Show Notes & Transcript - Understanding the Autistic Brain

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The one percent podcast is a show that explores the realities of autistic adulthood. In this episode I'm joined by Dr.Simon Baron-Cohen is professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University. In this episode we discuss: ➡️ The concept of the hypersystemiser and its relevance to autistic people. ➡️ How society became more inclusive to autistic people in the world of work and school. ➡️ We round up our chat with a look to the future of STEM. ❗️Never Miss an episode! https://go.autistictyla.com/remindme 🔗 Resource links [Book] The Pattern Seekers - https://go.autistictyla.com/patternseekers --- 00:00 Intro 00:53 How did Dr.Baron Cohen get into autism research 02:44 Why do some Autistic Kids play with light switches? 05:57 What is Neurodiversity? 12:21 How can the workplace be more inclusive of autistic people? 16:51 Is remote working the solution to exclusion of autistic people in the workforce? 19:07 How to discuss autistic strengths in a job interview 22:25 Should we force autistic people to socailise? 23:43 Autistic people are natural inventors 27:27 Autism 'hotspots' how to prepare for increased rates of autism in Tech hubs 31:10 Outro Enjoying the podcast? Leave a comment review and share it with a friend, it's the only way more people will find out about it!


Understanding Autistic Brains with Dr. Simon Baron Cohen

Tyla: Hi, I'm Tyla, I'm autistic. and welcome back to my podcast.

The 1% is a show that explores the realities of being an autistic adult in the modern world. In this episode, I'm joined by the head of The Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University. Dr. Baron Cohen. And if you've been here before, when we had the old name and I only interviewed autistic people and you're thinking "Dude WTF" just trust me. This episode's worth the a listen.

We cover three important things.

  • The concept of the hypersystemiser and its relevancy to autistic people.
  • We discuss how society became more inclusive to autistic people in the world of work and school.
  • We round up our chat with a look to the future of STEM.

Enjoy those three things a load of the gems that will help you understand autistic brains a little bit better. Also like not front loads with excuses, but this is my first episode back after a long time away.so I'm just a little bit rusty One last thing and then I swear to God, you'll hear Simon's voice. Like after this sentence, I promise you. If you find this episode helpful or useful, please do share it with a friend

Simon:  I'm Simon Baron-Cohen I'm the director of The Autism Research Center at Cambridge University  and I'm a psychologist I've been working in the field of autism research for over 30 years and I've just published this new book called The Pattern Seekers.

Tyla: So how did you fall, or maybe not fall, Why did you choose to study and research autism?

Simon: After I graduated  I  got a job as a teacher in a really small unit for autistic kids. This was back in the 80's when people didn't really know about autism or hadn't heard much about it and it was small in the sense that there were just six kids and six teachers so it was kind of  one-to-one. Really getting to know some kids in a lot of detail and their families  and it was sort of experimental because we didn't really know then and we could discuss whether we know any better now but we didn't really know what could be helpful. So it was kind of trying things seeing what worked  doing a lot of video recording of every day And we session in the school And then kind of reviewing the video tapes to see what had caused attention? What had caused a meltdown? What had caused a good session? You know just to try and understand what might help and  I've found it fascinating  went on to do a PhD and still doing research today.

Tyla: So this book is the first book to do with autism that I've actually read  and it was very easy to digest, so thanks for that!  So in it you talk about the system kind of say it systemize systemizing mechanism

Simon: Exactly!

Tyla: What is it?

Simon: So the this is a theory that there is a special mechanism in the brain which I call the systemizing mechanism which looks for a special kind of patterns in the world and in the book I call them 'If And Then Patterns'  and I argue that these patterns when we you know that that humans modern humans homosapiens are the only species that can look for these patterns and that it underlies our capacity for invention. We seem to be the only speciest that's ever lived and it is currently, living If you look across other animals, that can invent in a kind of generative way that we can not just invent once but we can do it lots of times and that you know these 'if and then' patterns we can talk a bit more about them if you like ,some people kind of look for them more than others. Some people who look for the moment it's nonstop what I call 'hyper systemizing' well I use this word 'systemizing' because the definition of a system is that it has this if-and-then pattern. There's a kind of logic to it and you could take a really simple example like if the light switch is up and I push it down then the light goes on, you know. So it'd be a very simple electrical system there  so systemizing doesn't need to be complex or very abstract  we come across systems all the time. You know, in our cooking you know if I take an egg and I boil it for four minutes then the yolk will turn from yellow to orange  it'll go from soft to hard. So the invention of cooking for example, which must've been a huge milestone in human evolution, you know we do it and other species don't do it and it opens up all sorts of possibilities for our diets and our survival you know it's it's a very important mechanism  and the link to autism is that in our research we've found that autistic people on average are more drawn more attracted to these special patterns  If and Then patterns than non-autistic people. So I kind of that's one of the arguments are making the book for why there might be a link between autism and the capacity for human invention.

