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New Page -- 2 February 2004

Updated -- 1 September 11

Autism, according to at least one authority, is a “spectrum disorder” in which affected people differ from others only as a matter of degree. [1] In effect, autism may be nothing more than “an exaggerated version of the male profile -- an extreme fondness for rule-based systems, coupled with an inability to intuit people's feelings and intentions.”[2]

Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen thinks of all individuals as using two kinds of intelligence: understanding people (“empathizing”) and understanding things (“systemizing”). Most people have both abilities, with males and females being different -- females tending to be better at empathizing, and males better at systemizing. In this sense, autism is nothing more than the more extreme form of systemizing (with a corresponding decrease in the ability to empathize).

[9/1/11] Inplicit in the thinking above, there has been a consensus that autism -- i.e., in 90% of cases -- is genetic in origin. This broad assumption has not only been highly detrimental in essentially scapegoating the parents for their child's condition, but also in absolving society at large and in specific the really irresponsible agencies such as the pharmacidal industry. But recently, The Week [July 22, 2011, page 21] has reported that based on a study involving 200 sets of twins, "that 58 percent of autism cases arose from conditions encountered in the womb, while 38 percent appeared to be genetic." This quite obviously substantially changes the identification of causal agents. Furthermore, the occurrence of autism is now six times more common that twenty years ago... "an increase far too rapid for genetic mutation alone to explain." Accordingly, rather than point fingers, it might be somewhat more useful to investigate valid ways of changing the equation by changing the fetal environment.

In a second study, it was shown that "women who take antidepressants during their first trimester of pregnancy are three times more likely to have an autistic child than are women who don't. Other environmental risk factors may include low birth weight, infections contracted in utero, stress, and medications." The six-fold increase in autism can thus be levied... not only against vaccines... but against that other staple of parmaceutical obscene profit margins... as detailed in "The Case Against Antidepressants" [The Week, July 29, 2011, page 11]. The latter indictment includes the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) who allow pharmacidal companies to ignore the results of any number of trials that arrive at a negative conclusion... and instead simply find only two out of potentially hundreds of trials that actually achieve a positive result (i.e., "positive" for the pharmaceutical industry's bottom line).

In one very real sense, everyone has autistic tendencies, but unless these tendencies are taken to extremes, no one really notices. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the spectrum a condition known as Williams syndrome occurs in people who are hyper social, highly verbal, often deeply empathetic, and often severely retarded. The key is that these extremes in the empathizing/systemizing charts are labeled as “disorders” or “dysfunctional conditions”. Such labeling is itself probably dysfunctional.

For example, anyone with Williams Syndrome may not be "severely retarded" so much as simply not liking systemizing and/or isn't very good at it. One could also say that anyone unable to throw a frisbee accurately is suffering from "Frisbaronic Syndrome." It makes about as much sense. It's helpful to be able to empathize and systemize in our society, but being pro (or anti) social is not necessarily a dysfunction.

Consider, for example, the twin definitions of hysteria. One is a psychiatric condition, while the other is simply wild, uncontrolled excitement or feeling. The latter is very much like the revels of Dionysus, while the other is based on Apollo style anal limitations. A good treatise in that regard is the Arrows' article, Hysteria, by Maggie Macary. Reality being reality, there is a great deal of appeal of Dionysus' style -- even if it implies a lack of control. But then again, lack of control also implies freedom.

Just as Dyslexia is perhaps another way of looking at the world, autism may be nothing more than a variation on intelligence, where some people find differential equations easier to comprehend than to participate in small talk. [Frankly, I prefer differential equations to a fair number of people that I regularly encounter. See, for example, Mathematical Theory and as counter point The (9) Supremes.]

This is despite the fact that traditional labels of autism have been defined by the so-called scientific community as a devastating neurological disorder with a strong genetic component and marked by rapid brain growth during early childhood. The theory is that its many sufferers are mentally retarded and require lifelong institutional care. In other words, "rapid brain growth" is a problem, but perhaps this is true only for the "slow or non-existent brain growth" crowd. Rapid brain growth might be a good idea.

The pronouncement from on high (from the psychiatric community's lofty spires) wherein exceptional characteristics require horrendously expensive, lifelong institutional care is essentially the scenario of Dustin Hoffman's movie, Rainman. More enlightened scientific inquiry, however, is now suggesting that the traditional labeling may be the clearer evidence of mental disorder on the part of those who would label differences as dysfunctions (not to mention said dysfunctions being worthy of profitable careers in the psychotic wards. Obviously, institutions benefit with the greater requirements for institutionalized care -- a factor also obvious in the Rainman movie.)

As Baron-Cohen would argue, autism is not a disease in need of an institutional cure, but rather a different mental style -- a mental style which can be accommodated or even viewed in some cases as a gift. It's a bit like the tradition of labeling left-handed people as something weird and then proceeding to force a child to write right-handed even when this is a major chore for everyone concerned. This madness makes about as much sense as Hollywood's tradition that the hero must have blue eyes and the villain dark eyes! [In Ben Hur, the primary villain who was naturally blue eyed had to wear dark contacts in order to fit the role!]

