Simon Baron-Cohen || How Autism Drives Human Invention

February 18, 2021

Today it’s great to chat with Simon Baron-Cohen. Simon is professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University. He is the author of six hundred scientific articles and four books, including The Science of Evil and The Essential Difference.

  • [2:47] Simon’s evolution of thought on autism
  • [5:19] How the social realm of autism has evolved
  • [8:12] The difference between autism and psychopathy
  • [10:26] The role of affective vs cognitive empathy
  • [12:37] How to navigate autism amidst cancel culture
  • [14:18] Having autistic traits vs being on the autism spectrum
  • [17:52] How autism drives human invention
  • [22:11] The “systemizing mechanism” of the brain
  • [24:03] The role of “if-and-then patterns” in autistic individuals
  • [26:41] Simon’s thoughts on language acquisition
  • [27:48] “The empathy circuit”
  • [37:28] The role of creativity in autism
  • [41:19] The Brain Types Study
  • [42:43] The biological basis of creativity and autism
  • [45:24] Why monkeys don’t skateboard
  • [48:12] Why language isn’t a necessary precursor to invention
  • [55:12] How Scott measured implicit learning and pattern-seeking
  • [59:28] Why Simon’s work has sparked some pushback
  • [1:01:04] How to support autistic people
  • [1:05:45] How we can nurture the inventors of the future
  • [1:07:18] Sex differences in autism

4 Responses to “Simon Baron-Cohen || How Autism Drives Human Invention”

  1. Rose Walker says:

    Scott “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” Barry Kaufman. I was surprised at the questions you asked, they were quite fair, but also piercing. Dr. SBC is controversial, but it seems he has less of a morbid interest in autism than in the past. That is good.

    Scott has a nimble mind. I found myself comparing the Autism experts, one of whom has recognized his own tendencies. Samuel Wang of Princeton did a casual questionnaire with his Science students and compared them to humanities students, looking to find how many, like him, had autistic family members.( His sister is autistic). The Humanities students averaged 1 in 100. The science students averaged 1 in 25.…He also took a quiz to find out his own tendencies. I had to laugh as he said he started turning red as a creeping realization came upon him!

    Thanks for interviewing SBC. It was interesting to hear what he thought. Rose

  2. Khendra Murdock says:

    Good podcast; my husband sent me this link.

    I was clinically diagnosed as moderate on the spectrum (Asperger Syndrome) in 2014, right before I turned 30. Most of the points, especially early in the podcast, apply to me; however, being a woman on the spectrum, I’m more language-oriented (though I seldom initiate conversations). My degree was in English, and I love to read, write, and research using words, primarily. I’d say I’m much more systematic than a typical woman, and have even been described a few times as “hyper-logical,” though not as much as men (I don’t have the visual-spatial or math reasoning for STEM, or tool creativity, for instance; there was a near 40 point disparity between my perceptual reasoning IQ, 98, and my Verbal Comprehension IQ, 134, on the WAIS-IV). I found academics easy at all grade levels, but work and friendship hard due to reduced ability to read and respond to cues in ways the NT populace finds appropriate. I also have trouble adapting to unexpected change. Since most employment requires adaptive ability and high social function, work was always harder than the easy environment school, where I could just sit, listen, read, write, and take tests in a closed environment. (I was such a good test taker due to my extensive reading and knowledge that former co-workers administering tests to me once insisted I had to have a photographic memory; in all likelihood, I simply have outread them, and can more readily draw upon my information knowledge bank than they can).

    Also interested in the discussion of SNPs. I am on 23andMe and have my entire genome sequenced; I’ve compared a number of my SNPs to various ones on SNPedia that have links to autism, and I possess most of the allele combinations on SNPs associated with higher incidence of autism.

  3. Jingyun Hu says:

    I wander, how can I download its audio?

  4. Shawn O'Brien, Psy.D. says:

    I’m a psychologist who first researched and started to work with people on the autism spectrum in the early-mid 90’s, before it was recognized as a spectrum. Back then, the perception of the public, and even many psychologists, was of autism being a severe disorder with most/all such persons having significant cognitive impairments. I’m happy this has changed, but now I worry with so much publicity about the high functioning end of the spectrum, including podcasts like this, that the public may come to expect all individuals with autism to have areas of exceptional abilities. Not all of them do. What Dr. Baron-Cohen said here applies to many (but not all) on the high end of the spectrum, but not nearly so much to those on the lower end. For example, I have worked with many students with autism who could not receptively comprehend “if-then” thinking, much less generate it to create something. Expanding on what Baron-Cohen said about pattern recognition, Scott made a blanket statement that people on the spectrum have a strength in pattern recognition as measured by the Ravens Progressive Matrices. In fact, research has shown that not all of them do. There is tremendous variability in the cognitive profiles of those on the spectrum, and we’ve known this since at least the 1980’s. (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01837900) This has been supported by more recent research with more extensive assessments, including executive functioning (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4117184/ ). There is also variability in “theory of mind,” now known as cognitive perspective-taking or empathy (https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1991-30457-001 ). The latter study showed that re-phrasing the question helped a significant number to pass the test who failed at first, suggesting difficulties with language may contribute to failure on such tasks. In the 1970’s, Lorna Wing showed there is tremendous variability in autistic individuals in their motivation to engage in social interactions and relationships, supported by more recent research (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-012-1451-x ). If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is to NEVER to make ANY assumption about a student with autism based on their Dx, because they are the most diverse group of individuals that fall under one umbrella label that I have experienced. Do a thorough evaluation of EVERY DOMAIN (cognitive including EF; behavioral; social-emotional; adaptive functioning including social skills, and formal and pragmatic communication; and academic and/or vocational skills) and THEN decide what the strengths and weaknesses are to work with.

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