Last month's Nature had a special on autism exploring where we are with our understanding of the disorder, and included an interesting article by autism guru Baron-Cohen about his evolving theory on the genetic basis of autism or "The result of assortative mating of two high systemizers". Translated simply this means people who are more 'systematic' rather than 'empathic' are predisposed to having a child with autism. Going further the hypothesis suggests scientists and their ilk (ie. anyone ever obsessed enough about something involving thinking and logic or who has ever been antisocial), are more likely to have a child with the neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by impaired social interaction, communication deficit and repetitive behaviour. And that's assuming these antisocial scientists ever score a date/mate long enough to successfully reproduce!
The evidence supporting the Baron-Cohen hypothesis comes from anecdotal observations of high functioning autists who demonstrate characteristics which are 'scientific'. Being 'obsessive' about particular subjects/hobbies, seeking order and repetition all at the expense of social interaction and 'feeling'.
The argument goes as far as to suggest that notable scientists would have been diagnosed 'autistic' if they were alive today (though the DSM-IV catalogue has enough catagories for everyone to be diagnosed with some mental disorder). In the following clip, he makes the claim that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein along with Marie Curie and Paul Dirac revealed 'autistic' behaviours as recollected in their biographies.
His critics agree that while the hypothesis is sound it "needs to be tested," (guess Baron-Cohen is not autistic then?). One need only think a certain Baroness and her propensity to make claims without rigorous scientific inquiry (another non-autistic!?) to realise that such statements can be dangerous if left unsubstantiated. Short of testing every scientist, engineer and mathematician- this theory needs further investigation. Perhaps there's something to the hypothesis - if so, then we will be forced to reassess autism as a disorder and maybe even rethink what makes someone a real scientist!