"It seems that for success
December 19, 2001 3:41 PM   Subscribe

"It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential." But now the techies in Silicon Valley who prospered with that dash are having children with far more pronounced problems. Is having too many shy programmers in one spot the equivalent to pissing in the gene pool?
posted by hellinskira (31 comments total)

 
This seems a lot like Silicon Valley going, "Oh we have autism? Oh it must be that only GENIUSES have autism! That is it!"
posted by geoff. at 4:01 PM on December 19, 2001


Nick's father is a software engineer, and his mother is a computer programmer.

Jeez, if I was Nick, I'd retreat into my own mental fantasy land too...

BTW, what's the difference between a "software engineer" and a "computer programmer"?
posted by plaino at 4:08 PM on December 19, 2001


The Autism-Spectrum Quotient Test is pretty interesting, too. (MeFi's fearless leader scored a 28.)
posted by mrbula at 4:13 PM on December 19, 2001


I've always thought there was something about autism, some untapped human potential that manifests itself in autistic behavior. Glenn Gould, one of the world's greatest and most original pianists, may have been autistic. I don't think this possibility detracts from his greatness at all... but it's something to think about.

So these kids can't function very well socially. So what? If our society was structured differently, it might not be a problem.
posted by speicus at 4:14 PM on December 19, 2001


geoff.: This seems a lot like Silicon Valley going, "Oh we have autism? Oh it must be that only GENIUSES have autism! That is it!"

I got that impression from reading some of the responses to this on Slashdot. Some of 'em sounded downright eugenicist: as if a little Asperger's syndrome was simply proof that the human race was evolving, and that they were happy to have it and to be a part of it. Geek superiority backed up with genetics. May just have been an impression, but I was bothered by it.
posted by mcwetboy at 4:17 PM on December 19, 2001


I got that impression from reading some of the responses to this on Slashdot. Some of 'em sounded downright eugenicist: as if a little Asperger's syndrome was simply proof that the human race was evolving, and that they were happy to have it and to be a part of it. Geek superiority backed up with genetics. May just have been an impression, but I was bothered by it.

I'd say that's going too far, way too far. On the other hand it also bothers me when people are like, "Omigod this is AWFUL these kids behave somewhat DIFFERENTLY than we expect them to." It sucks that they can't function well in our society, but this doesn't necessarily make their differences bad.
posted by speicus at 4:28 PM on December 19, 2001


In it, psychologist Tony Attwood describes children who lack basic social and motor skills, seem unable to decode body language and sense the feelings of others, avoid eye contact, and frequently launch into monologues about narrowly defined - and often highly technical - interests.

Isnt this a description of people commonly referred to as "nerds"? Seriously, I understand the need for diagnosis and treatment of the extreme cases (e.g. children who have trouble developing language) but whats wrong with a "touch" of autism or a "touch" of schizophrenia (as I was once referred to). We seem constantly to be trying to define ourselves by throwing ourselves into a category.
Perhaps I am, and you are, a unique amalgamation of tendencies and disorders, of wants and needs that defies easy description.

To me, any geek who proudly proclaims his autism, who flaunts it is just a demented loner looking for some sense of belonging. Grab your 20-sided dice and go back to your fantasy world, I say.
posted by vacapinta at 4:31 PM on December 19, 2001


"Temple Grandin - the inspiring and accomplished autistic woman profiled in Oliver Sacks' 'An Anthropologist on Mars' - calls NASA the largest sheltered workshop in the world." Grandin is most likely the best-known high-functioning autistic in the world. "You're not going to get by on your personality," she says, in her no-nonsense manner. "You have to pick something and be really good at it. Then just learn the social survival skills."
posted by Carol Anne at 4:55 PM on December 19, 2001


If you are ever privileged to be amongst a group of individuals with bipolar disorder, one of the topics of discussion will invariably be whether or not the curse of the illness is also actually a blessing-as it comes with such creative heights, emotional sensitivities and the like......it is easy to romanticise the condition at times-and yet the other side of the coin is that depending on what variety of bipolar one is afflicted with, there can be life-shattering problems to deal with as well....

I read this article earlier today myself-on one hand it is a coping mechanism to see the advantages when one is handed these sorts of syndromes to live with-but i think it is not a good thing at all to sugar coat the difficulties-the"normals" around you will never see you as anything but different no matter how brilliant you are.
posted by bunnyfire at 4:58 PM on December 19, 2001


Seriously, I understand the need for diagnosis and treatment of the extreme cases (e.g. children who have trouble developing language) but whats wrong with a "touch" of autism or a "touch" of schizophrenia (as I was once referred to).

