Family & Education

Autism: The power of patterns

Simon Baron Cohen's new book stresses the positive side to autism


Jonah is an extraordinary young man. He has the ability to recall the names and characteristics of thousands and thousands of plants, all of which he records in a “mental spreadsheet”. He has now turned his attention to species of trees and is systematically working on classifying all 60,000-plus of them.

Yet despite these prodigious abilities, Jonah, who is in his 30s, is unemployed and still lives at home with his parents. He has applied for more than 400 jobs, but has never been offered work. He feels alienated by society, has frequent bouts of depression and has twice tried to take his own life.

Jonah is one of around 700,000 autistic people in the UK and his experiences are the thread which runs through The Pattern Seekers, the new book by Simon Baron-Cohen.

The book breaks new ground as its author presents a compelling argument that there is a strong connection between autism and invention. Invention, he says, requires a strong systemising drive — the ability to recognise patterns and any small change in them — something which many autistic people have. Baron-Cohen says that this type of experimenting has been key to the development of human civilisation over the past 70,000 to 100,000 years. “The book is a celebration of autism because since autism has been known about, the focus has mainly been on disability or what [autistic people] struggle with and can’t do. The book is switching it on its head and saying, ‘Let’s look at the things they can do.’ We actually owe autistic people a huge debt of gratitude.”

Baron-Cohen is speaking to me over Zoom (“ a wonderful invention”) from his home near Cambridge University, where he is director of the Autism Research Centre.

To prove his theory that invention can be linked to autism, he carried out a study on 600,000 people in the general population and 36,000 autistic people to find out whether they were “systemizers”, “empathisers” and how many autistic traits they have. (Readers can try these tests themselves.)

“The first clue was that we found that if you just looked at people in the general population who worked in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths), they have more autistic traits.”

To further prove autistic traits were connected to invention, Baron-Cohen studied autism rates in Eindhoven, the Dutch equivalent to Silicon Valley, where one-third of jobs are in IT. “Sure enough, they had autism rates which were twice as high as in other Dutch cities. So that was pointing at a potential genetic link between talent at pattern recognition and invention in the parents and the likelihood of having an autistic child.”

A key aim of the book is to highlight how valuable autistic people could be in the workplace if given the chance. (Currently, only 17 per cent of people with autism are in employment.) Baron-Cohen cites the Israeli Army, which has a unit just for soldiers with autism, as an example. “They’re asking autistic soldiers to look at aerial footage of things that are happening on the ground. Autistic people might spot things very quickly, which might be a sign of a terrorist activity.”

He would like to see all workplaces becoming more accommodating to people on the autistic spectrum and though his new charity, the Autism Centre of Excellence (ACE), served as an advisor on a manual on how to implement neurodiversity in the workplace.

“It’s great that autistic people might find a niche in the IT sector if they have programming skills, but we need to be thinking about the bigger picture. I’m thinking about bicycle shops and bakeries. Almost every industry involves a system and autistic people enjoy systems.”

Baron-Cohen is one of the best known names in the world of autism research. He has written more than 600 articles on the subject as well as several books and in 2017, addressed the UN on Autism and Human Rights. A member of Beth Shalom Synagogue, he has worked with Gesher, a Jewish school for children with special educational needs, which he describes as “fantastic”.

He admits that his work is more of a mission than a job, partly driven by growing up with a sister who had profound learning difficulties and required 24-hour care. She died in 2014. “When I was reflecting on her life during the speech I made at her funeral, I thought it had a lot of relevance for how society has treated people with learning difficulties. She lived through this remarkable social change, starting at one of those long-stay institutions and ending up in a much more humane, small home.”

Despite the scientific arguments throughout the book, The Pattern Seekers is far from being a dry, clinical read. Rather, says Baron-Cohen, it’s about human rights.

“The more we can raise awareness of the current situation for autistic people, the more people can think, ‘I wonder if that applies to the person living in my street? I wonder if I could hire an autistic person? This book aims to change attitudes. I suppose that’s what I’m hoping for.”


The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention, by Simon Baron-Cohen, published by Allen Lane


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