Lab Talk


Autism and Individuality

During graduate school, I did a work-study at a school for autistic children. They assigned me to work with a particular 10-year old boy, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. And he did have serious social and emotional difficulties, and typical obsessions—geography and music. He also had a high IQ and spoke with diction well beyond his age, but said a lot of strange things. As a cocky graduate student, I was all bright-eyed to see if I could figure out something about how his mind worked through conversation.

I had been swimming in readings about autism and my head was filled with hypotheses; did he lack the ability to think about other people’s minds? If so, why? Did he lack empathy? Was he incapable of metaphorical thinking? If so, what about analogies? Did he lack imagination? The literature in cognitive science on autism and Asperger’s syndrome revolved around this laundry list of things that your imaginary average autistic person has trouble with—socializing, language, empathy, metaphor, imagination, stories, and emotional intelligence in general. And Asperger’s syndrome is known to differ from autism in often being characterized by high linguistic and mathematical ability.

But, wait! Aren’t language and math opposed skills? We’ve all been in conversations about being a math person or a language person right? It’s a true cliché. But then again, there are more than a few people who seem to be extra-talented at both, and music as well, such as the physicist Richard P. Feynman.

All the theorists in my textbooks were on the hunt for the “root deficit” of autism, which would explain all of its major symptoms as arising from more-or-less one difference in the brain. And then here was this boy with Asperger’s, who indeed had huge difficulties reasoning about other people’s minds or dealing with his emotions. But did he lack imagination and metaphor? Definitely not. He had an entire personal fantasy world / mythology based on musical notes. He couldn’t stand f#, so there was a “desert of f#” in his world. If that’s not metaphor, what is? He drew me a map.

So, what’s going on? If mathematical and verbal intelligence are simply two different kinds of thinking, then why are they associated in some ways and opposed in others? Why is metaphor and imagination linked to autistic social deficits in some people and not in others? If we knew exactly what kind of cognitive uniqueness caused these contradictory clusters of symptoms, we could surely help that boy transcend his impairments to a large degree, as many autistic people do. And the same could be said for any of us. Are you a language person or a math person? Do you think you have ADD? Or can’t improvise? Or can’t control your mind? What makes you that way? What else does it explain about you? Could you, or a child, develop more fully and do more for the world if the elements of your uniqueness were understood?

If we want to understand uniqueness, we need to begin with a less judgmental model of cognitive individuality. The disease model is not always appropriate or scientifically fruitful. Let’s put it this way; a person with Asperger’s syndrome might ask, “why should my low emotional intelligence be considered a disease while your low mathematical intelligence is considered a normal healthy variation?” Especially considering that social dysfunction is relative to context. For example, most symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome are entirely normal in China where people grow up studying math more than socializing (trust me, I’ve lived there).   This suggests that our notions of “normal variation” and “dysfunction” really need to be sophisticated. This is one of the points of Steve Silberman’s influential book Neurotribes, whose title alludes to the growing number of people who consider themselves neurologically ‘atypical’ rather than diseased.

Of course, nobody denies that autism can bring severe dysfunction. But then again, a ‘normal’ person could be called ‘mathematically dysfunctional’ compared to many on the autistic spectrum, and ‘creatively impaired’ compared to many with schizophrenic tendencies. Surely it will benefit both science and human wellness if we try to think of individuality less in terms of abnormality and turn research to looking for what people are, rather than what they are not.


Read related posts The Myth of the Average Brain and The Murky Borders of Brain Dysfunction


Dr. Aaron Nitzkin has a PhD in Cognitive Linguistics and an interest in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind.

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