Well, nothing is wrong with a touch of autism. Except that it now appears that autism is genetic, so both parents having a touch of autism appears to make it much more likely that the kid will have a serious case thereof.

planio: software engineer : computer programmer :: architect : carpenter, more or less.
posted by jaek at 5:03 PM on December 19, 2001


software engineer + computer programmer = the kid everyone makes fun of in gym class
posted by hellinskira at 5:12 PM on December 19, 2001


My roommate is a behavior specialist who works with autistic kids in the Bay Area (and yes, she says it's well known that CA has higher rates than other areas). This isn't a matter of "kids behaving somewhat differently," a la ADD or whatever, this is something that makes the children, in severe cases, entirely unable to deal with any other human being. She's got the physical scars to prove it. It's more complicated than just being an anti-social geek into fantasy games. Those are the ones who can still function somewhat -- the author is saying it's when those types breed that's the problem. I think this could be a big horror for society if it's really on the rise. I for one don't want to be surrounded of people who can't "decode body language and sense the feelings of others." This capacity, this picking up of cues subconsciously, is part of what makes us human and able to relate appropriately to each other. We are social creatures, interdependent on one another. We evolved to have emotional intelligence. I don't believe we're just suddenly growing out of it as a species.
posted by fotzepolitic at 5:13 PM on December 19, 2001


'TWENTYSIX' I proclaimed, just before Edison smacked me in the face with a cream pie; "that just means you are smarter and less social than your pit bull after she was rehabilitated by the mind police". With Boogers like icecycles hanging out of his nose, Bobby Fisher was screaming something about the normal machine...I started my search
posted by Mack Twain at 5:21 PM on December 19, 2001


i'm a normal 13 on the AQ scale. i suppose in autistic terms that makes me retarded...I'm with fotzepolitic on this one, guys.
posted by wantwit at 5:58 PM on December 19, 2001


Someone left the copy of Wired this is from in my building's lobby. Well researched articles and yet somewhat pointless.

Otherwise, I second what fotzepolitic wrote in regards to the work involved in teaching and treating autistics. One of my best friends used to teach autistic children--so well and skillfully , that now she is a nationally recognized consultant on the topic. She's moved on to something equally challenging but physically easier: teaching reading to children from illiterate underclass families where the only printed matter in the house is cereal boxes and other food packaging. Both require a great deal of training and hard won patience.

Temple Grandin is an interesting person but I don't envy her for the life she leads. I can't imagine life without touching or being able to be touched by other people, making love, making or getting jokes, knowing and caring about how others feel from moment to moment or being at one with a crowd of thousands when Al Green sang Let's Stay Together at Bumbershoot.
posted by y2karl at 6:00 PM on December 19, 2001


I read through the slashdot responses at 3 when that threshold returned over 60 posts. Some of them were grandly delusional and amazingly smug. My thought was "I don't know if you've got Asperger's, but I know you've got Asshole."
posted by NortonDC at 6:16 PM on December 19, 2001


Haha.
The idea that the average slashdotter could be in any way 'elite' in the eugenic sense is just about one of the funniest things I've heard in my life.

Maybe a couple years ago...
posted by delmoi at 6:51 PM on December 19, 2001


For those curious about autism "from the inside", Nobody Nowhere is an autobiographical account of a functional autistic's childhood years. From this book's page, there's also a link to her second book, which deals with her adult life. Read this several years ago. Really interesting.
posted by Su at 7:00 PM on December 19, 2001


It is interesting that people are so quick to pathologize their alienation. I don't doubt that there are people who are legitimately autistic or suffering from Asperger's, but it is odd to watch the Slashdot crowd jump on the disease and view it as proof of their "evolved" state. It's got to be the result of too much pop psychology and X-Men comic books.

I hope that this doesn't become something of a fad, with people who are convinced that they are suffering from this disease taking away resources from the people who really need the help.
posted by rks404 at 7:03 PM on December 19, 2001


i got a 42, and am perfectly unemployable. thank goodness i have a sugar daddy who thinks i'm "quirky"
posted by sadie01221975 at 7:29 PM on December 19, 2001


It is interesting that people are so quick to pathologize their alienation.

Determinist excuses are quite popular these days. I'm pretty curious how all of these slashdot kids managed to get through grade school let alone graduate with a CS degree with their supposed autism.

I better call my phrenologist and make sure my kids don't have any geek bumps.
posted by skallas at 7:58 PM on December 19, 2001


The Autism-Spectrum Quotient Test is pretty interesting, too. (MeFi's fearless leader scored a 28.)

I don't put much faith in the test. I think it gives a high score for shyness, among other personality traits.

(I got 28 too, but the description of Asperger's isn't much like me at all.)
posted by eoz at 8:19 PM on December 19, 2001


I don't know, but when I read this article something just clicked; the symptoms they were describing sounded exactly like my friend of 15 years...

Psychologist Tony Attwood describes children who lack basic social and motor skills, seem unable to decode body language and sense the feelings of others, avoid eye contact, and frequently launch into monologues about narrowly defined - and often highly technical - interests.

