Mike Beversluis

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The case for autism

Tyler Cowen writes an interesting article on the advantages of autism, something that isn't presented in the usual cluck-clucking:

Autism as Academic Paradigm

Thinking back on history, maybe you've wondered how it was that American colleges and universities could ever have contributed to racist discourse. But Princeton and many other institutions kept out Jews, and "academic" defenses of slavery, segregation, and eugenics were commonplace until broader social changes rendered such views unacceptable.

The sad truth is that dehumanizing ideologies are still with us in the modern university, although they take very different forms. Prime examples include the unacceptable ways we sometimes talk and think about the autism spectrum.

A few years ago, Michael L. Ganz, who teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health, published an essay titled "Costs of Autism in the United States." Nowhere in the essay does he consider whether autistic people have brought benefits to the human race. Can you imagine a comparable essay titled: "Costs of Native Americans"? Ganz might think that autism is strictly a disease, but he never mentions or rebuts the fact that a great number of autistics reject this view and find it insulting.


I've cited some of the more obvious examples, but the underlying biases are much more deeply rooted. A lot of people at colleges are aware of dealing with autism (and Asperger's syndrome; I will refer generally to the autism spectrum) in their "special needs" programs. The more complex reality is that there is a lot more autism in higher education than most of us realize. It's not just "special needs" students but also our valedictorians, our faculty members, and yes — sometimes — our administrators.

That last sentence is not some kind of cheap laugh line about the many dysfunctional features of higher education. Autism is often described as a disease or a plague, but when it comes to the American college or university, autism is often a competitive advantage rather than a problem to be solved. One reason American academe is so strong is because it mobilizes the strengths and talents of people on the autistic spectrum so effectively. In spite of some of the harmful rhetoric, the on-the-ground reality is that autistics have been very good for colleges, and colleges have been very good for autistics.

Working in academic research, it's been interesting to see the sort of cold war that goes on between the professors/scientists/engineers and managers/business guys. In any lengthy stalemate, there is some strength to either position (or both are equally weak, kumbaya my lord). This why the folks over at the Harvard Business Review endlessly rattle on about emotional intelligence, and I think they have a point. You may want Dilbert designing your widgets, but you do not want him running the show, as any college faculty meeting will show.

In any case, I think Cohen makes some very good points, and perhaps the goal shouldn't be to reduce or "fix" autism, or that it's increasing presence is a crisis, but rather recognize their virtues and channel them effectively.

On a very tangential note, this reminds me a lot of the Money Ball philosophy in baseball, in which the goal is to use cheap players whose skills go unharolded due to a social bias to efficiently win. In baseball, certain statistics are glamorous - like RBI's or ERA or Saves, despite the fact that they correlate poorly with skill or contributions to wins. You can pay a lot less per win if you achieve them with average hitters with tremendous defense skills.

This may not directly apply to autistics vs everyone else, because even within highly autistic cultures, like academia, there is poor evaluation - e.g., paper citations if your real interest is in intellectual achievement.



  • A post combining the subject matters of spectrum-disorder and Mariners baseball?

    This must've been engineered for me.

    By Anonymous Adam, at 15 July, 2009 14:35  

  • Thanks, you are my target demographic.

    By Blogger Mike Beversluis, at 15 July, 2009 22:22  

  • One of the recent trends in psychology is to treat autism as a personality trait instead of strictly as an out-laying disorder per se.

    When one includes the full spectrum of personality disorders and divergent behavior from individuals not technically considered on the spectrum, it becomes much more of a sliding scale of human behavior and much less of black or white division.

    By Anonymous Adam, at 17 July, 2009 13:13  

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