In The Economist a few weeks ago I read a book review of Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman. The review noted that, historically, some geniuses have suffered from various degrees of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Specifically mentioned were Henry Cavendish, Nikola Tesla and Paul Dirac. The review reminded me how much I have learned about autism over the last 15 years or so and how it has affected the lives of those in my family (even though no one in my family has “autism” per se).
Autism-like symptoms have affected me. When I was in secondary school and then, later, as an undergraduate in university, I suspected that I was somehow different. I couldn’t concentrate the way my friends did and I spent far more time organizing my notes than actually reading them. I even took offense at the word “study” because I didn’t really know what it meant. Later, when I was working on my Masters’ degree, I didn’t understand what others meant by “work” or “research” so I coined the phase “emulating work” to refer to my own efforts. I wanted to suggest that I did something that looked like the work of my colleagues but was not work in the traditional sense. It never occurred to me that, through my idiosyncratic way of dealing with others, I had something in common with those afflicted with autism. In fact, back then, I knew very little about autism and, like others, thought autism was always a debilitating disease. Autism may have created idiots savants with incredible, if narrow, capabilities, but I thought it always crippled its victims socially.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not autistic. But in recent years I have come to understand that autism is simply an extreme version of a class neurological characteristics that creates people like me. Furthermore, I think that many of those with a mild case of these characteristics are better human beings than the population as a whole. A case in point is the engineering profession. Most engineers seem to have varying degrees of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), which seems related to, if not a subset of, the Autism Spectrum Disorders. The Economist article noted that individuals that have an engineer for a grandfather are far more likely to be autistic than those who do not. Of all the professionals I know, engineers, as a group, are the better people. They are kinder, more charitable and less greedy than lawyers, doctors, dentists and pharmacists. And I say this even though I would have thought that doctors would win on this score. After all, what could be more charitable than caring for others? But doctors today are too well paid to be the technicians they are, leading the profession to attract the wrong kind of people. Those with ADHD and other ASD-related symptoms struggle in our society because they have a different way of functioning socially. They are therefore unlikely to be medical doctors, even though they might prove to be excellent in that capacity. So, instead of considering mild-form autism as a negative, we should see it as a positive and learn to better incorporate these individuals into our society. The more high functioning autistics we put to productive use, the better a world we might live in.
Is it a crazy idea? I suppose it is, and yet look at the shortcomings in our society. We all shrug and say that politicians are liars and crooks. But how many politicians are engineers? Or autistic?
Autism Spectrum Disorders can indeed be debilitating. But the milder forms can also provide benefits to the individual and to society. I’m not sure, but I think that every male in my immediate family has some form of autism spectrum disorder, even if it’s very mild. And those individuals are very high functioning. The fact that electro-shock therapy has been used as a treatment for autism until recently highlights the poor state of the psychiatric profession. I feel for those parents that have a child with a seriously debilitating form of autism. But for those parents who have children with a mild form, such as Asberger’s Syndrome (which has recently been dropped as a label in its own right) or ADHD, I say to them, “Take comfort in the fact that your child will probably be a good person and a positive contributor to our society. Fight for your child’s right to contribute to society. Don’t let anyone electro-shock your child. And your child may turn out to make a significant contribution to our society. Your child may even predict the existence of some wondrous new phenomenon. After all, Dirac predicted the existence of antimatter.” Isn’t that opportunity what every parent wants for a child anyway?
How much are we missing as a society by not encouraging these smart, kind and talented people to be part of our society just because they’re a little different?