Because “geek” is not the most scientific term, and for some may be pejorative, I needed to formulate a more precise definition of the cognitive talents shared by technical-minded people and people with autism. In the early 2000s Wheelwright and I surveyed nearly 100 families with at least one child with autism and asked another basic question: What was their child's obsession? We received a diverse array of answers that included memorizing train timetables, learning the names of every member of a category (for instance, dinosaurs, cars, mushrooms), putting electrical switches around the house into particular positions, and running the water in the sink and rushing outside to see it flowing out of the drainpipe.
On the surface, these very different behaviors seem to share little, but they are all examples of systemizing. I define systemizing as the drive to analyze or construct a system—a mechanical system (such as a car or computer), a natural system (nutrition) or an abstract system (mathematics). Systemizing is not restricted to technology, engineering and math. Some systems are even social, such as a business, and some involve artistic pursuits, such as classical dance or piano. All systems follow rules. When you systemize, you identify the rules that govern the system so you can predict how that system works. This fundamental drive to systemize might explain why people with autism love repetition and resist unexpected changes.
This article was originally published with the title Autism and the Technical Mind.