Citation: This was article is published as Sharon Beder, 'A bit of the Rain Man in every engineer?', Engineers Australia, April 1998, p. 57.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

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A couple of years ago the UK magazine Professional Engineering published an article entitled "Is there a bit of the Rain Man in every engineer?" linking engineers with children who have autism. Autistic children don't develop normal social relationships and they tend to wander off by themselves and play with mechanical things. The article said that engineers and autistic children shared various characteristics including strong visualisation skills, strong affinity with physical objects and being "less interested in social activities and communication." It cited a study by Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism specialist, which found that "the parents and grandparents of autistic children are twice as likely to be engineers as the national average for all occupations would suggest." In the sample of 820 autistic children's families there were 100 fathers who were engineers and 80 grandfathers.

This image of the engineer as technically-inclined and socially introvert is increasingly outdated. Engineering is an intensely social activity and engineers today are well aware of the social dimensions of their work. Engineers manage socio-technological systems; they bring together, work with, coordinate, manipulate and build upon various elements of a system which include not only things, but also social organisations, laws, financial and cost considerations, scientific theories, natural resources and public perception. The new engineer doesn't shrink from the social aspects of engineering work but embraces them and gives them full consideration.

To be sure, engineers in the past have often preferred to immerse themselves in the technical aspects of their work. Samuel Florman observed in his famous book The Existential Pleasures of Engineering that "Every engineer has experienced the comfort that comes with total absorption in a mechanical environment. The world becomes reduced and manageable, controlled and unchaotic."

This immersion has been caricatured by cartoonists. Engineer/cartoonist, Scott Adams, describes the engineer who goes off to work with a 'static-clinging' sock on the back of his shirt and comes home at the end of the day with it still there because no-one pointed it out to him at work. Adams says that this would only happen to an engineer in an engineering environment where everyone is focussed on and absorbed in their work. He says "the single most identifying aspect of the engineer's personality is the ability to go a mile deep in some specific subject, but be blind to things on either side. He has an incredible ability to become very intense in certain subjects, often at the expense of social awareness or some broader interests."

Cartoonists tend to portray the traditional engineer, according to James Braham, writing in the American magazine Machine Design, as "a nerdy-looking character, with thick glasses, short hair, several pens and pencils in his shirt pocket, perhaps in a plastic pocket protector, wearing clothes that are never quite up to fashion." The 'nerd' stereotype of the engineer, arises in part from the traditional emphasis on technical aspects of the profession.

However engineers are now keen to throw off this image of a narrow technical focus and disinterest in society. Raising the status of engineering is seen to be dependent on fostering a broadened outlook. The 1995 president of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, Ian Mair, pushed for a broader definition of engineering that went beyond providing technical solutions to problems and involved engineers seeing themselves as having a role in defining problems and considering social and environmental issues.

This change in how engineers see themselves and in how others see them will require a change in engineering education, one that is currently being recognised by the engineering profession all over the world. Speaking at the launch of the new British Engineering Council in 1996 the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University spoke of the need to make room in the engineering curriculum for arts subjects and also extra-curricula activities that "provide an essential social broadening" as well as communication and leadership skills.

The Australian review of engineering education launched at the end of 1996 calls for nothing "less than a culture change in engineering education" which will ensure graduates communicate well, are effective team players and "demonstrate a high level understanding of the broad human, economic and environmental consequences of professional tasks they undertake".