each word. And, you know, certainly, you know, there are some center states who are able to use their synesthesia, to, you know, to achieve remarkable cognitive abilities, such as memory. Now, you you mentioned lauriers book, but it's sort of a more recent example, would be Daniel tammet, who's written his own book about his experience, and he's autistic, and has synesthesia. But he memorized the number pi, to 22,400 decimal places. And again, for him, it was a series of numbers as patterns. So kind of links to this thesis about autism as passion seekers, but also his he would, because each number was associated with a color that gave him extra cues for memory.

Unknown Speaker 43:20

Yeah, that's right. And somebody had asked what is, you know, I didn't define what synesthesia was, and I apologize for using that word. It's basically we usually perceive senses one at a time, I smell something, I see something, I hear something those are separate. synesthesia, is when two senses emerge. So that when somebody says something, it actually comes with a color would be Yeah, yeah. And it's like, yeah. So that's just an example of another, you could say strength. Or another difference. That is increased in, in in folks with autism. In general, it's not seen in everybody. Perfect. is another is another bit of that as well. Maybe? comment on that? Yeah.

Unknown Speaker 44:09

So again, my, my reading of the literature is that absolute pitch or perfect pitch, where you can name the notes that you hear, for example, you know, in music is more common in autism than is it is in the general population. And presumably, perfect pitch involves not just very good discrimination between sounds, but also using a different framework, and so called absolute framework, rather than a relative one. So differences in how the brain is processing information.

Unknown Speaker 44:52

Yeah, thanks. Maybe, um, I don't know. I see Wendy is, you know, coming back on maybe we want to open it up for Um, yeah, I saw Wendy and Vicki is back on maybe Vicki wants to open up some questions.

Unknown Speaker 45:08

First of all, I want to thank you both. This has been an extraordinary conversation and everybody there are 470 people tuned in. And we are, I can safely say, we are all very privileged to be hearing this discussion between two brilliant scholars. So thank you. We do have 46 questions. So a few notes of gratitude. from Susan, what an astonishing presentation a misguided therapist once complained to me about my son on the spectrum why to spend always want a creative solution. So thank you, Simon, Baron Cohen for beginning to provide an answer. And several notes like that in the questions. few questions about what can be done in the schools and in the workplace, to create, to nurture people that have learned differently? And, and, and create a better world for all of us if we could do that. So comment on that.

Unknown Speaker 46:17

Yeah. So I think this idea that autistic people have strengths, and sometimes even talents, and passion recognition, means that we shouldn't just have in a one curriculum at school for all kids, you know, for, for the majority of kids, if you know, when you start school, and you're expected to learn in a social environment, often a very noisy environment, learning from a teacher looking at his or her face, through verbal communication. You know, a lot of kids can cope with that. But there's a proportion of kids, including autistic kids, who might find that a nightmare. And they might much prefer to learn either in a solitary way, or in a smaller, quieter environment. And in a, you know, using materials where they can use their good pattern recognition skills, maybe doing little hands on experiments. So, you know, the message for education, I think, is that we need to have diversity in our teaching styles, to match the diversity in the learning styles of our kids. And the same i think is true at work. You know, I mentioned at the end of my presentation, that the majority of autistic adults are unemployed. And we know that unemployment by itself, for anyone is not good for your mental health. It makes you feel excluded from society. And it makes you feel unvalued. And it also takes away your autonomy because you don't have a wage. But you know, why? Why are autistic people unemployed, presumably, there are barriers to getting a job. And one of those may be the way we hire people, that we expect candidates to go through a job interview, where they have to make eye contact, they have to show good social skills, read between the lines, you know, all the areas in which autistic people struggle. So in one sense, the traditional ways of hiring people are discriminating against this group in society. So we need to change the way we hire people. Nice showed you the example of the Israeli army, hiring people for that good pattern recognition skills, not because of their social skills, but because of their fantastic attention to detail where they could show their strengths and have an opportunity to shine.

Unknown Speaker 48:55

I want to add something to that as well, because of this issue, a couple of investigators at UCLA along with some of our community members who were generous, started a program called peers, peers to careers or you know, I'm bad at the name, but Liz law gets in and Amanda goes rude. Actually, we recognize that even at UCLA, we're likely to have hundreds of students who haven't even self identified as autistic who are struggling. And so they started this program to build an evidence base for how to help even students who are successful enough to come to college, as you mentioned, have difficulty finding employment. So, you know, one of the Another issue is kind of transitions in general. And, you know, how do we help support that for people? And so that's an ongoing area of research actually,

Unknown Speaker 49:50

is terrific. And I'm, you know, I'm aware of the work of Dr. Liz naugus. And at UCLA. She's She's doing terrific work. I'm really sort of identifying in which areas to people need support, particularly in their adolescence. And as they enter adulthood, whether it's at work or at college, you know, that we have to recognize that there is a disability. And under equal opportunities, you know, people with people with disabilities deserve support deserve appropriate support.