Tyla: So with the hyper systemizer being one type of brain in the book you mentioned I think there's like four others and that's where you brought in the idea of 'neurodiversity' and as an angle or that's one that I've not seen before cause generally not diversity tends to be from what I've seen mentioned in terms of autism and then other  different conditions like dyslexia dyspraxia dah dah dah.  So how do you explain the other types of brains like the four of the different types of brains and how do we all exist in the world with all those brains?

Simon:  So you know the concept of neurodiversity first of all I think it's a really important concept and although I've been hearing that word for maybe 10 years I think a lot of people it's quite a new concept. It's sort of been out in the media much more in the last year or so as far as companies have started sort of thinking about it  and you're right that a lot of people use it to to mean we should be looking at people with neurodevelopmental conditions so autism, dyslexia, ADHD,  dyspraxia, there's a whole bunch of them but I actually think that if you really look at the concept of neurodiversity and if you take it seriously, the idea is that there isn't a single way for the brain to be or to the brain to get wired up. There's no such thing as the sort of 'normal brain' there's lots of ways to be normal if you like and you know there might be dozens .There might be hundreds you know that neuroscience and psychology is just beginning to scratch the surface that's saying how many different types of brains are there out there in the world, human brains and in my book I'm arguing that the research shows there's at least five. So we've already talked about people who systemize a lot 'hyper-systemizers'  that's one type. Then there are sort of people who kind of just systemize more than average but they're not sort of  really strong in terms of systemizing So I just call them type S the systemizing but there's a different kind of circuit in the brain that allows us to reveal other brain types in the population and that circuit is called the Empathy Circuit. So we started off our conversation talking about the systemizing mechanism which I think you can see the first signs of between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago in terms of looking at what were humans early humans producing what is left over in the archeological record But I think that this other circuit the empathy circuit is probably also evolved in the human brain at around that time because humans will not just inventing complex tools like a bow and arrow but they're also inventing  art sculpture music all sorts of things that are intended for an audience and so it's not just about can you invent something at a technical level, like a complex tool. But you know can you appreciate that another person I might be interested in what you're inventing and another person might be open to receiving a message communication through art through music through sculpture or through other forms of communication speech sign language all sorts of  and obviously empathy allows us to kind of imagine what's in another person's mind and also respond to their thoughts and feelings. So back to the kind of neurodiversity and the different brain types, I think that another big brain type out there in the world are people and I call type E for empathisers, so they are kind of more drawn to people than they are to things And they're more drawn to thinking about people's thoughts and feelings than they are to looking at the world of patterns  like the systemizers  there's a kind of group in the middle called type B for balanced that they're sort of equally interested in systems as they are in people  and then the last group are an extreme of the empathizes I call them extreme type E people who kind of empathize nonstop you know as soon as they are with another person they're already starting to imagine what that person might be thinking or feeling or even when they're not with another person they're just thinking about them in their absence you know but they're systemizing their systemizing might just be average or or even below average. So those are the kinds of five different brand types that I explore in the book Autistic people tend to be as a group, when you look at them on average tend to be more likely to be type S the systemizers or extreme type S. Really strongly drawn to patterns whilst their interest in people and particularly sort of you know the empathy it might just be average or below average at least when it comes to kind of one part of empathy you know what some people call 'Theory of Mind' or 'Cognitive Empathy' just kind of imagining what another person is thinking or feeling, it's not that autistic people lack empathy because that's definitely not true - you've met autistic people well, you've lived as an artistic person,  you know that autistic people care about others you know autistic people and you know don't want to hurt other people so they're not sort of callous and indifferent but they do have difficulties in reading other people So tyring to judge what somebody intended what somebody might know or need to know you know just keeping track of multiple perspectives as social interaction is changing all the time. So I don't know that gives you a sense of neurodiversity that goes way beyond people that have a diagnosis it's just about in any population, and we studied 600,000 people in a big study online and gave them various measures and then the empathy quotiant the systemizing quotiant and then the autism spectr the quotiant to look at how many autistic traits people have and we just learned a lot from that big study but we could see that in general in the population people fall into one of these five brain types and so when we think about neurodiversity whether it's in the education system or in the workplace we do need to think that people aren't all the same you know we're all different and that one brain type or one learning style isn't better or worse than another, they're just different.

