Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-fv566 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-17T11:35:22.385Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

15 - The paradox of autism: why does disability sometimes give rise to talent?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2011

Simon Baron-Cohen
University of Cambridge
Emma Ashwin
University of Cambridge
Chris Ashwin
University of Cambridge
Teresa Tavassoli
University of Cambridge
Bhismadev Chakrabarti
University of Cambridge
Narinder Kapur
University College London
Alvaro Pascual-Leone
Harvard Medical School
Vilayanur Ramachandran
University of California, San Diego
Jonathan Cole
University of Bournemouth
Sergio Della Sala
University of Edinburgh
Tom Manly
MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit
Andrew Mayes
University of Manchester
Oliver Sacks
Columbia University Medical Center
Get access



We explore why people with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) not only show deficits but also areas of intact or even superior skill. The deficits are primarily social; the areas of intact or superior skill involve attention to detail and systemizing. Systemizing is the drive to analyse or build a system. We review the evidence related to systemizing in ASC and discuss its association with sensory hypersensitivity. We close by considering the evolution and adaptive features of systemizing and how – taken to an extreme – this can also give rise to disability.


Paradoxes emanating from human brain functioning have long been noted – patients with amnesia who cannot explicitly recall information but who nevertheless reveal implicitly that they do recall information; patients with reported blindness who nevertheless demonstrate some ‘unconscious’ vision (‘blindsight’); Brazilian street children who fail academic mathematics tests but who are lightening quick in performing calculations in the market place; and individuals who experience perceptions in one sensory modality when a different sensory modality is stimulated (‘synaesthesia’). In some sense, paradoxes in brain functioning should perhaps not be so surprising given the number of different ‘modules’ and pathways in the brain, such that some functions may be impaired whilst others may simultaneously be either intact or even superior.

Whilst we are familiar with syndromes where most, if not all, cognitive functions are impaired (such as in certain forms of learning disability or dementia), this chapter focuses on what can be learnt from syndromes displaying uneven cognitive profiles.

The Paradoxical Brain , pp. 274 - 288
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


