December 22, 2020

My first ever real job, beginning when I was 17, was as a disability support worker. For around five years I worked with kids and adults who had learning disabilities and needed varying degrees of assistance with everyday life. A couple of the boys I worked with were autistic; they had the communication problems, restricted interests and repetitive behaviours, sensory overload, and lack of interest in social interaction that are characteristic of the condition.

One autistic boy, just a few years younger than me, was particularly challenging to work with. He didn’t talk, and had only very basic non-verbal methods of communication, like tapping his head to indicate he wanted something. He was doubly incontinent, and furniture and objects in his room had either to be bolted to the floor or only left with him for a brief time, or they’d be torn to shreds. Even minor changes to his daily routine caused extreme stress, and he’d hit, scratch, or bite anyone within reach.

Thinking about the fleeting moments where he’d hug his mother, or the eventual progress he made in some areas, like learning when and how to go to the toilet, still brings a lump to my throat. But the general memory I have of his autism is one of suffering — it led to daily fear and anxiety for him, caused endless worry and heartache for his family, and (vastly less importantly) left me and my colleagues bruised, bleeding, and scarred at least a few times each week.

Since then, a movement has sprung up around the idea that “neurodivergence”, which can include autistic traits, should be celebrated, not treated as an illness. It’s an attitude that’s liberating for many. After all, autism is a spectrum — indeed, in the psychiatry manuals it’s officially called “Autism Spectrum Disorder”.  In my next job, I found myself regularly encountering people right at the other end of that spectrum: I went off to get a PhD in science.

In any scientific field, you’re surrounded by people who the autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen would call “Extreme Systemisers” — people with a penchant for — indeed, a preoccupation with — spotting patterns. Although not all Extreme Systemisers are autistic, Baron-Cohen argues that there’s a substantial overlap. It’s these kinds of people — in the past they’d be referred to as “high-functioning” — that campaigners for neurodiversity are wont to reference.

Extreme Systemizers — or, at least, the mechanism in their mind that makes them systemise — make the world go round, according to Baron-Cohen’s latest book, The Pattern Seekers (the subtitle for the US edition is How Autism Drives Human Invention). The book’s thesis is that, sometime between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago, the human brain evolved a “systemising mechanism” that allowed us to reason in the following way: if something is a certain way, and something changes, then we get a certain result. That seemingly-simple logic — that focus on understanding systems — is at the root of the human capacity for science, invention, and even art and music. Other animals don’t have the systemising mechanism, which explains why — despite being able to use tools and sometimes solve impressively-difficult puzzles — they don’t experiment or invent things: they’re essentially “system-blind”.

Baron-Cohen goes on to argue that those with an overactive “systemising mechanism,” which shades into autism, have had an outsize impact on the development of society and culture. Linnaeus (who obsessively categorised every species of animal), Thomas Edison (who spent his childhood reading every single book in the library, in shelf order), and Glenn Gould (whose compulsive and meticulous piano practice routine is well-known) are all, Baron-Cohen says, examples of Extreme Systemisers.

Extreme levels of systemising, according to Baron-Cohen, are usually antithetical to high levels of empathy for other people. His scheme of five “brain types” is a little over-simplified and arbitrary (the real, messy world isn’t really amenable to categories with bright lines between them), but it helps him illustrate how high levels of systemising might go along with social problems, and often manifest as autism. For instance, a fixation on identical daily routines can, as we saw above, create real problems in someone’s life. The book ends with an appeal for neurodiversity — arguing that there are many different types of brain out there, each with something to contribute, and we should ensure that everyone, including the extreme pattern seekers, can reach their potential.

Another such pattern seeker is Camilla Pang, a biochemist and the author of Explaining Humans, which just won the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2020. Pang herself has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Generalised Anxiety Disorder. She used the “outsider” perspective she gained from growing up with these conditions to write a kind of scientific self-help book for those who have trouble fitting in. Pang writes about how scientific principles can help understand the messy, chaotic world of human relationships and life in general: for example, the functions of different kinds of proteins are a bit like those of people with different personalities; the workings of machine-learning algorithms can help us to make decisions; and learning about thermodynamics and entropy reminds us that true perfection is never attainable.

Perhaps unexpectedly for someone so motivated to understand how humans work, Pang shows absolutely zero interest in psychology research. As a psychology researcher myself, I found this oddly refreshing. Frankly, we’ve had enough of books that take shaky results from psychology studies and spin them into a “this-one-thing-will-change-your-life” message. I’d rather consider an interesting parallel between anxiety and the refraction of light than an over-generalised result from a tiny sample of university students.

If anything, Explaining Humans is more like a text from (perhaps appropriately) the Humanities: noting similarities and drawing analogies, rather than using scientific data to explain human behaviour directly. This kind of analogy-to-science reasoning can go too far — its nadir being the philosopher Jacques Lacan’s infamous analogy between the square root of minus one and “the erectile organ” — but outside of a couple of rather tenuous links, Pang does an impressive job of finding more-than-superficial similarities between the laws of nature and the “laws” of human beings (incidentally, readers who like this kind of thing will enjoy the superior — but more complicated — book Algorithms to Live By).

Baron-Cohen would surely approve: it’s the kind of creative, analogical reasoning displayed by Pang that’s part of his “systemising mechanism”. Just as Baron-Cohen urges us to be more understanding of neurodiversity, Pang ends with a plea for those with neurodivergent brains never to “apologise for being yourself”. Throughout the book she repeats that her autism and her ADHD give her a unique view of the world and made her who she is today, referring to them as her “superpowers” — the same word Greta Thunberg used to describe her Asperger’s Syndrome (a condition which, by the way, is now technically subsumed under the umbrella title of Autism Spectrum Disorder). In one interview, Pang even stated that “sometimes I wish I was more autistic.”

No doubt both Pang and Baron-Cohen’s books will be uplifting and inspiring for those systemisers who feel all at sea when it comes to human interaction. All I ask is that, in our understandable desire to focus on the hitherto-forgotten talents of those with neurodivergent brains, we don’t forget the plight of those on the other end of the spectrum. Somewhere between thirty and forty percent of people with autism also have a learning disability, like the boy from my old job. Those with lower levels of functioning might never produce a breakthrough invention, or come up with a quirky way of explaining humanity using science. But they deserve no less of our attention, no less of our support, and no less of our empathy.