Tyla: How can society be more inclusive for people who are hypersystemizers and specifically autistic hypersystemizers?

Simon: When I think about  school  and when I meet autistic people, a lot of them have had a miserable time at school and if the school doesn't meet your needs you can have a miserable time. So if we think about the way schools are designed at the moment  there's this thing called the national curriculum that you're meant to learn a lot of subjects all at once you know and if you think back to like GCSE is you're expected to learn 8, 9, 10 subjects simultaneously that just doesn't match the way autistic people like to think and like to work and learn you know autistic people and hyper systemizers like to go into one topic in detail and do it thoroughly and do it in depth and keep going to learn as much as they can about that one thing clinicians call it being obsessive I think that's a very like derogatory way of describing it cause I would I would actually say that autistic people like to specialize. They like to become a specialist in one thing at a time and don't want to learn things superficially, but the way that the education system is as designed you know every 30 minutes the bell rings and you're expected to switch to another topic which is in a hugely frustrating if you if you're someone that likes to just keep going deeper and deeper  there's lots of other ways in which the school system is kind of not working for a lot of autistic people whether they've got a diagnosis or not actually, so for example, not all kids want to learn in a large classroom, not all kids want to learn from a teacher, you know they might want to learn in a more solitary way or they might want to learn through through experimenting and doing and just like you know getting getting involved in activities and just learning for themselves and by themselves or in small groups which they can cope with as opposed to a classroom of 30 kids where there's a background and chatter and distractions and you know it can be overwhelming.  So I find it sort of heartbreaking that a lot of teenagers who are autistic drop out of school  they've often been bullied so there's that other side  of exclusion and not accepting people as being different  but they drop out, they often get depressed, so they end up with poor mental health. And then when we think about sort of the workplace you know again workplaces are often not designed to be autism friendly.  People might be an open plan offices which is really distracting for someone who's hypersensitive to sort of sounds and light and so forth  they might be expected to be sociable when they perhaps don't want to be as sociable as others, they might not even get the job in the first place If the interview is all about eye contact and reading between the lines all that stuff when Autistic people often like things to be really clear  and explicit not no kind of hidden messages in communication and may not enjoy eye contact. So for lots of reasons you can see that school and the world of work might be maybe unintentionally discriminating against autistic people and just the way it's set up and I think we could we could really sort of take a fresh look at the large numbers of people who struggle at school and at work and maybe maybe don't get a job,  maybe ended up on employed with all of the problems that that brings Feeling excluded from society not valued by society  not having any money so not feeling that you can even achieve independence or autonomy you know I think we could really take a fresh look and think how could we redesign workplaces without much money, or schools again without needing to spend a lot of money just a bit of intelligent sort of reflection on 'How could we make the classroom more inclusive?', 'How could we make the workplace more inclusive?'

Tyla: LSE put out, the London School of Economics, put out a blog post just wrote something up saying that this whole wave of telework and that's coming along with COVID this is what autistic people need. So  my my thoughts on that  were taken out of the workplace and make not making us work from home but saying working from home as the solution, in my eyes, letting a non-autistic people get away with not including or accepting our ways because we wouldn't be in the workplace so you don't have to deal with the autistic member of staff, you just send them an email cause they're not in the office though yeah, you can control your environment and yes you are like at home at home in a safe space somewhere that, you know, you don't have to deal with the social interactions I don't see that as a solution. What are your thoughts ?

Simon: COVID has been with us for just this year so I don't think there's been enough time to really sort of ask the autism community, Have they found it useful and sort of helpful to be working remotely?  Would they prefer to be in the workplace but maybe with different kinds of adjustments, to make it sort of comfortable ? You know I I don't think we should sort of assume  that tele working is going to be the answer for all autistic people   I mean I think that you know we have learned that we can work remotely  whether you're autistic or not there might be some benefits to working remotely that we that we could have maybe a more balanced work life balance you know we can stop them and go for a walk and you know things that   sometimes not as easy to do when you're in the office but  you know I think maybe there's there's a need for you know some consultation with the autism community about what would be their sort of preferred  way of working   .

