Mental Health

Understanding Autism: How Life On The Spectrum Fosters Brilliance And Limitations

autism
Many people with autism are remarkably talented or intelligent, but they also struggle with crippling social or intellectual impairments. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock">Shutterstock

Incredibly gifted or intelligent people portrayed in movies often have a mental illness to accompany their talent, or at least some form of social or intellectual impairment. There’s Raymond from Rain Man, for example, who is autistic but able to memorize ball player statistics and parts of the telephone book with an ease that most ordinary people couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

Many of us have that special friend who is brilliant in some way — whether as a mathematician, a purveyor of endless musical knowledge, or a computer scientist — who is also inexplicably odd or a bit eccentric. While these people may not necessarily be autistic, it’s often assumed they’re closer on that scale than their less intelligent, yet more social counterparts. Indeed, an inability to connect with other people and experience empathy is often associated with types of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), like Asperger syndrome (AS).

Of course, not all brilliant people are autistic and vice versa. In fact, only about one-tenth of autistic people are considered “savants,” or people with extraordinary abilities. And everyone has a varying level of the disorder based on their own unique genetic background, so attempting to understand how the mind of a general autistic person works is quite difficult even for scientists who have been studying it for a long time. There are, however, some known things that define the syndrome and differentiate autistic people from non-autistic people. These include instances of autistic savants, differences in brain structure and function, and the symptoms of obsessive attention to detail, inability to interact socially, and limitations in understanding how other people feel.

‘Little Professors’ — The Autistic Savant

Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician who first defined Asperger’s in 1944, called many children with the syndrome “little professors” due to their penchant for strong working memories, painstaking attention to detail, and tedious lectures at a young age. Just as a pedantic professor may be obsessed with specific areas of knowledge, children with Asperger’s showed signs of being unusually focused on one expertise.

But the connection between autism and savant abilities is still not fully understood. According to Stephen Edelson writing on the Autism Research Institute, the prevalence of savant abilities in autism is about 10 percent — while the fraction of it in the non-autistic, “normal” population is less than 1 percent. This indicates that people with autism are more likely to have savant abilities, but even so, it’s quite rare; not all autistic people are also brilliant.

For one thing, being a savant is quite different from being a prodigy or a genius. A prodigy is a child who shows extraordinary talent in a field like math or music, and is able to implement it in the world; while a savant is a child or adult with a remarkable talent in a certain subject but doesn’t even quite realize it – or lacks other intellectual skills to fully put it into practical use. While today the proper term is “autistic savant,” the phrase in its original form was “idiot savant,” which in French meant “unlearned skill.” In short, autistic savants are people who have brilliance and talent in music, art, math, memorization, or other areas — but are also handicapped by learning, social, or intellectual disabilities. Their talents come naturally and seemingly out of nowhere, hence the unlearned part.

Some researchers believe that it’s likely autism’s effect of making people incredibly detail-oriented, obsessive, and have laser-sharp focus that helps them develop talents. Autistic people’s tendency to have high levels of processing local information may lead them to focus completely on certain patterns (like the calendar) and master them.

In a report labelled “The beautiful otherness of the autistic mind,” the authors note that not all talented people, meanwhile, are autistic; in fact, it’s likely the meticulous attention to detail that is one underlying factor in the development of natural talent. “If ‘eye for detail’ is an important predisposing factor in talent, regardless of autism, this might perhaps help to redirect the trend for ‘Asperger spotting’ in geniuses current or long dead: instead this theory suggests that it is one or more of the cognitive biases/abilities characteristic of ASD, rather than the diagnosis itself, that is linked to special abilities and could usefully be identified in well-known individuals, from Newton to Bill Gates.”

Obsessions And Repetitions

While the obsessive aspects of an autistic person’s personality may lead to high levels of knowledge, memory, and skill in some, they can also cause detriment in others and in many ordinary, day-to-day situations. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the repetitive behavior of autistic children is often manifested by strange patterns like flapping their arms or moving their fingers in front of their eyes. Children with ASD may often insist on eating the same meals every day, or becoming obsessed with certain objects, such as focusing only on the wheels of cars for a long time. Anyone who may try to diver their attention from this preoccupation may find that it distresses autistic kids to be pulled away from their area of interest.

Because of this, many autistic children — savant or not — are good with numbers, patterns, and science topics. But the same obsessions can lead to difficulties in adjusting to ordinary life, as well as force them to remain in their own egocentric worlds without an ability to interact with others.

Deficient Social Skills And Communication

This brings us to another major leg of ASD: social impairment and communication issues. Children with autism have a hard time making eye contact with people, responding to others, or sharing toys or activities with peers. Any show of emotion towards an autistic child — from anger to affection — may be met with an unusual and off-putting reaction. The “Theory of Mind” explains that autistic children simply don’t understand that other people have their own viewpoints, plans, thoughts, and feelings.

But as every autistic person is different, the approach to understanding their minds needs to be more along the lines of integrating them into society at large in their own unique ways. Take Temple Grandin, for example, an autistic person herself who has grown to become an autism advocate. Grandin believes that ADS isn’t monolithic: there are so many variations, so many different ways that autism can manifest itself, that it’s important to remember that all sorts of thinkers are necessary in our world — whether the level of autism is severely debilitating or if it’s mild, or whether an autistic person views the world visually or spatially or in terms of patterns and objects.

And perhaps another interesting question to consider is whether autism can provide new insights into talent, creativity, and intelligence that many of us have possibly never thought to explore: what is the true beauty of the “otherness”?

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