Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, recognized as among the world’s leading authorities on autism spectrum disorders, recently spoke out against the possibility of a pre-natal genetic test for autism, citing concerns that such information could be used to selectively abort autistic fetuses. Why is this? Is Baron-Cohen a strong pro-life advocate? If he is, he gave no such indication, pointing instead to the benefits of having autistic members of society.
At this point, many people are undoubtedly scratching their heads. According to conventional wisdom, autism is a debilitating lifelong disability that leaves the victim tragically unable to develop basic life skills, and in the popular consciousness it is loosely associated with mental retardation. What benefits could there possibly be to keeping autistics around? That autism comes with its own set of challenges is undeniable; many autistics have a difficult time navigating social nuances and have difficulty in interpersonal relationships. Autistics may also be affected by other problems, such as sensory integration disorders or epilepsy, which is much more common among autistics than in the general population.
However, the reality of autism is not all bad. Professor Baron-Cohen previously published a number of studies showing a strong relationship between autism and mathematical ability. Indeed, the prestigious Cambridge University, at which he teaches, allegedly has one of the highest rates of autism in the world. Other studies have shown autistics shine in spatial skills and pitch discrimination. A study from the University of Florida uncovered that high-functioning autistics were better than non-autistics at discriminating “false memories.” Keio University Medical School alleges that people with Asperger’s Syndrome have superior fluid intelligence, and therefore are better at abstract reasoning and pattern analysis. Even the hallmark deficit of autism – emotional detachment – may in some circumstances be advantageous. A recent study from Caltech found that autistics, less likely to be swayed by emotion, were better able than their non-autistic peers to make rational decisions. Autistic spectrum disorders are also known to be much more common among students in fields such as mathematics, engineering and computer science. Many common characteristics of autism, such as attention to detail, superior spatial skills, attentive memories and an almost-obsessive focus on a special interest, can serve to enable autistics to excel in various fields, most commonly technical fields such as engineering or computer science.
Nor is Baron-Cohen alone in his opposition to a pre-natal test for autism. The nearly unanimous opinion of researchers in the field is that autism has both its benefits and its drawbacks, and that the correct approach is to help autistics cope with their difficulties while cultivating their unique gifts. The continued drive to find a “cure” for autism is misguided at best and, in the words of Baron-Cohen, risks that we may “inadvertently repeat the history of eugenics or inadvertently ‘cure’ not just autism but the associated talents that are not in need of treatment.”