When I read that passage I nearly fell out of my chair. That's Josh, I thought. He never makes eye contact with me and certainly can't decode what other people are feeling. I wonder if there really is something to this syndrome.

Up until we were like 12, we were perfect friends--legos, then messing with computers, then video games, etc. We were both kind of outcasts. But then whatever I began to grow out of he never did. When I started to like girls he never quite grasped the concept. Today I have many friends but his only friend is me. Everything is just too technical with him, and it's becoming extremely difficult to relate anymore.

Everything else functions normally with this guy, but some part of him that allows one to be, dare I say it, human, is missing. Last summer it really started to upset me, so much that I yelled at him crying. He of course had no idea why. There's no way I can explain to him why people make fun of him after I introduce him, and why he should respect his parents. If it can't be mathematically proven then it can't be possible, hence there is no God.

The list goes on. If I had one wish it would be that this syndrome could be cured. I used to make fun of geeks but now I can't feel much besides pity.

Sorry this was such a long ramble but I figured someone would have a similar experience.
posted by MarkO at 8:27 PM on December 19, 2001


Great, great article. It really presents a lot of new thinking - some stuff I've never seen before.

My only brother, Christopher, is now 31 years old, and has had autism since birth. He's not a high-functioning autistic, just an average cipher (as far as average can get for autistics). His world is one of welcome routine - he lives in a group home supported financially by the state, social security and my father. When people mention autism, remember that it is indeed a broad spectrum, and most of those afflicted are not Rain Man or some other type of savant. My brother is quiet, subtly emotional, very conscious of 'doing the right thing' - but usually confused about what that might be. He's doesn't really function well enough to even begin to try a test on him. He looks normal from a distance, but if you watch him a while you can tell he's a bit of an odd duck.

Sorry for the long post, but it's personal. Being the older brother of someone whose concept of the world is so completely alien really makes you sit back and think hard about your own conception of things. Why him and not me? Do I have some genetic time bomb waiting for me in later life (or worse for my daughter?). FWIW I scored a 26 on the test - just below borderline, but it really seems so subjective.

This article points out a lot of genetic linking that I haven't seen before, and causes me to worry. The old thinking used to be that it was random - anyone might get it. There is no other history of autism in either of my families, at least not for the previous four generations or so. I've been clinging to the notion that "better diagnostics" was the cause for the rise in cases, because it makes sense to me, especially since autism was only recently discovered as a condition. Now I'm a little more worried.

Anyone who wishes autism on themselves or others is just plain idiotic - buying into a wishful Hollywood scenario, and overlooking the huge social and personal detriments. The thing that pissed me off so much about the movie Rain man was the ending - where Tom Cruise's two weeks of efforts to get closer to Raymond were repaid with a small token of affection - Raymond leaned his head against his brother. It was cute, but felt like a slap to those of us who will never get that small bit of thanks from those we love with autism - no matter how hard our efforts are.
posted by kokogiak at 11:24 PM on December 19, 2001


Tests like this always bother me because half of the questions just don't make sense to me. So I end up having to decide whether to answer the question being asked, or the question as I understand it. I usually go for the question being asked, which I'm sure produces incorrect results. Anyway, I did end up scoring above the median, or whatever.
I've had more than one person tell me they thought I was at least mildly autistic. Except for the part about lacking motor skills, everything I've seen about autism or Asperger's doesn't do much to refute the idea, but in the end my feeling is, "And?" I've gotten this far without it coming up. Yes, it's important to identify those for whom normal daily function might be a problem, but this is like trying to find an excuse to use at convenient moments.
My ears don't fold over at the top. I found out some months ago that this is caused by a birth defect, with a name and everything. Wonder if I can use that for something...
posted by Su at 12:27 AM on December 20, 2001


One of the interesting sidelights of this article is the way the author savages Bruno Bettelheim, the doctor who blamed autism on the "refrigerator mother" and whose course of treatment was the "parentectomy". His verbiage sounds very Freudian, so that's the first clue that it is all a bunch of bunk. I can't imagine the kind of suffering and guilt that this caused for the families of autistic children. As if it weren't hard enough to have an autistic child, it must have been heart-breaking to have all of the experts put the blame on the mother.
posted by rks404 at 12:33 AM on December 20, 2001


38.

Not a surprise.

I first stumbled across the Whole Asperger's Thing just over a year ago when an aside in a Nick Drake newsgroup mused over whether he was autistic and I found that I could recognise most of the indicators in myself (other indicators, like tone of voice, I'm less able to judge).

