Autism: The Result of Math Whiz X 2?

If you’re Jenny McCarthy, you blame autism on vaccinations. If you’re Michael Savage, you blame it on a decline in Yiddish Billingsgate among fathers. Now, if you’re Cambridge University professor Simon Baron-Cohen — yes, cousin of Sacha, the genius behind Ali G., Borat and Bruno — you believe it might result from interbreeding among members of the techie family.

Previous studies, reports the UK’s Daily Mail, have shown high rates of autism among “‘systemisers’ – those who do jobs relating to systems and how they work, such as computer programmes or machines.” Indeed, a 1997 study showed “children and grandchildren of engineers were more likely to be on the autistic spectrum.” In Silicon Valley, where there are “high rates of partnership,” as the Mail delicately puts it, among mathematicians, physicists and engineers, “cases of autism have skyrocketed.”

Baron-Cohen plans to study whether two parents who work in science, technology, engineering and math are more likely to produce children with an “autism spectrum diagnosis” than couples in which one or neither partner works in these fields. He expects to publish the results in 12 months.

Just a few days ago, funnily enough, an ex-girlfriend wrote to tell me she’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. (Can I joke here that my own tests came back clean? No? Okay, never mind.) It’s an extremely mild form of autism, often — and in her case, quite observably — associated with high intelligence. She told me the diagnosis had cleared up what had seemed like unanswerable questions — her slowness to get certain jokes, for example, and certain quirks in her body language. What can I say? My moonblind eyes hadn’t noticed. And if she never got my jokes, she was at least polite enough to giggle nervously at them.

What I do remember observing quite clearly, though, is that she was what any British researcher worth his received pronunciation would be pleased to call a systemiser. An accountant, an ace grammarian and a champion housekeeper, she could have systemized pigeon droppings. Her father, I seem to recall, was a theologian, and nobody can get more systemic than that. Could the Angelic Doctor, the Great Ox himself, have passed a Sally-Anne test? I wouldn’t bet my cappa on it.

It’s a shame she and I didn’t last long enough to generate any data for Baron-Cohen’s study. Both sides of my family have yet to produce anything that could, even in pitch darkness, be mistaken for a systemiser. Trace them back to bar-Giora and Fingal, respectively, and you’ll find nothing but moody aesthetes and socially irresponsible fantasists. One of my grandfathers, who turned on to Miles Davis when every other ofay in suburbia was listening to Mantovanni, won acclaim for ranting in inspired freestyle whenever President Eisenhower addressed the nation over TV. The other grandfather, having made his nut selling insurance, reinvented himself as a retired cardiologist and lived out his days dispensing free medical advice to the snowbirds of Ft. Lauderdale.

I should put my picture and family tree in a catalog and send it off to MIT: “CHECK ME OUT, XKCD FANGIRLS: DNA AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST.”

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