April 24, 2009

The link between autism and extraordinary ability

Evidence is growing to support the suggestion that there is a link between genius and autism [duh, just hang out at any transhumanist conference for a taste of this]. This week's Economist takes a look into how that link might work and whether neurotypicals can benefit from the knowledge.

The read-between-the-lines suggestion here is that neurotypicals might be able to engage in cognitive enhancement by working to emulate the autistic brain.

Oh, but wait now, isn't autism and Asperger's supposed to be an 'affliction' and a 'blight'? Hmmm, sounds like an acute case of autism envy...

From the Economist:
That genius is unusual goes without saying. But is it so unusual that it requires the brains of those that possess it to be unusual in others ways, too? A link between artistic genius on the one hand and schizophrenia and manic-depression on the other, is widely debated. However another link, between savant syndrome and autism, is well established. It is, for example, the subject of films such as “Rain Man”...

...A study published this week by Patricia Howlin of King’s College, London, reinforces this point. It suggests that as many as 30% of autistic people have some sort of savant-like capability in areas such as calculation or music. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that some of the symptoms associated with autism, including poor communication skills and an obsession with detail, are also exhibited by many creative types, particularly in the fields of science, engineering, music, drawing and painting. Indeed, there is now a cottage industry in re-interpreting the lives of geniuses in the context of suggestions that they might belong, or have belonged, on the “autistic spectrum”, as the range of syndromes that include autistic symptoms is now dubbed.

So what is the link? And can an understanding of it be used to release flashes of genius in those whose brains are, in the delightfully condescending term used by researchers in the area, “neurotypical”? Those were the questions addressed by papers (one of them Dr Howlin’s) published this week in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The society, Britain’s premier scientific club and the oldest scientific body in the world, produces such transactions from time to time, to allow investigators in particular fields to chew over the state of the art. The latest edition is the outcome of a conference held jointly with the British Academy (a similar, though younger, organisation for the humanities and social sciences) last September.
Read the entire article.


ZarPaulus said...

Speaking as an Aspergarian Transhumanist I have to agree.

B Frank said...

Amen. It always bothers me when I read things like, "people with Aspergers take things too literally... are too honest" etc. That's just stupid.

I've come to believe the world will be a better place for everyone when people learn to see ASD "problems" as strengths -- and NT/conventional strengths as problems (at least in many situations, but not all).

Anonymous said...

It's tiresome when those with Aspergers attempt to present their experience as the norm for those with Autism.

Athena Andreadis said...

Surely you jest? Full-blown autism is not a gift; neither is Down syndrome or any genetic disease that affects function, particularly brain function. If you doubt it, spend a day with an autistic child -- better (or worse) yet, an autistic adult.

The connection of creativity with depression and of high-functioning autism with certain types of savantism is widely accepted. However, no level of savant ability can compensate for the concomitant loss of motor and sensory processing skills and the inability to forge human interactions. And it is equally widely known that such "geniuses" require(d) the full-time services of someone else -- invariably a mother or a wife -- to function at all.

Equating the consequences of Asperger's with those of full-blown autism is wishful thinking at best. The surge of low-functioning autistic children among the Silicon Valley enclave and similarly sheltered niches (The Geek Syndrome) highlights this heart-breaking fact.