The attraction of such a tag is that if (like me) you've grown up slightly socially marginalised, with a tendency to knock things over, a chaotic home and illegible handwriting, enacting a futile struggle against these things for decades, to stumble across the possibility that it is not (as you have previously been told) the result of laziness and extreme moral failure on your part, but arises from the way in which you naturally relate to the world, the effect is curiously liberating. It's a lot easier to deal with specific notions of where there might be problems rather than carry around a generalised sense of your own uselessness.

It isn't a disease.

Hell, for most high-functioning autistics, the main thing that makes it a problem is other people's small-mindedness. And occasionally complicated forms. Or that might be me generalising from personal experience.

My reaction was a lot more like when someone realises that they might be gay - suddenly a lot of things that didn't make sense before came into focus. It was liberating to realise that this was just a way that some people were. The definition "autism" is a convenient clinical label, the Syndrome is Asperger's definition. At base these things don't mean anything, except to the degree that they might be helpful (for example to Kokogiak and his brother). It's just a way of alluding to a section of humanity who parse and process information differently.

Of course it's all my opinion - I really wouldn't want to mess with the medical establishment on this one,

fotzepolitic:

the author is saying it's when those types breed that's the problem.

I'm amazed that people have let you get away with using that phrase. I'm sure that a lot of society's ills could be cured by preventing "those types" from breeding. The criminal classes, for example.

And yes, I know someone who works with severely autistic kids, too and realise that it's not a doddle.

I for one don't want to be surrounded of people who can't "decode body language and sense the feelings of others."

You won't be. They'll all be off doing things they find more interesting than surrounding you.

We evolved to have emotional intelligence

I suspect that both "emotional" and "intelligent" are descriptions of inherent capacities within both us and other mammals. Some people who are described as autistic are highly intelligent, others that I've met I certainly wouldn't describe as "unemotional", but then that's because I wouldn't tend to define emotion purely within the terms of specific socially defined modes of expression. The "trainspotter" stereotype is highly emotional - being in the presence of what I can only describe as "rightness" - the goal of one's obsessiveness, I suppose - can be hugely gratifying, joy-inspiring and ecstatic, whereas 'wrongness" can be devastating. These are both emotional positions.

Or something.

Excepting the possibility of nuclear war, meterorite strike or some hideous global disease, the human race really isn't going to die out very soon, and it doesn't matter if a a few people are more interested in data than they are in dating. Don't worry about it.
posted by Grangousier at 1:02 AM on December 20, 2001


My son is autistic. His eighth birthday is a week away, but he is not anticipating it any more than he is anticipating Christmas. He still wears diapers. He has no friends. He has never interacted directly with another child his age. He is very affectionate with me, his mother, and with a select few other people. Any other human being does not register with him any differently than a lamppost or a rock. Left to his own devices he would gladly watch the same 30 seconds of a Disney video tape over and over again for hours, so much so that I have removed the circuit boards behind the buttons on my VCR so that it only operates with the remote control. And I have to keep the remote hidden. When I kiss him he says, "I love you" in exactly the same rote voice he says "I want candy please." When we are out in public I can't take my eyes off him for a moment or else he will wander away, and he has no way to ask for help or even realize he needs help. He swims like a fish, taught himself over the course of a summer with no help from me beyond hovering nearby to keep him from drowning, and yet he is completely incapable of passing a swim test because he wouldn't understand the instructions.

Oh, and I'm a software engineer.

If geeks want to pretend they are autistic, let them come live in my home. They'll run screaming back to their safe little geek world in under 24 hours. I guarantee it.
posted by Lokheed at 1:16 AM on December 20, 2001


Interesting new research found that "the brains of the autistic children were about 10 percent larger than those of normal or developmentally delayed children... one portion of the brain, the amygdala, was disproportionately larger in autistic children. The amygdala is a part of the brain used for emotional processing, particularly for picking up cues on people's emotions..." So bigger is not better in this case, but maybe helps to explain that dash of genius.

Also, there's an excellent HBO video, George: A Family Documentary, about 12-year-old George by his father, a documentary film maker. George is a very smart boy, in his way, and HBO wanted to withdraw from the project after seeing the first segment, saying he's "not autistic enough." Then they saw the next segment. A fascinating look into the complexities of autism.
posted by ferris at 6:27 AM on December 20, 2001


Grangousier:

> > the author is saying it's when those types breed that's
> > the problem.
>
> I'm amazed that people have let you get away with
> using that phrase. I'm sure that a lot of society's ills
> could be cured by preventing "those types" from
> breeding. The criminal classes, for example.


What on earth is there to "get away with?" It's no different from saying there's nothing wrong with being heterozygotic-recessive for haemophilia; it's when two persons of this genotype breed and produce a homozygotic-recessive child with full-blown haemophilia that there's a problem. Get it?
posted by jfuller at 6:31 AM on December 20, 2001


Jack: Thanks. I actually didn't know.
posted by plaino at 8:21 AM on December 20, 2001


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