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AofA Science Summary: Are systemizing and autistic traits related to talent and interest in mathematics and engineering?

Science post imageProfessor Simon Baron Cohen's research includes the theory of the extreme male brain: "Research on relatives of people with Asperger syndrome and autism has found that their fathers and grandfathers are twice as likely to be engineers as the general population. Natural science students have more relatives with autism than humanities students. Asperger syndrome is found more often in mathematicians and their siblings than in the general population. Both mothers and fathers of children with Asperger syndrome tend to score high on systemizing. Both mothers and fathers of children with autism or Asperger syndrome often have father who worked in systemizing occupations. Both mothers and fathers of children with autism have a strongly masculine pattern of brain activity when doing systemizing activity.*"  The study below found otherwise.

Item 1 of 1 (Display the citation in PubMed) 1. Br J Psychol. 2012

Nov;103(4):472-96. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02089.x. Epub 2011 Dec 22.

Are systemizing and autistic traits related to talent and interest in mathematics and engineering? Testing some of the central claims of the empathizing-systemizing theory.


School of Psychology, University of Plymouth, UK Department of Psychology, University of Florence, Italy.


Testing some of the central claims of the empathizing-systemizing theory. Morsanyi K, Primi C, Handley SJ, Chiesi F, Galli S. Source School of Psychology, University of Plymouth, UK Department of Psychology, University of Florence, Italy. Abstract In two experiments, we tested some of the central claims of the empathizing-systemizing (E-S) theory.

Experiment 1 showed that the systemizing quotient (SQ) was unrelated to performance on a mathematics test, although it was correlated with statistics-related attitudes, self-efficacy, and anxiety. In Experiment 2, systemizing skills, and gender differences in these skills, were more strongly related to spatial thinking styles than to SQ. In fact, when we partialled the effect of spatial thinking styles, SQ was no longer related to systemizing skills.

Additionally, there was no relationship between the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) and the SQ, or skills and interest in mathematics and mechanical reasoning. We discuss the implications of our findings for the E-S theory, and for understanding the autistic cognitive profile. ©2011 The British Psychological Society. PMID: 23034108 [PubMed - in process]

*The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, Edited by Robin Dunbar and Louise Barret, Oxford University Press, 2007, Chapter 16 The evolution of empathizing and systemizing: assortative mating of two strong systemizers and the cause of autism, Simon Baron-Cohen.


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Borat ...very good , you made me laugh , and how true too

B-Cohen has zero chance of ever adding anything to the Vaccine\Autism mystery unless he looks in the right place .
Which of course he is well paid to not do !

Maths Tutor

I have taught maths to several students with autism and agree that their mathematical ability is down to natural talent and not due to any strong systematization skills.

Jenny Allan

Further to my original comment, and in view of the other interesting comments subsequently posted. I should also tell you all that my grandson's secondary school leaving certificate contained a pass-in MATHS!! He is now studying at college.

We are all so proud of him, because he has applied himself to achieve academically, in spite of his profound problems with cognitive perception, which are life long. We have never 'nannied' him or provided any extra subject tuition. HE is the person who must live his life and he must find his own ways to adapt and cope.

Please have faith in your autistic children, whatever their abilities. Encourage their independence and boost their self esteem.


Someone needs to write a book, "Smart Parents - Brain Injured Kids" --- Autism is like REVERSE Darwinism - the smart genes are being destoyed and NOT passed on at all as most of these children will never be parents themselves. Mother Nature would NOT do that on purpose. Ever. K


My 10 year old nephew has Asperger's and struggles with Maths.

Both his parents didn't finish their High School Certificate (Secondary School-left school around 16 yrs of age)and are not Mathematicians.

Are there any studies that show a diverse range of people? Or do they [the researchers] become very selective "cherry picking" certain people to prove their theory/idea?

Elizabeth Gillespie

moon batchelder

my child is also poor in math...can't transfer either math or spelling skills from short term to long term memory, which is, i am told, a common problem in autistic kids. altho memory doesn't seem to be a problem with regard to vocabulary and comprehension beyond proper spelling, nor does it inhibit an ability to understand principles of math or science.

Statistics lie

Unless the autism is mild, it will very likely affect all skills including math skills. So if the autistic people tested were more affected, then it's no surprise that math skills did not show up.

What's most telling is the study showing fathers and grandfathers of people with autism have strong math skills. This gives an indication of what the next generation would have excelled at, had autism not occurred.


Who'd ever suspect that Sacha was the smartest Baron-Cohen?


My son has always been poor in math.

Difficult to understand

Jenny's account somewhat mirrors my experience. My child was very early talker, began reading at age 2, was reading at sixth grade level by age 5 and knew the multiplication tables by then also. Seemed brilliant in contrast to peers, but difficulties became more clear through the years. Very bright and talented in certain ways, but algebra and geometry were nightmares and inability to keep focused has limited enjoyment and comprehension of literature and history. College may be an option, but it won't be in science, mathematics, or literature and lack of social skills have made teenage years a difficult struggle with depression. Heading off to college/developing independence/getting a job? turns out to be a very difficult and scary undertaking for all involved.

Jenny Allan

Research conclusions (from above):-
"Additionally, there was no relationship between the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) and the SQ, or skills and interest in mathematics and mechanical reasoning."

This is a very interesting piece of research, with wide reaching implications for both the autism community and the public perception of autism as a 'condition'.

I have never subscribed to the slightly weird hypotheses and experiments of Simon Baron-Cohen, which involved, amongst other things, wiring up the heads of tiny babies in order to prove that autism is an inherited disposition. Nor do I 'swallow' all that romantic nonsense about all autistic persons somehow being 'gifted' scientifically and mathematically.

Yes, some autistic persons ARE gifted intellectually and in other ways, but those persons who are struggling to bring up non verbal, disabled autistic children despair at such generalisations. Human diversity applies to autistic persons in much the same ways as to anyone else. But mostly, autism represents a lifetime struggling to achieve what most unaffected persons would regard as a 'normal' existence.

My own experiences with my autistic grandson, seem to 'back up' this new research. At 2-3 years old the little boy could read 'the Oxford Dictionary'. No one taught him to read. We only found out when he chanted the names of the horses in the Sun Newspaper racing section; (his dad liked a bet!). The educational psychologist who was eventually assigned to him by his nursery school, refused to believe my grandson could read, but she had to 'eat her words' when the little boy read her own psychology assessment back to her when sitting across the table. He read the notes upside down!!

So far so good you might say. WRONG!! My grandson may have been hyperlexic, (the proper name for this ability which is common in autistic children), but he was five years old before he could TALK!! We used his reading ability to 'programme' his speech.

As for maths, my grandson's numeracy abilities echoed his reading abilities and he could count up to thousands in his head instantly, a bit like the 'Rain Man'. In UK schools, mathematics and arithmetic are regarded differently. When my grandson went to secondary school, he was instantly put into a group of 'high flying' maths children. That did not last and he ended up after several 'demotions' in one of the poorest groups, not good for anyone's 'self esteem'. I had several sessions helping my grandson with his maths homework and soon realised the 'handicapps' he had. His very poor fine motor skills meant he could not reproduce geometry maths diagrams. As for algebra, there was no problem if a b or x could be substituted with a real number but 'pure' algebra like quadratic equasions? FORGET IT. Autistic persons cannot process purely abstract concepts.

The 'establishment' sources are presently attempting to 'normalise' autism in public perceptions. This is wrong and should be resisted by those of us who know only too well the realities associated with this condition.

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