March 4, 2006

Revenge of the Nerds

Once outcasts, some autistics now see their condition as a cognitive gift and even the next stage in human evolution—at the dawn of the transhuman age, who's to say they're wrong?

By George Dvorsky, January 3, 2005

It was hard to believe that that the words were coming from a seven-year-old boy.

"Another characteristic of mammals is that they give placental births," he said, "Oh, except marsupials like kangaroos and koala bears." Changing gears slightly he continued, "And then there are animals with endoskeletons and exoskeletons. Humans, because they have bones on the inside of their bodies have endoskeletons, but insects have exoskeletons on the outside." With a vocabulary more closely resembling that of someone in grade nine, he chimed off the bits of scientific triviata as if he were directly linked to Wikipedia.

Clearly, this was no ordinary second grader, whom I chatted with recently at a Toronto specialist's office. Compared to other kids with Asperger's syndrome, however, his abilities are considered quite typical. His younger brother, who also has Asperger's, is already doing multiplication tables in his head while most of his kindergarten classmates are still trying to count to 10. The boy also has social interaction and behavioral problems typical of those with Asperger's. He tends to construe all advances from his classmates as bothersome, for example, compulsively chews on his sleeves and frequently stands up to spin in class. This is pretty textbook stuff for "Aspies"—an affectionate moniker that's increasingly coming to be used to refer to those with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

Yet despite the problems, and considering his cognitive gifts, there's a good chance that this boy will integrate successfully into society and lead a fulfilling and meaningful life. That's what a growing segment of the autistic community wants the rest of society to acknowledge. Organizing around the idea that their condition is not so much a disability as a valid mode of psychological being, a growing number of autistics say that the problem is not with their condition but with the general unwillingness to accept and integrate them into society.

Moreover, because of their enhanced cognitive skills, many autistics consider themselves to be the way of the future. In a world where science, programming and math skills are increasingly desirable, where pending neurosciences promise diverse modes of consciousness and psychology, and where interpersonal shortcomings can be made up with communications technologies and social training, monotone neurotypicality may indeed be on the way out.

Good company

Historically, autism and Asperger's have always been with us. It's only now that we've got fancy names to describe them.

While never officially diagnosed as having autism, a number of historical figures are highly suspected of having it. Newton, Nietzsche, Einstein, Turing and Wittgenstein are seminal thinkers who all exhibited autistic-like traits. In the arts, Jane Austen, Beethoven, Mozart and van Gogh also likely had autism. And today, prominent figures such as Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, Keanu Reeves, Al Gore and, of course, the poster-boy for high-functioning autistics, Bill Gates, are all suspected of having autism.

Clearly, autism does not necessarily adhere to its reputation as debilitating affliction. The 1988 film Rain Man, in which Dustin Hoffman portrays a highly disturbed autistic man, has unfortunately colored much of the popular conception surrounding the disorder, offering most people the sense that autism is in all cases quite severe.

The engineer's disorder

Once thought to be a psychiatric disorder, autism is now known to be neurological despite its psychological characteristics. It is a neural condition that falls within the spectrum of pervasive developmental disorders, having considerable variability in terms of its effects on those who have it.

Occurring more frequently in boys, common traits include difficulties with emotional communication and social relationships. Autistics tend to have problems with hypersensitivity to incoming stimuli (such as sound and light), and tend to exhibit patterns of behavior and interests that are uncommon for "neurotypicals" (i.e. non-autistics).

With the high-functioning Asperger's—a kind of autism-lite—those who have it tend to have higher than usual intelligence often accompanied by cognitive gifts. Children are likely to develop sophisticated and precocious language skills at an early age. They have excellent spatial and geometric awareness, excellent rote memory skills and become intensely interested in one or two subjects. But true to their autism, Aspies tend to have difficulties understanding nonverbal communication. They tend to comprehend everything literally and have social interaction problems. Additionally, they tend to engage in repetitive activities, have difficultly maintaining eye contact, and have poor motor coordination.

In other words, they're nerds.

There is considerable debate as to the causes of autism, but a strong case can be made for there being a genetic component. Ongoing research is focusing on finding the markers that determine autistic phenotypes, but such markers may never be found. Most autistic children, for example, tend to have neurotypical parents, throwing a wrench into the whole genetics angle.

On the rise

One fascinating possibility was expounded in a 2001 Wired article, "The Geek Syndrome," which noted the disproportionately high number of autistic children living in Silicon Valley. The author, Steve Silberman, suggested that its residents, many of whom work in the computer industry, tend to have above average intelligence and gravitate toward tech jobs. Consequently, there is a greater chance that nerdy parents will pair off and have children in Silicon Valley—a phenomenon that Silberman argues may be a facilitating factor in the rise of Asperger's.

As with the cause of autism, there is uncertainty and controversy about whether the incidence of autism is increasing, or if there's simply an increase in the number of reported cases. If the actual incidence is rising, then environmental factors may be playing a part. Or, it could be that parents who produce autistic children are pairing off more frequently, with, as Silberman suggests, some kind of strange selectional effect coming into play.

Still, critics argue that it's the increased tendency to diagnose autism that's on the rise, which explains the increase in reported cases. More teachers, clinicians, parents and doctors are aware of the condition, they argue, so diagnoses are more likely.

But in North America, studies are showing that the incidence may in fact be rising, growing from one in 5,000 to one in 150 to 400 in the last few years. Other investigations show an increase in autism of 173% in the past decade.

