Erikka Askeland: Could autism be a blessing in disguise?
WE HAVE all met a geek. Usually it is someone who is intelligent but quirky, whose varied enthusiasms are perhaps more important to them than matching their shirt and trousers or combing their hair.
And while “normal” is always hard to put one’s finger on, some people are clearly just different.
It could be that they are autistic. Or on what is described as the autistic spectrum, which takes in a series of behaviours first described by Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger in 1944. In the 1990s, the spectrum of behaviour became official, and was recognised as a genuine condition rather that some people were a just a little odd.
Autistic spectrum disorder is now deemed quite common. In April, new research came out that estimated one in every 88 people were on the spectrum. As it affects more males, the numbers become one in 54 for men, whereas one in 252 women have the syndrome.
Some worriers see the increase in numbers as being sign of some sort of epidemic, driven by fears that the condition is caused by environmental factors or claims – now discredited – that it is caused by the MMR jab. It is much more likely the case that, as awareness increases, more people are getting diagnosed. And while such labelling and pathologising of human behaviour is considered suspect in some quarters, for others it can come as a relief to find that there is a reason why they or their loved ones seem an odd duck.
As a spectrum of behaviours, people with Aspergers – or “aspies” as some prefer to be called – have varying degrees of disability. Increasingly, it is being understood – by normal thinkers, who are referred to as “neuro-typicals” – that many can hold down jobs, often in very technical and specialised areas which coincide with their tendency to be a bit obsessive. They also marry, and “pass” for being almost normal, even if their quirks and awkwardness mark them out as different.
The internet has also given a new lease to people who otherwise find traditional social skills a bit taxing. The technology allows aspies, with their tendency to social impairments and narrow interests, the space to focus on their unique talents. Some of those that are known or are suspected to be on the spectrum include Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg – see a trend here? Another, Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokemon, may only be a multi-millionare, but all of these people are examples of how being differently-wired can lead to the creation of world-beating innovation.
Just don’t mention the film Rain Man, in which Dustin Hoffman played the part of an autistic savant. Because while it put autism on the map – most people hadn’t even heard of the condition before then, including teachers and child psychologists – aspies tend to hate it for its exaggerated depiction of the condition.
One of the best depictions of how aspies could coexist with neuro-typicals was in the children’s TV programme, Fraggle Rock, devised by the late, great muppeteer, Jim Henson. The zany and colourful puppet Fraggles were the stars of the show, but lived symbiotically with a different species, the Doozers, who spent their lives dedicated to work and industry. While the carefree Fraggles were silly and extroverted, the Doozers spent their waking hours with tiny diggers engaged in building, a sprawling, intricate scaffolding. Their activity was absorbing, but pointless – except that Fraggles lived by eating the resulting constructions, which wasn’t a problem for the Doozers who just kept on building.
It is telling that Henson was also believed to have Aspergers. You can carry out a test to see if you might be “on the spectrum” using the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, devised by psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre. Being an imaginative, empathic type, I tend to score low on the spectrum. But it is becoming clear that the prevalence of aspies on society is beneficial – and probably always has been so given the great inventors, scientists and engineers who seem to have been out-of-step with the norm. It may be the case that the geeks will inherit the earth, as it is quite likely they figured out how to build it.
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