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Does Autism Hold the Key to What Makes Humans Special? – The New York Times

Posted: December 9, 2020 at 12:51 am

Heres how the mechanism works: Humans alone observe the world and ask questions that demand why, how and what. They answer their questions by looking for if-and-then patterns, such as, if I boil an egg for eight minutes, then the yolk will be hard, and if I boil an egg for four minutes, then the yolk will be soft. They use those patterns to build theories, which they then repeatedly test, looking always for systems to further employ and exploit.

Grand theories aside, Baron-Cohen is at his most striking when he writes about people with autism, like Jonah, who was slow to talk but who taught himself to read. When Jonah eventually learned to speak, he used language less as a tool for communication than as a system for categorizing the world around him. As a young child, he was endlessly fascinated by how things worked, and he spent hours experimenting, like flipping a light switch on and off to test and retest its effect. At school he showed great brilliance in his observations about the natural world, he was a born pattern seeker, but at the same time he was taunted by other children for being so different. In group reading time, which he hated, he would shut his eyes and put his fingers in his ears. Jonahs weekend hobby as a young man was helping fishermen locate shoals by being able to read the signs from surface waves. Yet despite his incredible talents, Jonah was lonely and frustrated because he couldnt find a job that would allow him to live an independent life. Baron-Cohen argues with feeling and conviction that society must do a better job of making room for people like Jonah, and that it will benefit enormously when it does.

Mostly, though, The Pattern Seekers is about the idea of using autism as a key to unlock the mystery of human cognition, and on this front, its less convincing. Sometimes its simply because the books framing is misleading. Baron-Cohen takes great care to set up the idea that all humans possess a Systemizing Mechanism, that some people are hyper-systemizers, and that a comparatively high number of those hyper-systemizers are autistic. But the subtitle of the book is not how systemizing drives human invention, its how autism drives human invention. At the same time, he cautions against speculation that people, living or dead, might be autistic. The term should be reserved only for diagnosis when people are struggling to function, he explains.

In addition, Baron-Cohen divides humans into five brain types, grouping people who are more or less likely to systemize or empathize. He believes that humans also uniquely possess an Empathy Circuit. But he establishes his five groups by conducting large surveys about individual tendencies and traits, so they are not brain types at all. They are, at best, mind types.

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Does Autism Hold the Key to What Makes Humans Special? - The New York Times

Recommendation and review posted by G. Smith