Simon Baron-Cohen makes a case for neurodiversity, arguing that autism confers advantages that we should value

Izabella Kaminska:

When you’re on a plane, do you think about its aerodynamics? When you look at a mountain, do you think about how precisely it was formed? Do you always notice how the music you are listening to is structured? If the answer to all these is yes, you could be what Simon Baron-Cohen calls a hyper-systemiser.

People who are that way inclined have a hard-wired compulsion to seek out patterns in their surroundings, following a simple “if this and that then this” algorithm. It is through this process of endless iterative discovery and experimentation that such minds eventually stumble upon new inventions, pushing human evolution forward, and in many cases changing the world forever. Today, these nerdy brain types are commonly associated with autism. But while society views that condition as a disorder, Baron-Cohen — a clinical psychologist based at the University of Cambridge — argues that its connection with systemising techniques and influence on human invention should not go unnoticed.

“Those humans who had minds with a systemising mechanism in overdrive were — and are — central to the story of invention,” he writes.

Reddit users, with their systemising minds, took less than 48 hours to pinpoint the monolith that appeared in the Utah desert

Baron-Cohen anchors his theory in the story of young “Al”, also known as Thomas Alva Edison, whose endless compulsion to tinker with things brought us a slew of 19th-century inventions — among them, most famously, the lightbulb. He contrasts this with the story of another young boy named Jonah, now in his 40s, who is similarly plagued by a compulsive pattern-recognising mind. Unlike Edison, Jonah is diagnosed with autism, and his life is a lonely one because he cannot easily fit in with others or succeed at getting a job.

What differentiates the two, Baron-Cohen contends, is how their conditions were treated by family, society and the medical establishment.

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