The Autism Advantage

That is a new and excellent feature story by Gareth Cook.  Much of the article concerns Specialisterne, a Danish company which specializes in hiring autistic individuals to perform technical tasks.  Here is the part concerning my work:

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University (and a regular contributor to The Times), published a much-discussed paper last year that addressed the ways that autistic workers are being drawn into the modern economy. The autistic worker, Cowen wrote, has an unusually wide variation in his or her skills, with higher highs and lower lows. Yet today, he argued, it is increasingly a worker’s greatest skill, not his average skill level, that matters. As capitalism has grown more adept at disaggregating tasks, workers can focus on what they do best, and managers are challenged to make room for brilliant, if difficult, outliers. This march toward greater specialization, combined with the pressing need for expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so-called STEM workers, suggests that the prospects for autistic workers will be on the rise in the coming decades. If the market can forgive people’s weaknesses, then they will rise to the level of their natural gifts.

The link to my paper is here.


So, in the far future Autistic individuals will navigate our space liners through the depths of space with their superior spatial skills, but won't communicate with the rest of the human race very much due to their underdeveloped socialization skills? Herbert was a genius.

We still need our space lsd/oil/cocaine

It's kind of a self-limiting factor, given that most women won't get themselves impregnated by autistic men.

Oh, I forgot. Genetics has nothing to do with anything from the neck up.

Genetics is probably a factor, but I'm not getting the impression that the parents of autistic kids are autistic.

Autistic women also exist.

Well, at least among the geeks I hang out with, some level of autism (thankfully all high-functioning) is rampant in both parents and children.

It was a surprise for me (and somewhat disturbing) when I finally met parents who really didn't understand their children's autistic tendencies because they didn't have a lesser version of those symptoms themselves..

Do you really have any clue what you are talking about? Social awkwardness is not autism.

I like to think I do. Both my kids have medical diagnoses of ASD, as do a number of others in my immediate community. However, for many of us, it's often a matter of seeing characteristics within ourselves that have exaggerated expression in our children. To my eyes, anyway, it's simply assortive mating playing out - probably much the same way as in California.

I was not thinking so much social awkwardness as sensory sensitivities/preferences, stimming, difficulty reading facial expressions, vocal monotone, difficulty meeting eyes, monologueing, and some physical conditions associated with autism.

In the various "Dealing with Autism" classes, it was interesting to see how completely neurotypical parents often had a great deal of difficulty understanding that there were some things that their child could simply *not* do (or not stop doing), whereas, having some mild tendencies in that direction, I could understand more easily.

The disturbing part I mentioned earlier was meeting parents whose children who had been somewhat emotionally pummeled by them in a vain effort to ensure their child's happiness. The child's peers were reacting badly to the child's behavior, and it was simply a matter of having the child *not doing the behavior*. The child was bright, and it was absolutely obvious to both parents that if the child wanted, he could cease the behaviors that caused him so much grief. It was a source of immense frustration that their child insisted on continuing the behavior that caused painful social rejection.

They were wrong, of course. But they simply could not believe it. Even after the course, they intellectually understood it, but it never felt right. Everything they understood about how human beings worked was leading them astray.

(I suspect I'd be just as out to sea if I had a child with violent impulses. I frankly can't conceive of having a natural tendency to violence. The only advantage I'd have is at least intellectually I know that tendency exists in a few unfortunate individuals. However emotionally, I'd never be convinced that it wasn't my child *choosing* violence.)

The point I learned is that having some mild ASD characteristics is probably beneficial if you have a child with ASD.

If it has a selective disadvantage, then it couldn't have been genetically selected for. Even if it had a tiny, imperceptible selective disadvantage, it wouldn't have evolved.

I don't think your comment is true. Genotype is not phenotype. Phenotypes, and not genotypes, are what gets selected for. If only there were a one-to-one mapping between the two. (But there isn't.)

You're confused. Phenotypes are the observed expressions of genes. To select for a phenotype is to select for the genes expressing the phenotype. If there is no correspondence between a phenotype and genes, then nothing is being selected for.

Whether a trait has a disadvantage, depends on the environment which is what is under discussion.

If it had a selective disadvantage in previous environments, then its existence today in individuals would not be the result of it being selected for. There is some other cause. Perhaps pathogenic.

And that's why homosexuality doesn't exist.

It suggests homosexuality is likely to be caused by a pathogen.

Mild forms of autism, like many other "odd" traits, were probably selected for. If something conferred an advantage in mild doses it would have undergone positive selection even if it was disadvantageous in larger doses so long as the benefits of the former outweighted the loss of the latter.

That's assuming that things like greater concentration, introversion, cognitive ability, etc. are actually related to and are "mild" forms of an extremely debilitating condition called autism. This has been asserted by prominent researchers like Simon Baron-Cohen and others, and has become a kind of commonly accepted belief. It hasn't really been shown however.

It's not called a spectrum for nothing. The DSM-V is folding Aspergers into the category of autism spectrum disorders, and we do have evidence that autism is more prevalent among children of those you'd expect to have mild forms, such as engineers or Silicon Valley types. I'd say that there's definitely evidence pointing in that direction.

