Autism, Genius, and Greatness
URL for my web site was misquoted in the July-August 2002 issue of Autism-Asperger's
Digest. The link given was to this particular article, not to the
index page. If you would like to go to the index (home) page, please
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When early treatment of autism is discussed, the word "intervention" is almost always used. Obviously, the use of the word as such gives the impression that autism is a path toward something awful, and by intervening, the autistic child can be helped. That is offensive to autistic people that do not hold that they are the result of something awful. Indeed, there is good that comes from autism, even though the distraught parents of newly-diagnosed autistic children may not be able to see it. For example, Albert Einstein may have been just another patent clerk if it hadn't been for autism. His autistic traits, and his near-certain place on the autistic spectrum, are well-known in the autistic community. What if autism had been known at the time of his birth? What would have become of him if his parents had recognized the signs and sought intervention? How much of his greatness may have been jeopardized?
Albert Einstein was typical as far as higher-functioning autistics (for the purpose of this article, AS and HFA will be considered to be the same thing). He was extremely logical and analytical, though socially awkward. He could deal with people, but he was a loner, and he felt a need for considerable solitude on a daily basis. He was extremely perseverative, spending more time on a given problem (of interest to him) than any normal person would have been capable of giving. These attributes are what gave Einstein the ability to think as he did. These abilities are rather common in higher-functioning autistics, although few achieve the greatness or prominence that Einstein has. One may wonder, though, if Einstein's autism had been treated successfully, would he have lost the abilities (which are often called "impairments" by those that see normality as the only acceptable way) that made him the thinker he was?
Autism has been described by some as a condition wherein people have an affinity for objects (tangible or otherwise) rather than people. This was clearly the case with Einstein. In his case, the object was physics. As far as people went, Einstein was somewhat aloof and indifferent, but when it came to science, he was very much engaged. Would he have been as dedicated to his science if his indifference for people had been eliminated, or would he have been just another person toiling at a boring job, thinking of the weekend's social gathering? Normal people generally do not recognize the extent to which their thoughts and desires are dictated by this innate need to be the social beings that they are, but it is quite evident to autistic people, who see such "odd" behaviors very clearly. The aloofness reported in autistic people frees their minds from the social protocol that occupies the majority of the time of the normal person, thus allowing time for other activities. Autistic people often get the same satisfaction from working with a favorite idea or object that normal people get from chatting with a close friend.
High-functioning autistic people perseverate, or think repetitively (or even obsessively) on an object or a concept. This perseverative interest is often described as an impairment or an abnormality by normal people, who think themselves free of such obsessions. The reality is, though, that normal people have a perseverative interest too, and that interest is in being social. They perseverate on being with others, even if no information is to be exchanged. They become bored and lonely very quickly, by autistic standards, if they are alone with their thoughts. They are just as perseverative about socializing as any autistic is about a physical or theoretical object, but they are so accustomed to this being the case that they do not see it so. In other words, the desire to be social is so well-accepted and ingrained that it is not seen as a fixation; it is seen as normal and desirable. Even normal people that claim that they often prefer solitude have no idea how great their innate social needs are. They hold that the autistic is defective because he perseverates on physics instead of chatting about the weather or about the latest ball game. The difference is that being social, as most people are, does not bring greatness. It does not result in the formation of new ideas or concepts that advance humanity, or that make our lives easier. Perseverative social behavior does little, if anything, to advance society. That sort of thing is the domain of abnormal minds, to a large degree.
The brain is a highly complex piece of equipment. Having billions of neurons, it is far too complex to be described in detail by DNA. Genetics controls the general layout of the brain, but most of the actual connections are a matter of the environment. Prenatally, this means that drug use, disease, and nutrition play the largest nongenetic roles. Postnatally, though, is when the underpinnings of intelligence are laid. The infant's brain is far from fully developed at birth. The connections that are made depend on the patterns of usage those neurons see. In this manner, it is assured that the child's brain will be attuned to its environment. This is also where genius begins.
Einstein's intelligence may have been a function of his autistic brain. Absent the intuitive means to make sense of the world, he, as is usual with autistics, may have relied heavily upon his analytical, logical abilities. Thus, the neural pathways related to analysis and logic were reinforced, and his adaptable human brain grew in its ability to do those things as a result. Einstein's relative lack of interest in people, and his great thirst for knowledge, would have again reinforced the analytical parts of his brain, while allowing the relatively unused social areas to become deficient. As such, his genius is part and parcel of his autism, and indeed is directly related to his lack of interest in convention and social activities. As Temple Grandin put it in her book Thinking in Pictures, genius itself is an abnormality.