How can we make it easier for them to participate in the world of work in stress free way you know and these days there's a lot of talk about mental health and you know keeping an eye on your stress levels but that should apply to everybody but you know it might be different for different autistic people and we just need to sort of ask individuals.

Tyla: Really rate that. In terms of the barriers to employment and you've mentioned it yourself like getting a job tends to be one that pretty high, so how would you sell a hyper systemizing brain in an interview in a way that the interviewer would understand what you're trying to say, cos we can throw these words about what if you don't understand what the word hypersystemizer means you don't understand pattern spotting. So how would you if you were an autistic person and in an interview and someone was like 'What makes you special?' How would you sell the hypersystemizing brain ?

Simon: I chose as the title of my book 'The Pattern Seekers' because everyone knows what a pattern is and the word 'seeking' implies that this is a person with a brain who actively seeks out patterns in the world they're almost drawn to them magnetically because they are predictable, that's the whole thing about patterns that unlike the social world which is highly unpredictable even this conversation we're not quite sure where it's going to go but with patterns by definition they you know you can repeat them, you can repeat them as many times as you like some people call them laws or regularities in the world  so these are you know so the hyper systemizer or  the person who loves persons is somebody who loves predictability and spotting those patterns. They can do that maybe more easily than other people so in an interview sorry that was kind of a long answer but in an interview I'd probably focus on the word pattern recognition but also I would if I was autistic I would probably request that the interview wasn't about sitting face to face and having a verbal kind of focus on the on the on the verbal parts of the interview I would say you know give me a task to do you know if if the job involves filing, or if it involves looking at a spreadsheet, or if it involves fixing a bicycle whatever the job is right, Give me a task and give me a few minutes to kind of   think about this logically and I'll have a good go at the task, and if I don't make eye contact or if I don't say very much you know judge me for what I can do don't judge me for the things that I find difficult because you know cause the social side is all part of the disability Otherwise people wouldn't need a diagnosis So to judge someone you know for as who's applying for a job based on the things that are at the core of their disability that that is sort of discrimination well its not sort of it is discrimination . Whereas if you sort of say well the person, the whole person who's applying for this job is more than just their disability they have lots of skills and let's just let them shine at what they enjoy and what they can do not sort of judge them for what they struggle to do and I think there are companies that increasingly are saying come in and show us what you can do with Lego For example you know talking about pattern recognition, build us something just using the things that many autistic kids love to play with or  yeah just giving them practical tasks and seeing that that shows the person's potential for this particular role.

Tyla:  I rate that. In terms of  socialising not being a system or like an if-and-then type of pattern, let me phrase that question completely better than that. We exist in a social world and we kind of can't avoid the fact that you are going to have to interact with and it doesn't come naturally to autistic people So through your research or just through anything that you know do you know of any like tips or tricks or like try this to be a little  bit better at it or just not find it so jarring and like fear inducing.

Simon: I mean of course there are kind  of programs that can help you so recognize emotions better, there are kind of social skills type programs but I suppose part of my message in this book is let's just accept autistic people as they are They shouldn't have to kind of change who they are let people be themselves because we know that if anyone tries to act as if there's somebody that they're not It's going to lead to anxiety You know what if somebody finds out  depression you know that I'm having to fake being somebody else because I'm not happy with who I am you know just let people be themselves and let's just enjoy diversity in any classroom or you know in any community.

Tyla: Is there anything within the book that you're like I love that part You've not asked me about it that you want to talk about today?

Simon: I'll answer that one first of all as a scientist because as you know that's what I do kind of day to day is I run a research group in the university and one of the kind of exciting findings that we had just in the last few years was to look at the genetics of autism and the genetics of people who love patterns, so hyper systemizers and finding that there's a significant overlap in their genetic makeup. And again on the face of it you might not expect there to be a connection people think of autism as a disability and they think of people who are good at systemizing as people for example, who work in STEM you know science, technology, engineering  and maths or other kind of  areas of work which involve aptitude  in pattern recognition including inventors you know and yet finding this genetic overlap between the two, to me that was an exciting moment in our research because it sort of saying you know maybe we should stop thinking about autism as what the Americans call a 'Disorder' I don't really like that word I think it's a bit too, kind of, a  bit harsh to tell somebody you know, 'You have a disorder or your brain is disordered' you know but I suppose what the science is telling us is actually that some of the genes that cause autism also cause  sort of talent and pattern recognition so it should force us to kind of think differently about autism because these same genes that we see surfacing in people who may need a diagnosis I've also played a role human evolution this is kind of the big story in the book You know that you know what sets us apart from other animals is our capacity to invent no other species does it and it seems like some of the genes for autism also gave rise to that ability. So I think it's a kind of   it's a different sort of take on autism but it's a very celebratory one  and it you know I think it's  it's much needed because you know a lot of autistic people that are struggling  and actually if we can talk about the positive sides of autism, you know it might just sort of encourage society you know employers, educators, social workers, doctors all kinds of people to start thinking differently about  the strengths, about what autistic people can bring to the world and do bring to the world.

