Neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, often considered a mild form of autism, can be challenging for many children and adults, and result in treatment for symptoms such as social impairment, isolation, and “eccentric behavior.”
Can autism and Asperger’s also be part of what makes some people unusually creative?
Writer Alexa Tsoulis-Reay summarizes some of the history, noting that a “unique syndrome” was described in a a 1943 report by Leo Kanner – “a pioneering shrink who also happens to be the founder of this country’s first child psychiatric clinic.”
‘While autism wasn’t officially recognized in the DSM as a distinct disorder until 1980, Kanner’s description helped shape the way the medical community approached the niche interests that people “on the spectrum” tend to develop.
‘For many years, these “circumscribed interests” — say, an interest in electrical appliances, or trains, or algebra — were seen as restrictive.
“Historically, much of the language around preferred interest areas has been deficit-focused,” said Lauren Hough Williams, co-author of a recent study challenging this line of thought.
“There has been a tendency to pathologize these interests as ‘restricted,’ ‘circumscribed,’ or ‘perseverative’ in nature.
“There is the perception that engaging in these interests negatively impacts adaptive behavior and can even undermine social success.”
‘As a result, she continued, “these interests are discouraged, rather than being seen for what they are: authentic passions to be embraced.”
From article: A Nuanced Way to Look at Autism and Niche Interests By Alexa Tsoulis-Reay, Science of Us, March 3, 2017.
In his article Why shades of Asperger’s Syndrome are the secret to building a great tech company, Matt McFarland writes:
“While full-blown Asperger’s Syndrome or autism hold back careers, a smaller dose of associated traits appears critical to hatching innovations that change the world.”
He quotes Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center in Cambridge:
“A typical child might just accept, ‘Okay this is just the way it’s done, this is how we do things in our culture or family.
“Someone with autism or Asperger’s, they kind of ask those why questions. They want more logical answers. Just saying ‘Well we do this just because everybody else does,’ that doesn’t meet their test of logic.”
“Baron-Cohen says the autistic are interested in what’s called first principles, fundamental rules used to inform their decisions.
“First principle-thinking happens to be a tactic Elon Musk, the innovative leader of Tesla and SpaceX, says has contributed to his success.
“Rather than reasoning by analogy, you boil things down to the most fundamental truths you can imagine and you reason up from there,” Musk has said. “This is a good way to figure out if something really makes sense or if it’s just what everybody else is doing.”
“To be great, you can’t think like everybody else, and you probably won’t fit in to the herd. As a child Musk was bullied and beaten so badly that as an adult he struggled to breathe through his nose and needed corrective surgery.”
“John Doerr, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, who was an early investor in Google, Amazon and Netscape, has said that great entrepreneurs tend to have “absolutely no social life.” Great innovators, like those with Asperger’s, just don’t fit in.”
Photo from Facebook/Elon Musk Quotes – the caption reads:
“You want to do things you’re passionate about but also are useful to other people. To make an embarrassing admission, I like video games. That’s what got me into software engineering when I was a kid.
“I wanted to make money so I could buy a better computer to play better video games – nothing like saving the world.
“Obviously just playing video games is not really contributing to anyone. So you want to do things that contribute to society that you also like.
“In almost any industry, if you’re passionate about doing a great job and making people that buy your product as happy as possible, it’s really fulfilling.” — Elon Musk
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In his article on the British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing, professor S. Barry Cooper writes:
“Throughout his adult life, Alan Turing was befriended and protected by Professor Max Newman and his family.
“An Italian correspondent reminded me of this description of Alan, after his tragic death in Manchester, by Newman’s wife Lyn:
“He was a strange man, who never felt at ease in any place. His efforts, mostly occasional indeed, to look like he felt a part of the middle upper class circles which he naturally belonged to, were clumsy.
“He randomly adopted some conventions of his class, but rejected with no regret and hesitation most of their habits and ideas. And unfortunately the academic world’s customs, which could have sheltered him, disconcerted and deeply bored him.