,APA. (1994). DSM-IV Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
Ashwin, C., Ashwin, E., et al. (submitted). Olfactory hypersensitivity in autism spectrum conditions.
Ashwin, C., Ricciardelli, P., Baron-Cohen, S., et al. (2008). Positive and negative gaze perception in autism spectrum conditions. Social Neuroscience, 4: 153–64.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Ashwin, E., Ashwin, C., Rhydderch, D., Howells, J., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2009). Eagle-eyed visual acuity: an experimental investigation of enhanced perception in autism. Biological Psychiatry, 65: 17–21.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bach, M., & Dakin, S. (2009). Regarding eagle-eyed visual acuity: an experimental investigation of enhanced perception in autism. Biological Psychiatry, 66: e19–20.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Baldassi, S., Pei, F., Megna, N., et al. (2009). Search superiority in autism within, but not outside the crowding regime. Vision Research, 49: 2151–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6: 248–54.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Baron-Cohen, S. (2003). The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
Baron-Cohen, S. (2006). The hyper-systemizing, assortative mating theory of autism. Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 30: 865–72.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Baron-Cohen, S. (2008). Autism, hypersystemizing, and truth. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61: 64–75.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (2004). The empathy quotient: an investigation of adults with Asperger Syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34: 163–75.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’?Cognition, 21: 37–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baron-Cohen, S., Aswhin, E., Ashwin, C., et al. (2009). Talent in autism: hyper-systemizing, hyper-attention to detail and sensory hypersensitivity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, Biological Sciences, 364: 1377–83.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Baron-Cohen, S., Bor, D., Billington, J., Asher, J., Wheelwright, S., & Ashwin, C. (2007). Savant memory in a man with colour form-number synaesthesia and Asperger Syndrome. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 14: 237–51.Google Scholar
Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1986). Mechanical, behavioural and Intentional understanding of picture stories in autistic children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 4: 113–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baron-Cohen, S., Richler, J., Disarya, B., et al. (2003). The Systemising Quotient (SQ): an investigation of adults with Asperger Syndrome or High Functioning Autism and normal sex differences. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 358: 361–74.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Spong, A., Scahill, V., & Lawson, J. (2001). Are intuitive physics and intuitive psychology independent?Journal of Developmental and Learning Disorders, 5: 47–78.Google Scholar
Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Stone, V., & Rutherford, M. (1999). A mathematician, a physicist, and a computer scientist with Asperger Syndrome: performance on folk psychology and folk physics test. Neurocase, 5: 475–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Belmonte, M., Gomot, K. M., Gomot, M., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2010). Visual attention in autism families; ‘unaffected’ sibs share delayed and prolonged fronto-cerebellar activiation but not decreased functional connectivity. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 51: 259–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Belmonte, M. K., Cook, E. H., Anderson, G. M., et al. (2004). Autism as a disorder of neural information processing: directions for research and targets for therapy. Molecular Psychiatry, 9: 646–63.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bennetto, L., & Kuschner, E. S. (2007). Olfaction and taste processing in autism. Biological Psychiatry, 62: 1015–21.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bertone, A., Mottron, L., Jelenic, P., & Faubert, J. (2003). Motion perception in autism: a ‘complex’ issue. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15: 218–25.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Blakemore, S. J., Tavassoli, T., Calo, S., et al. (2006). Tactile sensitivity in Asperger syndrome. Brain and Cognition, 61: 5–13.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bonnel, A., Mottron, L., Peretz, I., Trudel, M., Gallun, E., & Bonnel, A. M. (2003). Enhanced pitch sensitivity in individuals with autism: a signal detection analysis. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15: 226–35.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Boso, M., Emanuele, E., Prestori, F., Politi, P., Barale, F., & D'Angelo, E. (2010). Autism and genius: is there a link? The involvement of central brain loops and hypotheses for functional testing. Functional Neurology, 25: 27–32.Google Scholar
Casanova, M., Switala, A., Trippe, J., & Fitzgerald, M. (2007). Comparative minicolumnar morphometry of three distinguished scientists. Autism, 11: 557–69.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Cascio, C., McGlone, F., Folger, S., et al. (2008). Tactile perception in adults with autism: a multidimensional psychophysical study. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 38: 127–37.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Conacher, G. (1990). Childhood autism as a disturbance of neuronal migration. Psychiatric Bulletin, 14: 744.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Martino, B., Harrison, N., Knafo, S., Bird, G., & Dolan, R. (2008). Explaining enhanced logical consistency during decision making in autism. Journal of Neuroscience, 28: 10,746–50.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Frith, U. (1989). Autism: Explaining the Enigma. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
Gomot, M., Belmonte, M. K., Bullmore, E. T., Bernard, F. A., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2008). Brain hyper-reactivity to auditory novel targets in children with high-functioning autism. Brain, 131: 2479–88.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Gomot, M., Bernard, F. A., Davis, M. H., et al. (2006). Change detection in children with autism: an auditory event-related fMRI study. NeuroImage, 29: 475–95.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Grandin, T. (2000). My Experiences with Visual Thinking, Sensory Problems and Communication Difficulties. The Center for the Study of Autism.