Unknown Speaker 50:29

And one of the other points you made about education, I'll be quick, so we can get to the other questions is around this one size fits all. And, you know, again, it brings to mind dyslexia, which is what I was actually working on before I was introduced to autism. And, you know, again, we, you know, teach, you know, if we had a world in which drawing pictures was more important than reading, I'd be at a fifth or seventh grade level, no fifth grade level, at best, I never made it past that. I had no tell you know, again, you know, this notion that talent is not universal. You know, we all have strengths and weaknesses, we have to recognize that I think that's another really nice, nice message of your book that I thought was kind of put forth in a beautiful way that, you know, the human condition is one of strengths and weaknesses, we have to recognize that. Yeah.

Unknown Speaker 51:21

I'm just going to give a plug for the open mind, because Liz Lawson has been our speaker for quite a few presentations. So we're big fans of her work to another question here from row, what you have referred to as systemising. sounds somewhat like the general intelligence, ie g factor that psycho psychometricians have studied with IQ testing. Can you comment on this?

Unknown Speaker 51:50

That's pretty interesting. We haven't had the chance yet to look at the relationship between systemising and IQ, or this G factor? You know, I think this goes back a little bit to one of Dan's earlier questions about different aspects of IQ, like thinking in pictures, and it may be that systemising is more related to non verbal IQ. For example, you know, IQ tests that use the Ravens matrices, where you have to complete the sequence, looking at a series of patterns, you know, that that may well involve systemising. Whereas other aspects of IQ, which, particularly verbal IQ, may have less relevance to systemising. But actually, even in language itself, there are systems we know that grammar, or syntax is a system of rules. And we know that some autistic people, their obsessions, their their narrow interests, involve collecting words, or learning foreign languages, maybe dozens of foreign languages. I talked about Daniel tammet, earlier who's autistic, and he's learned at least 10 human languages. So even language itself is amenable to systemising.

Unknown Speaker 53:23

Another question here from Brenda? Besides Hi, and thank you, my question is, don't you need a why, and significant passion to solve problems which would come from the emotional side of the brain? Therefore, in order to solve problems, how can you do that without a large empathy side to the brain?

Unknown Speaker 53:45

It's very interesting. I mean, there's two points I want to make, first of all, is that autistic people don't lack empathy. in general. You know, they do struggle with what's called cognitive empathy, which is the ability to imagine other people's thoughts and feelings and maybe read their emotional expressions. But clearly, they do have affective empathy, which is the emotional response to learning that somebody else's suffering is very, very important because there are some stereotypes around autism that they lack empathy. But it's clear that if autistic people hear that somebody else is in distress, it upsets them, just like it upsets the rest of us. But back to Brenda's question. And you're right, that we need the way you know, that part of systemising parts of invention. Part of understanding a system is how does it work? And why does certain things happen? So if we think about that little autistic child I described earlier, who's obsessed with light switches, and once all the different light switches in the house To be in a particular position, and gets very distressed if anyone disturbs his little experiments, you know, it's because he's trying to ask or to answer the why question. You know, why does this light go on? And why does this light go off? So the Why is what drives human curiosity. But whether you need empathy for that isn't clear. You know, you could just be fascinated by the system itself. And me to add to that, no, that was, that's, that's Simon's domain. Okay.

Unknown Speaker 55:41

Question from john, you describe the if and then algorithm in propositional terms. And I'm wondering how that transfers to what is fundamentally a practical mode of thinking in bed slash invention. That is, does a propositional model possibly obscure the dynamics of practical interaction and invention with the environment?

Unknown Speaker 56:05

That's a great question. Sometimes when people hear this if and then logic, they think it sounds really complex. And it must be the world of mathematics and logic. But actually, it applies to much more practical things. So although this question is about, you know, propositional logic, in fact, if, if you're trying to fix a bicycle, you're using if and then reasoning, you know, you take the bicycle apart, and you look to see which components in the bicycle need to be tweaked or changed to make the bicycle more efficient. But it's, you know, so, so the same, what seems to be complex logic can be used in a much more practical way. Even it even applies to cooking, just to get really sort of down to earth, you know, that if you, if you take your egg, and you put it in boiling water for three minutes, then the yolk will turn from soft to hard, you know, but if you take the egg and boil it for six minutes, then the yolk will change from yellow to orange, you know, you see all of these can be if and then algorithms, even in the invention of cooking a new dish.

Unknown Speaker 57:28

Time for just a couple more. A couple of questions here about clarifying the term Asperger's as compared with autism.

