Autism is now surprisingly common. But as society becomes more "female" there is less tolerance for those who cannot empathiseby Simon Baron-Cohen / May 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
You may have met people who talk only to obtain something they need, or to share factual information. They may answer with “just the facts” when you ask them a question, but otherwise do not ask questions of others. Present a person like this with a system however, and they become interested. They tune into the tiny details so intensely that they may become oblivious to all around them. They focus solely on determining the unvarying “if-then rules,” which allows them to control and predict the system.
People with autism spectrum conditions often show these signs. Autism is diagnosed when a person shows abnormalities in social development and displays unusually obsessional interests. The interest might be in collecting types of stones, or travelling to every railway station in Britain to look at each depot. In the early 1980s, autism was regarded as the most severe childhood psychiatric condition, and it was thought of as rare. It was considered severe because half of the children didn’t speak and most (75 per cent) had below-average intelligence (IQ).
The children’s poor social skills meant they didn’t learn from others and their narrow obsessions often stopped them from picking up broad knowledge. Many of them lived “in a world of their own” and had difficulty making sense of and predicting another’s feelings, thoughts and behaviour. For others with some social interest, they just got social interaction wrong. They would talk to you without eye contact, or stare at you for too long, or touch you inappropriately, or simply badger you with questions and then walk off without warning.
Autism was thought of as rare because, in the 1970s, only four children in every 10,000 seemed to be affected in this severe way. But a shift in understanding occurred during the early 1990s. It had always been known that a small proportion (25 per cent) of children with autism had normal, or even above-average IQ, but slowly such “high-functioning” cases started being identified more and more. By the late 1990s, it seemed that the high-functioning children with autism were no longer in the minority.
In many of these high-functioning cases of autism, children are late in developing language but that does not seem to stop them developing good or even talented levels of mathematics, chess or other factual, scientific, technical or rule-based subjects.
In the 1990s, clinicians also started talking about a group of…