"Are bio-medical scientists and experimental psychologists temperamentally well suited to the task of understanding human emotions and feelings?
Simon Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. He is also co-director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge. Autistic individuals have a deficit in their capacity to perceive the feelings which other people experience in social situations. They also have difficulty recognizing that circumstances and events can be interpreted in a variety of ways by different individuals. Simon Baron-Cohen refers to this type of deficit as Mindblindness (the title of one of his books).
There are milder forms of autism in which cognitive functions are not impaired, and some individuals can have exceptional mathematical, musical or artistic abilities. Simon Baron-Cohen believes there are innate differences between male and female brains. In his view, female brains are predominantly wired for empathy, whereas male brains are predominantly wired for understanding and building systems. He describes autism as an extreme version of the male brain, which may explain why autism is more common among males.
The range of impairments, from mild to extreme, is referred to as the "Autism Spectrum," and encompasses cases of Asperger's Syndrome. Components of these various disorders include poor social skill, poor communication skill, poor imagination, exceptional attention to detail, poor attention-switching and a narrow focus of attention. Not all of them are necessarily present in each individual case.
A self-test is available as a PDF document on the Autism Research Centre's website. One particular study was designed to develop a brief, self-administered test for measuring the degree to which an adult with normal intelligence has traits associated with the autism spectrum. The report has the long-winded title "The Autism-Spectrum Quotient: Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians." If you read the research report it might help to keep in mind these acronyms:
AQ - Autism-spectrum Quotient.
AS - Asperger Syndrome.
HFA - High-Functioning Autism.
The research study assessed four groups of subjects:
Group 1: 58 adults with Asperger Syndrome.
Group 2: 174 randomly selected controls.
Group 3: 840 students in Cambridge University.
Group 4: 16 winners of the UK Mathematics Olympiad.
The report states:
"Among the group of 840 students, scientists scored significantly higher in autism spectrum traits than humanities and social sciences students, confirming an earlier study which showed that autistic traits are associated with scientific skills."Within the subgroup of science students, mathematicians, engineers, physical, and computer scientists were found to have the highest scores, followed by biologists, experimental psychologists and medical students.
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