Is a Little bit of Autism a Good Thing?

Written by: Corey Washington

Primary Source: zeroideology

There has long been a debate in the autism community as to whether autism is a properly speaking a “disorder” or whether being “on the spectrum” is merely another way of existing in the world with its own drawbacks and benefits.  In truth the disagreement probably depends on whether we are talking about severe ASD or the mild, Asperger’s-like, syndrome.  There is evidence that mild symptoms of autism are linked to success in science and engineering-related professions. Severe autism, in contrast, is a limiting and debilitating condition that robs the possibility of normal life from those it afflicts.
I just finished reading reading The Strangest Man Graham Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac. Dirac is famous for predicting the existence of anti-matter and unifying Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity with Quantum Mechanics.  A fellow physicist described Dirac’s discoveries as ‘exquisitely carved statues falling out of the sky, one after another’. 

Paul Dirac and Richard Feynman

(Notice that it is Feynman, who was definitely not autistic, who is talking)
To many he also appeared to be mildly to moderately autistic: lacking empathy and, among colleagues later in life, “famous for not understanding the feelings of others and for his lack of tact.” He rarely spoke, but this affect may have been more by choice than constitution. He enjoyed structure and excelled in creating it. Farmelo describes his engineering homework in secondary school as
immaculate accounts that feature scarcely a single cross-out.  To the modern eye they look almost as if printed by a machine in a special type face that successfully mimics ordinary human handwriting, with every repeated letter reproduced identically.
Colleagues through his life also describe his extraordinary intelligence and nearly unsurpassed mathematical abilities. Many see him as the second greatest 20th century physicist behind Einstein, who himself exhibited symptoms of Asperger’s, including delayed speech — he started talking at 3, allegedly in full sentences — and echolalia and who did not make strong emotional connections. Though known as a great humanist, it was sometimes said that Einstein loved humanity but not any actual human being. 
A number of features of autism can help in science. The enhanced ability to focus and the attention to detail contribute to reasoning and mathematical abilities. Lack of need for emotional connection may make long hours spent working not only bearable but appealing. We would live in a far less scientifically and technologically advanced society without people with mild to moderate autism. 
Two articles published this week raise questions about the nature of autism in these mildly affected individuals. In the first “Patches of Disorganization in the Neocortex of Children with Autism” published in NEJM the authors found anatomical abnormalities in the brains of children with autism
Using a large panel of highly selective markers for specific cell types and a subset of autism candidate genes, we detected discrete pathological patches of abnormal laminar cytoarchitecture and disorganization in the majority of analyzed samples of prefrontal and temporal cortices…obtained from boys and girls with autism
The children in this study satisfied the diagnostic criteria for ASD under the DSM5. Similar defects were not found in the control group of children without autism.  
This study would seem to call into question the idea that any amount of autism could be good at least for the individual himself. How could it be positive for any person to have neurological abnormalities? It should be noted, however, that the children in the study were probably more severely affected than Einstein or Dirac or high most functioning people with ASD. So, it is not certain whether the findings of the study will extend to such individuals. But if they do, the significance of the changes is still not understood, e.g. if such defects contribute to high functioning individuals’ abilities, are they still defects?
Many suspect that autism is not a single disorder, but a collection of overlapping conditions. This view is reinforced by an interesting Op-Ed in the New York Times this week by Sam Wang. In his commentary he compared the degree of media coverage of the risk factors for autism to the actual amount these factors raise rates. Having an identical twin with autism (+8300%) and injury to the cerebellum at birth (+3800%) topped the list, while vaccination was at the bottom, having no connection to autism. There were 406 articles about autism and vaccines and none that connected it with cerebellar damage. Clearly coverage is out of whack.
The striking thing about the list, though, is its variety. Other risk factors include being conceived within 9 months of an older sibling’s birth (+240%), having a pregnant mother caught in a hurricane zone and a sibling who was an engineering or science major (both +200%) and maternal depression (+50%).   Science is full of surprises, but it is hard to see how these factors could be causal for the same condition. And if autism isn’t one condition, it is again unclear what implications the existence of neuroanatomical defects in autistic children have for high functioning individuals who are less strongly affected. 
Indeed, it could be that the brains of talented mildly autistic people have fewer defects in certain areas than the brains of their less talented non-autistic counterparts and that this is what allows them to excel.
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