A live chat with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen on talents, genes and autism

Patterns can be found everywhere and in anything. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre proposes that the ability to understand patterns may be due to our genes. In addition, he proposes that these genes not only provide people with great talents but may also predispose them to a higher number of autistic traits. On Friday November 9th interested readers had the chance to participate in a live Web chat on this topic on the website of Scientific American with Professor Baron-Cohen.


In his recent article in Scientific American, Professor Baron-Cohen gives a review of why autism spectrum conditions (autism), a developmental condition that leads to problems with social interaction, communication and adapting to change, may be more prominent among children of parents with technical minds. For Baron-Cohen, systems are defined as lawful, repeating patterns, and he suggests there are individual differences in ‘systemizing’, or how interested we are to search for such lawful patterns all around us.  Interests drive aptitude, so that those people with the strongest drive to ‘systemize’ might end up in occupations that require technical skill. A key example might be engineering, but Baron-Cohen’s focus is on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Over the last 15 years he has collected a series of clues that children with autism may have parents (and even grandparents) who are more likely to have technical minds, or be strong systemizers.  


In 2006 he brought together these clues to propose the “assortative mating” theory of autism, which argues that when two parents who both have technical talent marry and have a child, this increases the likelihood of the child having autism. In order to investigate this theory he needs a large sample of parents who are graduates, providing information about their degrees, interests and occupations and of course information about their children. Professor Baron-Cohen and his team have therefore set up a website where parents can do just this. By logging in they can contribute to the the first large-scale study testing if children with autism were more likely to come from couples where both parents are strong systemizers, or where just one parent is, or where neither is.  He is keen to exploit the strengths of internet research, which is obtaining large samples but is aware of the limitations of online research: “In order to guard against biases in recruitment into the study, it is key we have parents in the study who don’t have a child with autism, not just those who do.”  Any parent who is a graduate can take part.


In the online chat readers of the Scientific American were able to ask Prof Baron-Cohen questions. It lasted for 30 minutes and was facilitated by Ferris Jabr, an editor at the magazine. Professor Baron-Cohen commented on his experience of the online forum: “This is a fairly new experience for me, to reply to questions in real time in a live web chat. The questions come thick and fast from different participants, so it is more like a rapidly changing group conversation. The result is that the dialogue goes in all sorts of unexpected directions. Like Twitter, comments have to be less than a certain number of characters and there is time pressure to reply rapidly to include as many people’s comments as possible. Mostly researchers write their articles without the opportunity for this quick-fire dialogue with their readers, but this is a great way for a researcher to receive feedback about their work from the public, and for the public to ask questions that are piquing their curiosity. Scientists have a responsibility to get out of their labs and disseminate their research, and online ‘webinars’ like this are another excellent way to use the new technology to communicate what science is about. ”