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Playing to Their Strengths

May 05, 2003

There is a little something to provoke everyone in a new theory by Simon Baron-Cohen that Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton suffered from Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism characterized by obsessive interests, difficulty in social relationships and trouble communicating.

As director of the Autism Center at Cambridge University, Baron-Cohen has conducted lab studies that support the theory put forward by Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger in 1944. Asperger held that "the autistic personality is an extreme variant of male intelligence": a hard-wired consequence of exposure to testosterone in early pregnancy that can leave some children better at systemic thinking than they are at empathizing.

Some take offense at Baron-Cohen's notion -- published in the May 3 edition of the British journal New Scientist -- that nature can be mightier than nurture.

More disagreement comes from people who disdain modern psychiatry's tendency to view personality traits as pathologies that need to be medicated or otherwise militated against.

Finally, objections come from parents of autistic children who fear that Baron-Cohen (like the makers of movies such as "Rain Man" and "Shine") fails to capture the reality that autism is mostly a handicap that takes away far more than it gives.

Baron-Cohen, however, is not arguing that biology is destiny. And he too is troubled by glib characterizations of autism. What Baron-Cohen does contend is that Newton and Einstein succeeded at least partly because they managed to land in social niches where their strengths were valued more than their weaknesses were assailed. He suggests that we should all work harder to find such niches for people.

At a time when diagnoses of autism are soaring (the rate has quadrupled in California since 1997), that is a useful bit of provocation.

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