Happe, F. (1996). Autism. London: UCL Press.Google ScholarPubMed
Heaton, P., Davis, R. E., & Happe, F. G. E. (2008). Research note: Exceptional absolute pitch perception for spoken words in an able adult with autism. Neuropsychologia, 46: 2095–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hermelin, B. (2002). Bright Splinters of the Mind: A Personal Story of Research with Autistic Savants. London: Jessica Kingsley.Google Scholar
Hillier, A., Campbell, H., Keillor, J., Phillips, N., & Beversdorf, D. (2007). Decreased false memory for visually presented shapes and symbols among adults on the autism spectrum. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 29: 601–16.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Huang, Z. (2009). Molecular regulation of neuronal migration during neocortical development. Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, 42: 11–22.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Jaervinen-Pasley, A., Wallace, G. L., Ramus, F., Happe, F., & Heaton, P. (2002). Enhanced perceptual processing of speech in autism. Developmental Science, 11: 109–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jolliffe, T., & Baron-Cohen, S. (1997). Are people with autism or Asperger's Syndrome faster than normal on the Embedded Figures Task?Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 38: 527–34.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Jolliffe, T., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2001). A test of central coherence theory: can adults with high functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome integrate fragments of an object. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 6: 193–216.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Joseph, R., Keehn, B., Connolly, C., Wolfe, J., & Horowitz, T. (2009). Why is visual search superior in autism spectrum disorder?Developmental Science, 12: 1083–96.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbance of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2: 217–50.Google Scholar
Kern, J. K., Trivedi, M. H., Garver, C. R., et al. (2006). The pattern of sensory processing abnormalities in autism. Autism, 10: 480–94.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lee, K., Choi, Y., Gray, J., et al. (2006). Neuronal correlates of superior intelligence: stronger recruitment of posterior parietal cortex. Neuroimage, 29: 578–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Leekam, S. R., Neito, C., Libby, S. J., Wing., L., & Gould, J. (2001). Describing the sensory abnormalities of children and adults with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37: 894–910.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mottron, L., & Burack, J. A. (2001). Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in the Development of Autism. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
Mottron, L., Burack, J. A., Iarocci, G., Belleville, S., & Ennis, J. T. (2003). Locally oriented perception with intact global processing among adolescents with high-functioning autism: evidence from multiple paradigms. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44: 904–13.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Mottron, L., Burack, J. A., Stauder, J. E., & Robaey, P. (1999). Perceptual processing among high-functioning persons with autism. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 40: 203–11.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Myers, P., Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (2004). An Exact Mind. An Artist with Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.Google Scholar
O'Riordan, M., & Passetti, F. (2006). Discrimination in autism within different sensory modalities. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36: 665–75.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
O'Riordan, M., Plaisted, K., Driver, J., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2001). Superior visual search in autism. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27: 719–30.Google ScholarPubMed
Ozonoff, S., Pennington, B., & Rogers, S. J. (1991). Executive function deficits in high-functioning autistic children: relationship to theory of mind. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 32: 1081–106.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Perner, J., Frith, U., Leslie, A. M., & Leekham, S. R. (1989). Exploration of the autistic child's theory of mind: knowledge, belief, and communication. Child Development, 60: 689–700.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rumsey, J., & Hamberger, S. (1988). Neuropsychological findings in high functioning men with infantile autism, residual state. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 10: 201–21.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Russell, J. (1997). How Executive Disorders can bring about an Inadequate Theory of Mind. Autism as an Executive Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Sacks, O. (1995). An Anthropologist on Mars. London: Picador, 232.Google Scholar
Schmitz, N., Rubia, K., Amelsvoort, T., Daly, E., Smith, A., & Murphy, D. (2008). Neural correlates of reward in autism. British Journal of Psychiatry, 192: 19–24.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Shah, A., & Frith, U. (1983). An islet of ability in autism: a research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 24: 613–20.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Shah, A., & Frith, U. (1993). Why do autistic individuals show superior performance on the block design test?Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 34: 1351–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Suzuki, Y., Critchley, H. D., Rowe, A., Howlin, P., & Murphy, D. G. (2003). Impaired olfactory identification in Asperger's Syndrome. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 15: 105–07.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Tavassoli, T., Ashwin, E., et al. (submitted). Multimodal hypersensitivity in individuals with autism spectrum conditions.
Tomchek, S. D., & Dunn, W. (2007). Sensory processing in children with and without autism: a comparative study using the short sensory profile. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61: 190–200.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Tommerdahl, M., Tannan, V., Cascio, C. J., Baranek, G. T., & Whitsel, B. L. (2007). Vibrotactile adaptation fails to enhance spatial localization in adults with autism. Brain Research, 1154: 116–23.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Treffert, D. (2010). Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.Google Scholar
Wing, L. (1997). The Autistic Spectrum. Oxford: Pergamon.Google ScholarPubMed

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats