Monday, August 15, 2005

Assortative mating

Simon Baron-Cohen's recent research on prenatal testosterone levels as they relate to autism has been getting a lot of press lately. I heard a brief interview with him on NPR's Day to Day yesterday. Baron-Cohen suggests that autism may be an extreme form of the typical "male brain," which is predisposed to systemize rather than empathize. He writes,

In my work I have summarized these differences by saying that males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize. Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those feelings with an appropriate emotion of one's own.

He talks about the obsessions of people with autism as "very intense systemizing at work." I can certainly see this in Bud. Bud regards much of the world through a Teletubbies lens. When he encouters a new object, he considers how this object could be a part of the Teletubbies' world. So, anything that can be lowered or raised becomes the Tubbies' voice trumpet (which Bud calls "speakers.") Anything that makes a cranking sound becomes the "controls." Colors are always selected in the same order: purple, green, yellow, red (because, of course, one always considers the Tubbies in order - Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa, Po.)

Bud takes this systemizing much further, though. When he looks at photographs, he often scans the background to pick out the Teletubbies he can see. So, he looks at a picture of his Dad and says "Look! A picture of Tinky Winky!" because in the far background of the picture he can spot a stuffed Tinky Winky on a shelf. (I have to say, though, he does this much less than he used to, which I imagine must be a good sign.) My favorite example of this uber-Tubbies-systemizing, however, was the time he paused at the bottom of the stairs and looked at the end of the round eye fastener for the safety gate sticking out of the railing:

"Look, Mama!" he said excitedly. "It's Po!"

I have to admit, I could see the resemblance:

Baron-Cohen further hypothesizes that autism is "the genetic result of assortative mating," in which two systemizers mate to produce one hyper-systemizer. My immediate reaction was "Well, then clearly we are the exception that proves the rule." My husband and I both score as INFP on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator; we are warm, loving, caring people. Of course we have empathy!

Well, okay, I can see how my husband might be a systemizer. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of music. He can look at a stack of his many hundreds of CDs and instantly know which ones are missing. He has memorized lines and phrases from a multitude of television shows and movies, and can retrieve and quote one to fit virtually any conversation in which he finds himself... a more sophisticated version, in fact, of the way Bud adapts his scripts to fit his surroundings. And though my husband's natural inclination and preference is toward empathy, his ADHD can dramatically hamper his ability to read people accurately. So, okay, I can see how this might apply to him.

But ME???? Never. I practically have empathy coming out of my pores. My professional career is built on a foundation of empathy. No, no, no. None of this came from me.


I am an introvert. There are lots of social situations that I avoid when I can.

And, okay, I did score a 760 out of 800 on the analytical portion of the GRE. But that was just a fluke, right?

And, while not technologically-minded in a civil engineering sort of way, I was online in the late 80's, in the days before the worldwide web, when you still had to type "smtp%" to send an e-mail, and when virtually no one else I knew had even heard of the Internet.

And there is that tricky little McCartney obsession. I'm certain that without trying too hard I could connect that safety gate eye hook to something McCartney-related. There were the hours, days, months, and years I spent trading and collecting volumes of video and audio tape footage of McCartney interviews and appearances from around the world. And there were at least as many hours spent painstakingly cataloguing each individual clip to compile an accurate multi-page list, each entry alphabetized, dated, and timed down to the minute.

And I guess I should include the charts that mark the time when the McCartney obsession gave way to the baby obsession; the daily records (in now-embarrassing detail) of my basal body temperature and other bodily functions that reflect my attempt to predict and control a process that was so unpredictable and uncontrollable it nearly made me crazy.

And there's that wacky little notebook stashed up in the attic that records every morsel of nutrition that passed Bud's lips for the first several (I'm not even sure I want to know how many) months of his life.

And this blog. Yeah, there is this blog. Are all bloggers systemizers, when you get right down to it?

Assortative mating. Interesting theory, huh?


Lydia said...

Just wanted to say i love reading your blog. :)

Brett said...

It took me a while to find this post, but I'm glad I did. I've also been giving thought to the inherited aspect of autistic attributes. (The list of how Julie and I contributed would read much like yours, only the details would be different.)

I've not had a chance to read the paper you link to yet, but hopefully will tomorrow. I've also written a bit about the effects of testoterone (though from a more indirect approach) on my blog. I'm curious to see how they compare/relate.

Unknown said...

Yeah - my husband says I have serial obsessions and, come to think of it, I nearly became an academic librarian in my youth, I was using technology before most people - and I have empathy oozing from every pore, too! (Hubby is an INT, I'm an ENF)

I think he reads people better than I do and he's supposed to be the Aspie.

Perhaps Baron-Cohen goes in the wrong direction by opposing empathizing with systematizing - and with equating systematizing with males. Or perhaps we don't recognise fully yet how autism works in women.