Tyla: That message was really clearly, Im so bad with words, very clearly put across in the book especially in like the final couple of chapters and it made me think that we could potentially have you know how there are like entrepreneurship and like funding programs like anyone who wants to do a start-up if you're in this group, if you're in that group, but they're not focusing on the group that naturally has brains that are meant for invention, well not meant for inventions but naturally invent stuff, it's just like I feel like if at some point there was like an Autism Creators Fund or something like that that would be so liberating for those who were like yeah let me put myself forward for this, we could get probably get a couple of good inventions out it well. Something that we've haven't had time to discuss today as well is the

Simon: It's a brilliant idea by the way

Tyla: Thanks! Is the what do you call it The the study you did Tried to do at MIT Couldn't do it there Then you did it in

Simon: Oh I did it in Eindehoven.

Tyla: Sorry  just to summarize it, and I'll probably butcher it, feel free to correct me but looking at the hyper systemizing brains more likely to have autistic children I feel like some people hearing that would be like 'Oh my gosh we're going to end up with more autistic kids, what's going to happen to the world?' And yeah it's obviously not a positive take to have on it.

Simon: No, and again you know we're trying to change the perception of autism. We shouldn't think of autism as a burden on society or you know like a problem It's just another kind of mind And  and it's just all of us have strengths and difficulties You know autism is just one example of of a particular profile but we all have it you know some of us Great with words but can't play sport and you know there's kind of so many different and vice versa, right. So the other thing we should keep in mind is that autism is about 1% or 2% of the population so that's I think that's sort of it's a significant number of people

I think that by identifying where those people are likely to, which kinds of families kids might be more likely to develop autism in could mean that we can just target resources you know in a more kind of  I don't know effective way say if we know for example that Einthoven where we did that study autism rates were twice as high as the two other Dutch cities we looked at and we you were just mentioning Eindhoven is a bit like MIT it's got the Eindhoven Institute of technology so it's been attracting hyper systemizers for a long time and we also chose it because it's got the  Phillips factory there which has been there for a hundred years So several generations of hyper systemizers have moved to Eindhoven and had families and had kids there.

So once we know that that you know there's a link between hyper systemizing and autism, genetic link, it just means that where there are those cities you know  and there are plenty the Silicon Valley it would be another place on the planet but Bangalore might be a third one, there's lots of these places that attract hyper systemizers we might just need to put in place more support services for those families  and for their kids  again I don't see it as a big deal  but it just you know it's allowing us to learn something about the causes of autism at the level of genetics and to sort of think practically what support services will those families need

Tyla: I feel that it's a very great place to end the conversation today, so thank you for your time and is that like where can people engage with your work find out what you do and obviously we've got the book as well so if you want to just

Simon: Yeah so we have a website for our research which is autismresearchcenter.com

So that's where we make all of our scientific publications available open access  so people can kind of read about the research firsthand, and the book, The Pattern Seekers is more kind of taking the research and making it more accessible to the wider public, maybe people who may not sort of want to read scientific stuff because it's full of jargon and actually you know expressed in the right way Intelligent Public, the intelligent public, and that's the way I regard the public should be able to grasp these ideas just as just as well as the scientists so that's why I've written the book.

Tyla: That's it. First episode back over and out. We smashed out. I think I did good. You did great by listening anyway.

Hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and you want to be reminded when the next one comes out, head to go.autistictyla.com/remindme, and  I will send you an episode summary linked to the transcript and any extra resources that I find related to the episode, that are helpful. So that is go.autistictyla.com/remindme. It'll be linked in the show notes as well.

If you want to have a read of the book we were referenced throughout the episode, it's called The Pattern Seekers and again, guess where there's a link.? Yeah, it's in the show notes

One last thing before you go, if you found this episode useful, share it with someone, you know, or somebody you don't know completely up to you, but to share it, share the knowledge or the wealth share my questionable voice.

If you do decide to post it on social media, you can tag me @ AutisticTyla. That's it for now until next time, stay safe.