Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Are engineers autistic?

NO SANITATION, no transport, no decent healthcare, no global technology or space travel and no hope of a solution to global issues such as natural disasters and sustainability. That is where we would be if were not for engineers, says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters.

Despite this, no sector has been worse hit by the current skills shortage than engineering.

A recent survey by AGR found that 17% of engineering companies were having major recruiting problems, a higher percentage than any other sector.

Why is this? Gilleard describes the current situation as a 'war for talent' as engineering companies find themselves up against the 'glamour' industries.

Gilleard says companies have now recognised that softer, 'inter-personal' skills are as important as technical ability.

But can engineering graduates offer these skills? Science may have evidence that they cannot.

Dr Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge claims to have found a genetic basis for the perception that engineers cannot communicate effectively.

In an experiment where the medical history of the families of 640 engineering, maths and physics students were compared with the families of 650 literature students, he found that the engineers, mathematicians and physicians were six times as likely to have an autistic relative.

Autism is now accepted as highly likely to be inherited and is diagnosed on the basis of abnormalities in social development, communication and imagination - all skills required by the 'modern' engineer.

Baron-Cohen explains that this is a significant finding because those who have close relatives are at raised risk not only of autism itself, but also of a more widespread lesser variant.

This variant is characterised as involving deficits in 'folk psychology' (social understanding) in the presence of intact or superior abilities in 'folk physics' (understanding inanimate objects).

In a test developed by Baron-Cohen, the degree by which an adult exhibits traits associated with the lesser variant can be assessed for the first time. And the news is not good for engineers.

Baron-Cohen used his test to rate the ability of almost 1,000 students - of which 77 were engineers - in communication, social skill, attention to detail, attention shifting and imagination. In all five areas engineers proved to be less adept than social scientists and humanity students.

Within science, engineers do fare better, beaten only by medicine and the biological sciences.

So if it is an inherited, 'inborn bias' that draws individuals lacking in 'social understanding' to an industry clearly orientated around 'understanding inanimate objects' how do these same people then become the communicators that the industry is now demanding?

The Henry Palmer Award (NCE 21 September) is about developing skills to do exactly that. To communicate and to do so with perhaps the hardest medium of all - children.

The opportunity is there both to disprove science theory and improve personal skills, all the while introducing civil engineering to the next generation as challenging, rewarding and fun.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs