Friday, May 14, 2004

Is autism always a bad thing?

Yup, like my previous question, it seems very strange. After all, it's a debilitating illness that ruins the lives of those who care for the sufferers and causes them heartache, not to mention the misunderstanding, at best in the wider world. I lived for two years with a cousin, whom I am convinced suffers from the milder form of autism, Asperger's Syndrome.

The symptoms of autism are particularly heartbreaking. Just look at the long list displayed on this page:
Possible Specific Symptoms of Autism

Humans are primarily social animals. We have been so, since the Early Tertiary and we are intensely disturbed by people who seem unable to make connections with other people. Autism is an extreme version of this "cold fish" syndrome and it is deeply unsettling to encounter.

So how the hell could it be a good thing? Well, autism is a disease of degree and it comes in many forms of differing intensity. Many autistic syndromes are covered under the umbrella term "Asperger's Syndrome" (Online Asperger Syndrome Information & Support). Look at this passage from the page:

Individuals with AS can exhibit a variety of characteristics and the disorder can range from mild to severe. Persons with AS show marked deficiencies in social skills, have difficulties with transitions or changes and prefer sameness. They often have obsessive routines and may be preoccupied with a particular subject of interest. They have a great deal of difficulty reading nonverbal cues (body language) and very often the individual with AS has difficulty determining proper body space. Often overly sensitive to sounds, tastes, smells, and sights, the person with AS may prefer soft clothing, certain foods, and be bothered by sounds or lights no one else seems to hear or see. It's important to remember that the person with AS perceives the world very differently. Therefore, many behaviors that seem odd or unusual are due to those neurological differences and not the result of intentional rudeness or bad behavior, and most certainly not the result of "improper parenting".

By definition, those with AS have a normal IQ and many individuals (although not all), exhibit exceptional skill or talent in a specific area. Because of their high degree of functionality and their naiveté, those with AS are often viewed as eccentric or odd and can easily become victims of teasing and bullying. While language development seems, on the surface, normal, individuals with AS often have deficits in pragmatics and prosody. Vocabularies may be extraordinarily rich and some children sound like "little professors." However, persons with AS can be extremely literal and have difficulty using language in a social context.

Sounds awful, doesn't it? But look at some of the symptoms:

"They often have obsessive routines and may be preoccupied with a particular subject of interest"

"It's important to remember that the person with AS perceives the world very differently."

"By definition, those with AS have a normal IQ and many individuals (although not all), exhibit exceptional skill or talent in a specific area. "

None of this would be overly important, were it not for the fact of the sheer numbers of people who exhibit even very mild versions of these syndromes. It's particularly prevalent in males, to the point, I believe, of being nearly exclusively so.

This morning I noticed this guy who I have seen on the train before. He was standing on the platform and he had the classic old trainspotters gear: beard, glasses, tweed coat, large camera. He may not have been a train-spotter, but he got me to thinking. Like most men, I have had the ability at times to get obsessively wrapped up in my hobbies, to the exclusion of all else. For a psychological "feature" like this to be so prevalent in the human population, it has to have an evolutionary basis. Some aspect of this syndrome must have given our ancestors a competitive advantage over the other human species and the predators. But what was that advantage? Well, It's hard to say when this "feature" was first seen in human populations, but you can see where it might have suddenly found itself as an advantage.

What is on of the essential features of human civilisation? Cities, farming, religion? Well, these are all important, but they are quite late additions to the human experience. One of the first and most important innovations of humanity was division of labour. No other large animal has a system where they differentiate between the responsibilities of the various members of the herd. All cows eat grass and no one cow sits apart making grass pies or fashioning cow fabrics. Humans have people who hunt, cook, fashion weapons and cloths, rule, all sorts of things. Many of these tasks require great concentration and often force the person doing them out of the political games that the general populace would have to play. Think of what a great advantage it would be to one particular group to have one of their number who was quite happy to sit there, knapping flints day after day, unconcerned about overthrowing the tribe's leader or securing for himself the sexiest little Australopithecus female in the group. Much of human civilisation owes its greatest advances to men and women of seriously impaired social ability, but seriously improved powers of concentration. The stereotype of the asocial scientist squirreling away in his lab is so famous, it should be an archetype and indeed it is well known that scientists, in general, do not make good PR people.

Isaac Newton was famously disagreeable and was a recluse for much of his life, but Western civilisation is built upon his work. He was often so caught up in thought that he would go to rise from his bed, only to be held there by the waves of cogitation that would pass through his head.

One of the main reasons we have a big brain is to figure out all the various allegiances and changing circumstances of a large group of our peers and how to manoeuvre ourselves within that group. You can imagine how much brain power is then released when you don't feel the need to do all of that.

We may owe more to autism as a species than we think, but it's a hell of a price to pay for some people.

No comments: