November 26, 2008

Asperger's gift

A great aspect of futurism these days is just how multi-disciplinary it is.

The recent Convergence08 UnConference was a case in point. This event brought together a diverse array of thinkers with interests spanning the fields of synthetic biology, cognitive science, AI, nanotechnology, political science, economics, cosmology and more. For futurists and transhumanists alike, there's virtually no topic that's off limit -- you just need to geek-up the conversation accordingly.

What's equally remarkable to me is that the attendees of these events are typically able to hold their own. I'm always amazed by this when I go these conferences, where each and everyone is a polymath in their own right. Oftentimes what begins as casual conversation routinely develops into brainstorming sessions and on-the-spot theorizing; I often get the feeling that I should be taking notes.

Indeed, you hang out long enough with this crew and you quickly realize that it's hardly a random sampling of the general population; not only do transhumanists tend to be well informed, they're also a very intelligent bunch.

And if you hang out even longer with this group, you will also come to notice the prevalence of Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism (you know, 'Aspies,' those socially awkward types we used to call "nerds" in the old days). So pronounced was this at Convergence08 that it could have doubled as an Asperger's convention.

Affliction or condition?

Which got me thinking about all the talk these days on how Asperger's is a "terrible" disease that's "ravaging" our youth. Given the richness of the conference and my experience with Aspies, I'm not so convinced. There's much more to this issue than meets the eye.

So many parents these days unnecessarily freak out when they find out that their child has Asperger's. In turn, they frantically search for treatments -- everything from anti-depressants and Applied Behavior Analysis (which can include aversion therapy) to homeopathy and detoxification.

These treatments seem to skirt the causal issue; what most people fail to realize is that the growing prevalence of autism is likely due to genetics -- a consequence of the Flynn Effect and smarter people getting together to produce even smarter babies. Smarter, but nerdy babies.

Moreover, Asperger's isn't necessarily something that needs be 'cured' outright. This is a conversation that's sorely lacking in nuance and sophistication. Rather than discuss the finer details of neurodiversity and neurotypicalism, parents are put into a state of panic by autism groups and the media. Consequently, Asperger's is commonly looked at as a disease rather than a valid cognitive style.

Asperger's gift

Now, I fully recognize that Asperger's brings with it some definite disadvantages. I'm well aware of and sympathetic to the hardships that many families face -- the temper tantrums, emotional detachment and frequent social ostracization that's part of the condition. It's not easy for the child or the parents.

At the same time however, many of these disadvantages arise from the expectation of neurotypicality and social conformity. I often feel that it's not the Asperger's child that needs to be re-conditioned, but society itself. Collectively speaking, we need to do a much better job catering to their needs. It's called acceptance and understanding -- and it's an indelible part of our ever growing and increasingly tolerant multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-neurological, and multi-whatever-comes-next society.

That's not to say that Aspies should do without social skills training or other alternative therapies. It's good to give them the opportunity to learn those soft-skills that will help them get through life and forge positive relationships. It's good to help Aspies develop their motor skills, balance and articulation. But it's the imposed re-wiring of their brain that I worry about and the diminishment of the Asperger's experience.

Indeed, I wouldn't be making this case if I didn't feel there was some value to having Asperger's. Autism, as a social communication and empathy disorder, often manifests in strange ways. Very often the condition brings a cognitive gift along with it. Aspies are typically known to have exceptional math, logic and memorization skills. In addition, they often exhibit higher than average levels of intelligence and a proclivity to microfocus on specific areas of interest. Hence their predominance in the transhumanist community.

And as a result, Asperger's Syndrome has produced some of the finest minds humanity has ever known.

Best of both worlds?

Perhaps someday we'll have the wisdom and know-how to deal with autism and Asperger's in a more elegant way, where our children are given the opportunity to flourish and have the best of both worlds.

But until then we all need to relax and work to become more understanding and accommodating. We also need to acknowledge and celebrate the fact that Aspies live and work among us; they enrich our lives, our society and our culture.

Indeed, after attending Convergence08, I imagined what the conference would have looked like if Aspies weren't around.

The event I imagined was empty in more ways than one.


Athena said...

People are routinely given psychoactive treatments when they are perceived not to conform. This ranges from women suffering from severe menopausal symptoms to restless children (aka ADD). The meds keep people quiet, a much easier solution than altering rigid social structures, particularly work environments.

zentinal said...

Funny thing, at the last worldcon in L.A., there was a panel on convention fandom & Asperger's, musing on the intersections between the two communities. The most interesting topic: How much has fandom altered itself to make itself more amenable to the aspie community, through modes of communication, standards of social interaction, etc? I wonder if the same thing has happened in the transhumanist community?

AnneC said...

You said: But it's the imposed re-wiring of their brain that I worry about and the diminishment of the Asperger's experience.

YES! I am so happy to see you write this because that is exactly the sort of thing that I was trying to explain to you maybe 2 years ago.

It is really difficult for a lot of people to grasp that yes, it is okay to help people, but no, you cannot just assume that bulldozing over their entire neurology and replacing it with something "normal" is necessary in order to help them (or that doing so will not cause the loss of anything of value to that person, etc.).

In other words, sure, help improve some of the subroutines, but no need to rip out and replace the entire operating system just because the current cultural climate isn't flexible enough to easily account for the actual diversity of its citizens.