It may very well be called a spectrum for nothing. We don't know yet. Many professionals have also made the dubious assertion that there is a sexuality "spectrum" between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Autism is a severely debilitating disease in terms of reproductive fitness. It's like mental retardation. The autistic being born to engineers and the like wouldn't necessarily suggest a connection between the cognitive abilities of engineers and the brains of the autistic. If the genes that give you an engineering bent are also producing autistic people at an elevated rate, that means those genes are being rapidly selected out of the gene pool.

Severe autism may be the result of mutated (and mangled) versions of "good" engineer genes. Perhaps those genes are selected out but new mutations keep showing up.

In any case even more severe forms of autism result from just higher than normal doses of genes that are otherwise helpful, I'm still fairly confident that dfferential fitness at different doses could explain what we see. We will see as more research is done...

Sickle-cell anemia says "hi".

Which is to say: Sometimes, you can have something which has an obvious selective disadvantage, but is inextricably linked to something which (in at least some environments) confers a huge selective advantage. Or, say, things which run across a range, and some parts of the range work well, and some not so well.

There is a such thing as recessive genes. And if the recessive gene is correlated with a trait that is important for mating, you could have an increase in autism.

Yes, perhaps a heterozygous advantage of sorts.

Also, as discussed in a previous MR thread, assortative mating.

Already an issue, see prevalence of autism in science/engineer couples.

if this is true, where they find enough people to become math professors?

Thanks for the link. As a consultant have heard of numerous companies who staff their order fulfillment centers with autistic individuals. The chief procurement officer for Walgreens has a great story for this.

When the autistic software engineer meets another autistic engineer at Google, which hired them for their high, focused talents, and they have kids, what is the frequency of the offspring having autism? In the past, was there different sorting because people worked in more diverse backgrounds or did the autistic find each other in a more diverse workspace?

Will micro assortive mating lead to macro generational effects.

We're really throwing the autism label around willy nilly when we start applying it to successful Google employees getting married and having children.

I know it is diagnosable, so its not a label being thrown.

As for some facts, Cliff, that support my statement, this is from the IEEE:

"Getting into other people’s heads requires empathy, a virtue that sometimes does not come naturally to engineers. Our profession tends toward the opposing mental disposition, called systemizing, which attends mainly to rule-based systems, such as those that govern machinery.

In October, we got a big response to an article, by Web Editor Philip E. Ross, on a new theory that links systemizing, engineers, and autism, a developmental disorder that has become more common in recent decades [see].

The author of the theory, Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psycho­pathology at the University of Cambridge, argues that in generations past, engineers, mathematicians, and other systemizers had little opportunity to meet potential spouses who thought as they did. Now, however, schools and professions sort both sexes by psychological types, raising the chances that people of like minds will marry and bear children. Baron-Cohen, cousin to comic actor Sacha Baron ï»'Cohen, says that such ”assortative mating” is concentrating the genes that predispose to systemizing thought. That, in turn, ought to be increasing the likelihood of having a child with the most extreme systemizing: autism."

Here's the link:

Forgive me, but when I read "autistic" I think of two individuals I know who require extraordinary amounts of intervention just to function. One requires 24 hr supervision and will never be employed and another will earn grocery money at best. I realize spectrums exist but these categories seem to get ever larger. Lord knows what I'd be diagnosed with if I were in school these days.

The word "autistic" has taken on two meanings:

- Prof. Temple Grandin at one pole

- A euphemism for "retarded" at the other pole

Lots of people fall somewhere in between, but the two uses make it hard to decipher articles about autism.

Tangentially, in general I believe the binaryness of autistic vs. non-autistic is overstated, and that it's more of a gradient.

E.g., the George Mason U. economics department.

Another 'A' list candidate?

Very interesting link. Thanks.

Has there been much work done on this in terms of averages? Or with autism are we still stuck even in academia with a focus on the Rainman paradigm? (ie a 'disability' but compensated by genius in one or another area) What of those with just normal IQ's, possibly the majority of autistics.

There is a market for everything--at one point, didn't 'dumpster divers' hire meth addicts since supposedly they could focus at things like piecing together shredded documents easily, for tasks such as identity theft? Reminds me of the Macy Day parade this year in NYC where shredded docs were found as confetti.

Many thanks for this link. My two daughters both work in this area and deal with autistic children every day. This will be helpful to them (I also sent them a copy of your paper!)

Good to know. Hoping that a big change it will come to the autism world. Thank you for the information.

I am excited to you read your paper. I am going to be a Life Coach in the future. I want to help ASD young adults find their place in the world so they can be independent and contribute to society in some way that make it better for us all. I started a Parent Support Group for Asperger's about 10 years ago. It's now grown quite large and supporting lots of families to get the most out of their local public schools to help their ASD kids live up to their full potential. They have a board of directors and a non-profit status. My work isn't done with this accomplishment. I have a lot more work to do in my life time to help the ASD population and I hope your paper gives me some insights towards this goal.

Comments for this post are closed