Einstein was perseveratively interested in physics. He could not stand the idea of the unknowable, and he spent much time thinking about things that most people would have declared hopeless, or never bothered to think about in the first place. This feverish devotion to knowledge and fact is not uncommon in the higher-functioning autistic community, but among normal people, it is strange and unusual. The normal mind's primary function is to be social, not to think about physics. That is, after all, what the normal mind is supposed to do; humans, like wolves, are pack animals, and in the pre-civilization days, survival depended upon group cohesion. Society may have changed since then, but basic human neurology has not. As such, social interaction is the only thing the normal mind can handle for extended periods of time (perseveratively, in other words), which limits its utility with regard to science and academic knowledge. The autistic mind is capable of focus on areas of interest for extremely long periods of time, day after day, without boredom. Normal people may not truly understand the depth of focus or the length of attention span that the autistic person has when dealing with his special interest. It would not be surprising to see an autistic person spend virtually every waking moment, day after day, for months at a time, thinking about, researching, and otherwise involving himself, with one very specific subject, without ever becoming bored or weary of that subject. In the sciences, this feature is an asset of indescribable worth, and it was doubtless of great value to Einstein.
In short, Einstein was one of the century's top thinkers because of his autistic condition, not despite it. His success in physics is directly related to his autistic profile of strengths and weaknesses, as was his intelligence, in all likelihood. If we could go back in time and inform Einstein's parents of his condition, and that it could be treated, how much treatment should he have received? Would we want to risk "curing" one of the brightest men in the last hundred years, if it meant that his genius would be cured as well? Would it be a good idea to change anything at all, lest we inadvertently eliminate one of the greatest minds ever known? In short, would it be advisable, in hindsight, to treat him at all?
If the answer to that question is NO, that would lead directly into the next question: Is it advisable to try to normalize autistic children today, even a little? Do we really wish to eliminate people like Einstein? Do we really think that autistic behaviors are so unsightly and bothersome that we would be willing to rid the world of genius to eliminate those behaviors? The next question would be for the parents of an autistic child. Do you really wish normality on your child, so much so that you would eliminate potential greatness? Genius is, after all, abnormal.
Autistic-type behaviors have been noted in many historical figures that, like Einstein, have achieved greatness. All of these people have done so with no treatment at all. Now that people are discovering more about how the human mind develops, there has been an increase in the reports of children whose autism has been "cured" or reduced in severity by one means or another. If these children would have ended up as apparently low-functioning, possibly self-destructive, non-communicative people, this would seem like a very good thing, but it is often very hard to tell those people from high-functioning autistics early on, when such treatments are most likely to have an effect. Even if early treatments, like sensory integration or ABA, are eventually proven to be effective in reducing autistic behaviors, do we really wish to do that? Even the seemingly unquestionable practice of reducing sensory difficulties may have the effect of reducing the qualities that cause genius. Whether that is the case would make a great topic for academic research, but for now, it seems that the thrust of the research is to prevent or cure autism, rather than preserving the autism and attempting to help or prevent the often associated features like mental retardation, mood disorders, and severe sensory difficulties.
It would be inhumane and cruel to allow an autistic child to suffer with extreme sensory problems (like severe auditory processing problems, which are possibly a major cause of difficulties with spoken language), or to be forced to live in constant fear and anxiety. However, helping to overcome those burdens is not the same as trying to make the child normal, or to make him "indistinguishable from his peers." Similarly, an autistic child can be given the social tools to live in what is really an alien world to him, without being trained to act like something he is not-- normal. There is nothing wrong with teaching such a child about the peculiar way that normal people react to statements that are insufficiently vague, or that are not wrapped in enough verbal candy to sufficiently obfuscate the main point. There is nothing wrong with teaching the child that normal people often mistake such things for rudeness. That is not the same as teaching the child that simple, direct statements are rude. The difference is subtle but important. The former method is akin to teaching an American how to relate successfully with Japanese people, while the latter is more like teaching him that being an American is undesirable and wrong, and that he should become Japanese (which he cannot do).
For the autistic person without retardation (high-functioning autistic),
often it is the unyielding social norms that cause the greatest difficulty.
Perhaps it is more logical to strive for greater acceptance of individuality
than for the curing (or reduction of) of autism. As uncomfortable
as autistics often make closed-minded normal people, their positive traits
are vital for innovation and societal growth. Rather than attempt
to cure autistics, we should try to figure out whether those that are destined
to become lower-functioning autistics can be helped to become high-functioning
(in the early years), to overcome the difficulties presented by severe
anxiety and sensory dysfunction, and to celebrate autistic people as being
part of the genotype that includes Einstein and many other people of genius...
people of greatness.
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