Wednesday 22 June 2011

The technological phenotype

On the question of cognitive styles possibly linked to autism, I have previously touched upon some of the various theories put forward. Ranging from problems with theory of mind, through to weak central coherence through to executive dysfunction, quite a bit of research has been devoted to this topic down the years providing psychologists in particular with plenty of experimental fodder to digest.

Perhaps the most interesting candidate in recent years has been the systemising-empathising hypothesis as expounded by Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues. The basic tenets of the theory are relatively simple: according to Prof. SBC, the triad of 'deficits' linked to autism (social, communication, perspective-taking) are all in areas of empathising, whilst the various 'strengths' linked to autism (obsession with systems, repetitive behaviours, islets of ability) are all in areas of systemising. I touched upon this theory in a recent post. Gender has also been suggested to have a hand in the hypothesis (males = better systemisers; females = better empathisers) running alongside the gender ratios noted for autism, but for the purposes of brevity, I would direct you to this paper for a more comprehensive overview.

A recent paper reported here and also discussed here has caused a little bit of a stir in relation to the empathising-systemising (E-S) hypothesis of autism. The suggestion was that differing prevalence rates of autism might be accounted for by the level of technological expertise present in that particular geographical location. When I say technological expertise, I am not talking about those who are just 'internet-savvy'; no, here we are talking about people who are involved in highly technical (systemised) careers like engineers, IT and software, and maths and statistics, on the basis of some older research from SBC, that such techhy people are at the extreme of the E-S disparity and hence systemisers might be more likely to have a child with autism.

The current study in question looked at different regions in the Netherlands and based on quite a large sample suggested that the relative population density of such systemisers could be a potential pointer towards a higher prevalence of autism. Similar suggestions have been raised in previous times to, for example, account for the quite extraordinary rise in autism prevalence in places like California - California being HQ to quite a few tech companies, as well as being home to Silicon Valley. It all is suggested to tie into the theory of assortative mating also proposed by SBC.

There are a few interesting things to take from such research. Primary is that prevalence rates of autism are most likely not going to be uniform geographically potentially as a result of this, and lots of other factors, both genetic and environmental. I am happy to see that from this latest paper there have been suggestions that the results could be also be in part due to the fact that a more technologically focused area is liable to have a lot more disposable money and as a result better services for things like diagnosing autism compared to a less techhy place; not even taking into account possible people differences in knowledge and awareness of autism. The post on SES and autism dealt with this in more detail.

As with all the cognitive theories put forward for autism, the E-S theory 'might' be applicable in some cases: more systemised parental career choices could be a 'risk' factor for transferring the cognitive style attributed to autism. I say cognitive style, because more and more we realise that autism is probably not genetically transmitted, but there might be some transmission of the 'spirit' of the traits described a la evidence from the broader phenotype. Having said that, I can't envisage a universality for the theory for quite a few reasons; not least that autism is an extremely heterogeneous condition and as far as I am aware covers the entire population demographic in terms of familial composition and parental career patterns. The recent debates between SBC and Cordelia Fine, which have filled many pages of the Psychologist in recent months perhaps also should be brought into this post also. As always such research makes no reference to anything but autism, so co-morbidities whether behavioural or physical and their potential impact, don't get a look in unfortunately.

To end, did you know that video killed the radio star...

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