The autistic rights movement

Whether one believes that incidences of autism are on the rise, or that it's the detection of the condition that's on the increase, one undeniable fact is that in a relatively short period of time an identifiable autistic community has emerged. And as with any definable group, it has organized and is starting to fight for what it believes is right.

The spark that kindled the autistic rights movement was lit by Jim Sinclair (who has autism himself) in a speech he gave at the 1993 International Conference on Autism in Toronto. Later adapted to the article "Don't Mourn for Us," Sinclair's speech argued that an unnecessary stigma had been attached to autism—a stigma that had resulted in nothing less than discrimination against individuals endowed with an entirely valid mode of psychological being.

"Autism isn't something a person has, or a 'shell' that a person is trapped inside," wrote Sinclair, "there's no normal child hidden behind the autism. Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence. It is not possible to separate the autism from the person—and if it were possible, the person you'd have left would not be the same person you started with."

The tragedy, said Sinclair, is not that autistics exists, but that the world has no place for them to be.

In the aftermath of Sinclair's speech, a number of special interest groups and Websites emerged, including, Graphic Truth and Aspies for Freedom. A number of activists also spoke up, including Canadian Michelle Dawson, mute activist Jasmine O'Neill and Colorado State University professor Temple Grandin.

High on the agenda of concerns was, and still is, the "treatment" of autism. The use of drugs, for example, is widely disputed—an issue that, for autistics, brings to mind the use of drugs to "treat" homosexuality last century. Many autistics, including their concerned parents, are becoming increasingly wary of using psychopharmacology and neuroleptic drugs. They argue that autistic people are not psychotic, particularly anxious or depressed. Consequently, the group Autistic People Against Neuroleptic Abuse was organized to counter the tendency.

Another controversial form of treatment is applied behavior analysis (ABA). This treatment involves the training of autistic children through trials and negative and positive reinforcement of tasks that grow in complexity over time. Some, such as Dawson, say this is tantamount to abuse and demand that it be stopped.

Autistic activists are essentially anti-cure and anti-therapy, while being pro-education and pro-integration. They construe attempts to weed-out autism as a kind of genocide—as a way to enforce neurotypicality on the entire human populace.

Good on a resume?

As an alternative, these activists demand opportunities for autistics to apply what they see as their unique skills and perceptions. Given the current employment landscape, this is not an entirely unrealistic goal. Aspies in particular seem almost hardwired for certain jobs. In fact, some employers are coming to realize that there may be a benefit to hiring them for particular positions.

Detail analysis, for example, tends to be problematic for neurotypicals, whereas scenario analysis is difficult for Aspies. Fast response to individual stimuli is difficult for neurotypicals, while handling long sequences is problematic for Aspies. And typical impulse-driven Aspie conversation causes problems for neurotypicals.

It's been said that the autistic brain works much like a computer, which may in part explain the tendency towards IT and programming jobs. Silicon Valley, as already discussed, is a haven for those with autism. Similarly, Temple Grandin once remarked that NASA was the largest sheltered workshop in the world. As Steve Silberman noted in his Wired article, working in "a WYSIWYG world, where respect and rewards are based strictly on merit, is an Asperger's dream."

Our post-neurotypical future?

With the rise in diagnoses, in conjunction with an increase in activism and social opportunities, it comes as little surprise that some autistics see their ilk as a precursor to the future human. Transhumanists, after all, speculate about the rise of the cognitively enhanced posthuman. Enhancement is already here today, argue the autistics, in the form of autism and Asperger's. Moreover, human intelligence appears to be increasing naturally. The so-called Flynn effect reveals that human IQ is increasing at a rate of three points per decade (although the cause appears to be mostly environmental).

Tony Attwood, an expert on Asperger's, has gone so far as to suggest that it may be the "next stage of evolution." For all its awkwardness and pain, he says, Asperger's is "a gift" that, handled well, can be an avenue to a rewarding life.

Taking these notions even further, one Aspie community is pushing for the creation of "Aspergia," a refuge for those who consider themselves displaced by neurotypical society. They are actively trying to re-brand the Asperger's label and spin it as a "positive mutation," one that is progressively gaining more genetic real estate over time. "So this mutation, which keeps recurring, and is hereditary," they ask, "does it possibly have a role to play in the evolution of humankind?"

While I remain skeptical that posthumanity will be overrun by autistics and Aspies, they do bring up an interesting point about the growing presence of valid alternative psychologies and the recurring societal tendency to counter the phenomenon by defining and enforcing some sense of psychological normalcy.

As with human wellness and morphology, neurology is set to come increasingly under each person's control. Given the impetus to explore the wide potential and variability in human cognition, it will be through such things as genetic engineering, neural interface devices, cybernetics and neuropharmaceuticals that a steady diversification of cognition and consciousness will occur; in short order there will be a pluralization of psychological modes of being—much more than just the autism/neurotypical divide.

As a result, different people will process their environment and live their lives in a far more diverse manner than they do today. True to the general imperative to pursue happiness, future humans will explore and expand the conscious space within which they reside and function in hopes of living a meaningful and experiential life. The age of the neurotypical, as much as there ever was such a thing, will soon become a thing of the past.

And as the autistic community is showing, acceptance and accommodation of the psychologically different is a must in a society that values human diversity and potential. So my seven-year-old friend, who only recently received the diagnosis of Asperger's, has a lot to look forward to.

Copyright © 2005 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, January 3, 2005.

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