Friday, September 01, 2006


Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurological condition named by Austrian doctor Hans Asperger. His child patients' fondness for demonstrating their detailed knowledge on a given topic made them resemble “little professors," tending to focus intently on a certain limited range of artistic or intellectual interests, while maintaining difficulty with social relations. The syndrome is listed as a pervasive developmental disorder by the DSM-IV, the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders though it does not correlate to poverty, suicide, crime, or below average intelligence.

Psychologist Bruno Bettleheim attributed autism to unaffectionate parentage, labeling the disorder the cause of distant and rejecting “refrigerator mothers.” Bettleheim went as far as to liken the condition of autistic children to his own experiences as a concentration camp prisoner at Dachau during World War II. Psychologists in the mid-20th century tended to classify Asperger’s syndrome as a special case of schizophrenia instead of mild autism.

As the long-held refrigerator mother explanation has gone out of fashion, the number of reported cases of autism has increased drastically. Autism is the fastest growing population of special needs students in the US, reported cases having undergone a 900% increase between 1992 and 2001 according to the United States Department of Education. An increasing number of parents reject the idea that autism could have a purely genetic basis, as the hyperbolic increase in reported cases could only be explained by environmental factors. Nine out of ten twins, however, seem to share the disorder. Some have blamed vaccines as having a causal connection to autism, though no hard evidence exists to suggest the link.

Dr. Hans Asperger described his patients as little professors

Wired magazine in a December 2001 issue reported that numbers of children diagnosed with Asperger’s had surged in Silicon Valley. “Over and over again, researchers have concluded that the DNA scripts for autism are probably passed down not only by relatives who are classically autistic, but by those who display only a few typically autistic behaviors.” There appears to be a subtle connection between the skills required of engineers and high-level autistic traits. Asperger’s patients tend to be drawn to organized systems, complex machines, and visual modes of thinking.

Asperger's patients also tend to engage in "stimming" behaviors to promote nervous system arousal. Stimming is a jargon term for stereotypy, a repetitive body movement that self-stimulates one or more senses in a regulated manner. Common forms of stimming among people with autism include hand flapping, body spinning or rocking, lining up or spinning toys or other objects, echolalia, verbal perseveration, and repeating rote phrases. Stimming is a controlled method of releasing beta-endorphins into the body and thus can be useful for jogging the memory or directing focus.

Reported cases of autism have risen drastically in the past decade

Although children with more severe forms of autistic disorder are mentally retarded, others with high level autism may have a genius-like ability in a particular area, such as computing complicated math problems in their heads, memorizing dates or trivia such as baseball statistics. As a matter of fact, those with Asperger’s syndrome tend to have above average intellects. The fact that impairment and enhancement exist under the same rubric of "autism" makes it difficult to discuss the condition rationally. Here I want to focus on the Neurodiversity movement which seeks to counteract claims that autism confers de facto inferiority.

"Maybe autism has not touched your life. Consider yourself fortunate. It's also probably just a matter of time."
—a dire warning from "Triple A"

The organization Athletes Against Autism, or "Triple A," has taken up the challenge of fighting the disorder. “When you get the diagnosis, you’re in shock,” reported hockey star Olaf Kolzig in second-person singular upon learning that his son had a case of high level autism. “When people find out they have cancer they know where to go and what to do. It’s not the same thing, obviously, but this is such a baffling disorder, and there’s no blueprint for where to turn.” The lack of outward affection signaled to the Kolzigs that something about their son Carson was atypical, who, at age ten, is still largely non-verbal. His mother explains, “Olie would return from lengthy road trips only to find that Carson showed no reaction to his father’s presence.”

For someone whose life revolves around extreme forms of physical contact, the introversion Kolzig discovered in his son is understandably disappointing. However, to suggest that mild autism is analagous to cancer strikes at the heart of the Neurodiverity awareness issue. One Aspie has fired back against such stereotypes with this youtube video, Asperger Syndrome: A Positive Perspective. Notice how "Aspies" are providing their own counterstereotype of those without autism as booze-swilling, sports-obsessed Neanderthals whose neurological condition is optimized for mating rituals and primitive tribalism. It may only be a matter of time before the emergence of Aspies Against Athleticism takes issue with Kolzig's attempts to body check autism back into conformity.

Professor Simor Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University noted that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein displayed personality traits characteristic of Asperger’s syndrome. As a child, Einstein was a loner and tended to repeat sentences obsessively. Newton had few friends and could become so obsessive with his work that he frequently forgot to eat. Clearly there are setbacks to having such a neurological condition, but if autism is sometimes capable of conferring genius-level innovation and intellect for one’s pains, then labeling Asperger's a disorder might give us pause. Consider the case of Gilles Trehin, an autistic artist who designs entire cities. Is there really no place in modern society for his unique talents?

Gilles Trehin beside a sketch of Urville, the imaginary city he created

How about letting it be up to the individual to decide whether or not his condition constitutes a disorder? Clearly many with Asperger's syndrome are comfortable with their minds the way they are and are using the net as a forum to make their contentment publicly known. In certain cases, autism clearly provides neurological benefits, which need not be pleasant to be meaningful. Treatment for severe cases of autism ought to be optimalized, but without alienating the valid contributions of autistic human beings to our multifaceted civilization.

As a bulwark against mental illness, as seen in the phenomenon of Hikikomori in Japan, the autistic community should take it upon itself to develop digital communications as a refuge from social isolation, following the lead of groups like Aspies for Freedom. Aspies hopefully realize that failing to take care of their own will only provide unsympathetic neurotypicals with ammunition for continuing to claim their inherent superiority. On the broad spectrum of possible brain configurations that modern civilization can handle, obviously there is ample room for the meaningful participation of autistic minds.


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