Unknown Speaker 57:39

Yeah. So, um, you know, Dan and I were talking earlier about how you can have autism with or without learning difficulties, or with or without language delay. And until 2013, we had the term Asperger's Syndrome, to describe people who had autism without learning difficulties and without language delay. But, you know, in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association published a new edition of the DSM Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the fifth edition, and they removed the term Asperger's Syndrome, because of reports of unreliability between different clinicians, and how that term was being used. Actually, in the UK, and in parts of Europe, we continued using the term Asperger's Syndrome, because we felt it was quite a useful term to pick out a subgroup. But actually, with the revelations that the pediatrician Hans Asperger had collaborated with the Nazis in Vienna, during the Second World War, sending some kids to a clinic that was known to be a euthanasia clinic that's led many of us now to no longer use the term Asperger's Syndrome, and just instead use the term autism, which doesn't carry any judgment, and which doesn't have any of that historical legacy.

Unknown Speaker 59:19

in queue, yeah,

Unknown Speaker 59:21

we could think of it as a high functioning form of autism with the kind of normal IQ.

Unknown Speaker 59:28

Well, there was one question here as well as what on that or the difference between Asperger's and highly gifted diagnosis? And is there any Hmm.

Unknown Speaker 59:42

So highly gifted is not really a medical term? It's I don't think gifted parents, you know, would, parent hopefully parents would use that term about about their child. But Asperger's Syndrome was a medical term. But is no longer sort of recognized. It's really just been the terminology has been changed.

Unknown Speaker 1:00:12

One last question here from oulun. Very interesting, can I ever invent something for the, quote, good of mankind if I am autistic and lack and lack empathy, empathetic circuitry.

Unknown Speaker 1:00:30

So again, this kind of relates to the earlier point that just because you're autistic, it doesn't mean that you lack empathy in general. You know, it may be that you struggle with aspects of empathy. I called it cognitive empathy earlier. But there's, there's an increasing evidence that autistic people have intact affective empathy. But back to the main question, if you're autistic, can you be an inventor? Absolutely. You know, and I mentioned anecdotally, lots of inventors have had high levels of autistic traits. I mentioned, Thomas Edison. But I could have mentioned Isaac Newton, or Albert Einstein, both very gifted physicists, who made discoveries and inventions, but who, again, anecdotally had a lot of autistic traits. Or I could have mentioned in the field of music, Glenn Gould, the classical pianist, who was not only gifted in terms of being able to invent and perform music, but had a lot of autistic traits. So after every concert, he always had to go to the same diner, and sat in the same place, and ordered the same meal at exactly the same time, every night. So a lot of repetition in his behavior, but accompanied by a lot of talent, and ability to invent.

Unknown Speaker 1:02:08

Fascinating, thank you. Thank you for sharing that. What about the code breakers in in World War Two? I know, there's been some written about that, and that they were the ones that that broke the codes were thought to anecdotally beyond this spectrum.

Unknown Speaker 1:02:26

Yeah. So again, you know, the codebreakers in World War Two, many of them were recruited from departments of mathematics, including in my university here in Cambridge. And we've done some research to show that rates of autism are higher amongst mathematics students, than they are in students in the humanities. And of course, mathematics is a very beautiful example of systemising. You know, if you take if you take the number three, and you cube it, then you get the number 27. So there are these rules, these patterns in numbers. And codebreaking, obviously, is another pattern, you know, cracking the code is another person.

Unknown Speaker 1:03:20

Well, I know we could go on and on, this is such a fascinating topic. And I just want to thank you both for sharing all your knowledge with us and letting us know about the many, many talents of autistic people and that we need to do better in our society to help nurture them. So thank you both. I'm going to try the if and then if Simon and Dan would come back and then we would have another fabulous open mind program. Get that work.

Unknown Speaker 1:03:59

I'd love to come back. I'd like to do it in person actually, down

Unknown Speaker 1:04:06

here would be so wonderful to just be with a colleague in the same room, which has been more than a year for any of us, I'm sure so but thank you so much, Simon for spending the time with us and and Vicki for allowing me to enter low cute.

Unknown Speaker 1:04:25

It was truly our honor to have you both. So thank you. Thank you to everybody that has shared their lunch hour with us or depending on your timezone your evening. So thank you and we look forward to seeing you soon.

Transcribed by


Thank You for Visiting Everything Neurodiversity!

Hello, Thank you for visiting Everything Neurodiversity. This site is a passion project of mine. The hosting costs are minimal and I try to dedicate time to it whenever I can. I intend to keep this site as educational and ad free. 

I have learned a great deal from working on this site and the social platforms that go along with it. So much that I have started another site dedicated to building a more sustainable and easier fashion shopping expiereince. It has recently been selected for sponsorship in the Microsoft Founders Hub Program and I'm excited for the new developments this will enable. The first 10,000 users who make a purchase through the site will get lifetime Premier Status enabling rewards up to 17%! Check it out here: RunwayRewards.Shop or browse the integrated page below: 

popular posts




HR Resources