Autism affects boys more than girls. Duh. It's an extreme form of male intelligence! In fact, males account for more than 80 percent of the million-plus Americans with the autism label. [2] The entire process seems to arise very early such that by age 3 girls are more adept than boys at imagining fictional character's feelings. The process continues, and boys subsequently score more than 700 on the SAT math test twice as often as girls, and are four times more likely to become engineers. [In fact there are some very competent, even brilliant engineers who are social misfits. This is not news!].

Autism therefore may indicate a tendency in people to be devoid of social impulses, but with an uncanny ability to excel at systemizing. Furthermore, even when individuals with autistic proclivities lack various savant skills, they often excel at mundane, detail-oriented tasks. In fact, people "with autism" often systemize in distinct and unusual ways -- often starting with peripheral details and expanding them into impressive three dimensional renderings -- instead of the “more normal” method of beginning with a generalized concept and sketching the essential elements out in the early phases. This tendency “reveals a preference for parts over wholes, a tendency to process information one piece at a time instead of filtering it through general categories.” [2]

"Most of us simplify the world to make it more manageable. Whether we're taking in sights, sounds or sentences, our brains ignore countless details to create useful gestalts. Autistic people make generalizations, too (‘it's a train,' ‘it's a blender'), but studies suggest they work from the bottom up, attending doggedly to everything their senses take in. That has nothing to do with maleness [other than an extreme form of focusing on a problem], but it helps explain various aspects of autism -- the encyclopedic memory, the lightning-fast calculation and the extreme sensitivity to sounds, lights, and textures. It also ties in neatly with recent studies linking autism to superfast brain growth during the first years of life. Researchers believe that process may generate more sensory neurons than the brain can integrate into coherent networks.” [2]

Let's assume that the child with autism has indeed "generated more sensory neurons than the brain can integrate into coherent networks." This may be an accurate statement, but it assumes something special about one having "coherent networks". What's so special about that? How about a little incoherent networking? Sound chaotic? Quite possibly, but non-linearity (aka Chaos) is rapidly replacing linearity in the progress of science, and non-locality is ultimately the more likely accurate description of the most fundamental physics. Incoherency might be a very interesting avenue to pursue. It has the potential for great strides in mental processing -- provided of course that it's not locked up and forced into a coherent network mold; one in which the molders are fearful of incoherency.

The critical factor is that by understanding autism as less a disorder and more of a rare and potentially very useful intelligence, one is able to conjure all manner of useful and wonderful ways of taking advantage of the autistic condition. This line of thinking -- of seeing the whole spectrum of empathizing/systemizing -- “reveals the sanity and dignity of autistic behavior.” It's really a matter of putting people with greater austic tendencies in the right environment. It's only when the person and the environment don't match that the person is labeled disabled. Meanwhile, detail-oriented jobs that are avoided by most people are often the tasks that people with autistic talents thrive upon. Why not match (cohere) the individual and the environment?

[4/1/05] This matching process, of course, might imply the need for institutions and support groups for the autistic person in assisting them in dealing with modern society -- a society which does not allow much latitude for those with different attitudes. Nothing in this essay should be construed to suggest that assistance be limited, but rather the purpose is to assist in removing the stigmatizing associated with labeling someone as austistic.

That such stigmatizing is a problem is demonstrated by the preference of some people to prefer the monicker of "Asperger's Syndrome" [AS] instead of "High Functioning Autism" [HFA]. Rory [3] has provided considerable detail in the distinction between the two aspects (or the possible lack of their being any distinction).

One of the more spectacular differences between the balanced empathizing/systemizing people and people with autistic talents is the rather dramatic situation dramatized in the Rainman, whereupon being touched by another person, having their routines interrupted, or responding to sudden sounds and sights often results in screaming, hyperactivity, and what appears to be very much like a temper tantrum. The reality, however, is that there are more than a few people of whom I would really prefer no physical contact whatsoever, and whose close contact might cause me to do whatever was necessary to terminate said contact. And if my frustration at events and actions of others is a bit more under control, is that necessarily a mark of greater sanity?

Actually, it may not be. It's simply more a means of “stuffing my feelings” in order to get along better with others and to avoid appearing to be abnormal. Stifling oneself in order to be socially acceptable is not necessarily a sign of sanity. On the other hand, from the viewpoint of one diagnosed individual with autism (a computer engineer and system designer), “My favorite story about autism is ‘The Emperor's New Clothes'. The boy didn't understand social norms, but he spoke the truth. I think society needs us.” [2] With truth being in short supply, one would have to wholeheartedly agree.

For the individuals with autism, “A social situation is like a square dance where the caller is speaking Swahili.” For the individual with less autistic tendencies, hearing about Bessel Functions and Christofel Symbols may be like the reader speaking Swahili with a severe lisp. It's purely a matter of perspective. No one is wrong. Just different.

Except for the psychiatrists. They're almost always wrong. It's when they pretend to be wrong that they're right. But even then they don't know it. Perhaps they should be instutionalized. But wait! They already are! Good.


[1] Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference, ... 2003
[2] Geoffrey Cowley, “Girls, Boys and Autism”, Newsweek, September 8, 2003.


Education         Language         Symbolism         Dyslexia

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