Neurological Disorder or Natural Diversity?
Are conditions like autism and Asperger's Syndrome truly disorders?
Posted Mar 28, 2008
I read, in Dr. Kramer's post, "Weird and Proud," about an article in Wired Magazine article about a woman with autism who believes that autism is not a disorder, but a different way of being. Carlin Flora's follow up "Weird and Wonderful" further followed this train of thought, bringing out examples of other people whose challenges became strengths.
While it's refreshing to see members of the general population exploring this idea, especially a respected psychiatrist like Dr. Kramer, it's not a new one to those of us who live on the autistic spectrum. Many of us have come to realize that our disabilities often come with a compensating ability.
In her book, Thinking in Pictures, Temple Grandin Ph.D., a noted animal scientist, and author with autism, dedicated a chapter of her book, "Einstein's Second Cousin," to exploring the genetics of autism. In it, she speculates that the clusters of genes that cause such differences as autism, manic-depression, and schizophrenia are the same that carry traits such as creativity, or mathematical talent. She writes, "If the genes that cause autism and other disorders such as manic-depression were eliminated, the world might be left to boring conformists with few creative ideas. The interacting cluster of genes that cause autism, manic-depression, and schizophrenia probably has a beneficial effect in small doses."
Personally, I believe that this is true. In a world of natural selection, why would the genes for autism continue, unless they also imparted some benefit? It is unquestionable in my mind that Asperger's has given me many gifts along with the challenges. Talents in art, music, computers, memory, and intellectual pursuits have been the basis of my life and the means by which I connect to the world.
In "The Geek Syndrome" (the article that finally led me to the diagnosis of Asperger's), journalist Steve Silberman also speculated that the genes for autism and Asperger's go hand in hand with abilities in math and technology. He writes, "It's a familiar joke in the industry that many of the hardcore programmers in IT strongholds like Intel, Adobe, and Silicon Graphics - coming to work early, leaving late, sucking down Big Gulps in their cubicles while they code for hours - are residing somewhere in Asperger's domain. Kathryn Stewart, director of the Orion Academy, a high school for high-functioning kids in Moraga, California, calls Asperger's syndrome 'the engineers' disorder.' Bill Gates is regularly diagnosed in the press: His single-minded focus on technical minutiae, rocking motions, and flat tone of voice are all suggestive of an adult with some trace of the disorder. Dov's father told me that his friends in the Valley say many of their coworkers 'could be diagnosed with ODD - they're odd.' In Microserfs, novelist Douglas Coupland observes, 'I think all tech people are slightly autistic.'"
Sites like Kathleen Seidel's neurodiversity.com have accumulated impressive lists of celebrities and historical figures with autistic traits, citing such notables as Stephen Spielberg, Nikola Tesla and Andy Warhol. In his books Diagnosing Jefferson and Asperger's and Self-Esteem: Insight and Hope Through Historical Role Models, journalist and author Norm Ledgin looks at the autistic traits of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Orson Welles, Marie Curie, Gregor Mendel, and Wolfgang Mozart.
Could it be that just as we have variations in eye color, hair color, height, body shape and size, that we were designed to have variations in neurological wiring? That certain of us humans were designed to suffer in the social realm, in order to realize the benefits of certain specific intellectual abilities, such as abilities in math, technology, art, music, or science? If tomorrow, these conditions were eliminated, would we also eliminate these talents?