“It is still very common for geekishly irritating little boys and girls to suffer misunderstanding and routine bullying at school. Nowadays Alan would probably have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
“There are so many schoolkids out there on the autistic/aspergers spectrum who could benefit from knowing more about Turing and his iconic achievements.”
From article: Alan Turing and the bullying of Britain’s geeks by Professor S.Barry Cooper (School of Mathematics, University of Leeds), The Guardian (UK).
[Photo: Alan Turing, with actor Benedict Cumberbatch – from article (with many photos of reel vs real people in the movie, and material about the film’s accurate and not so accurate aspects): The Imitation Game (2014), History vs. Hollywood site.]
Book: Alan Turing: His Work and Impact by S.Barry Cooper.
The Imitation Game – Official Trailer
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In another article, cognitive researcher Jon Brock comments about a posthumous diagnosis:
“In a 2003 paper, Henry O’Connell and Michael Fitzgerald trawled through Turing’s biography, looking for anecdotes and descriptions of Turing that would support a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome.
“The authors used the Gillberg criteria for Asperger syndrome – a set of six “symptoms” that must all be present for a diagnosis to be conferred. Turing, they concluded, met all six criteria:
Severe impairment in reciprocal social interaction
School report described him as “antisocial”
Only one friend at school
Unable to control younger boys at school or manage co-workers
No attempt to socialise with academic superiors
All-absorbing narrow interest
Interests in science, mathematics, chemistry, codes and ciphers, nature …”
Impositions of routines and interests (on self or other)
Always ate an apple before bed
House was cluttered with whatever he was interested in at the time
Always put the cork back in the wine bottle at the end of a meal
Often worked through the night
Wrote about his work to people with no scientific background
Nonverbal communication problems
Stiff gaze in photographs
Lack of eye contact
Characteristic response to presentation of new ideas (stabbed fingers and said “I see, I see”)
Speech and language problems
High pitched voice
Misunderstood enrolment form for Home Guard
Over-analysed colleagues’ approaches
Always got ink on his collar at school
“Certainly, a case can be made for Turing meeting each of the six criteria. But some of the observations, such as a high pitched voice, or working late at night don’t really constitute evidence.
“And can we really say that he had narrow interests when he influenced so many distinct fields? Was having only one friend at school a reflection of social impairment or of having few peers who shared his interests?”
From article Did Alan Turing have Asperger syndrome? by Jon Brock, “a research fellow at the ARC Centre for Cognition and its Disorders at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.”
Also see more diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s syndrome, including the Gillberg list.
Photo: Alan Turing as a 16-year-old at Sherborne School, Dorset, in 1928 – from The Imitation Game: inventing a new slander to insult Alan Turing, by Alex von Tunzelmann, The Guardian.
This is one of a number of articles pointing out historical inaccuracies in the movie “The Imitation Game.”
Despite them, the movie is, to me, a very engrossing and thrilling portrayal of Turing and other high ability mathematicians and others who worked on breaking the Enigma code, including Joan Clarke – people who contributed so much to the development of math and computer science.
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A Huffington Post article notes that in an interview with People magazine, Daryl Hannah “explains her autism diagnosis as a child led to a debilitating fear of fame as an adult, which is the cause of her relative absence from the silver screen.
“According to People, Hannah was diagnosed at a time when the disorder was not widely understood and doctors recommended she be medicated and institutionalized.
“Isolated from her peers, she found solace in old movies and her fondness for acting began. The way she saw it, movies were an escape from the real world. At 17, she moved to L.A.
“But being a towering blonde beauty was not a blessing for her, as she refused to do talk shows or attend her own movie premieres. ‘Not because I was above it,’ she tells People, ‘but because I was terrified.’
“Today, she says, she still works but is “definitely not being offered the greatest roles in the world.” Her true love is her environmental work.”
[Photo from her Facebook page.]
See more quotes in article: These 8 Inspiring People Will Change The Way You Think About Autism And Asperger’s, The Huffington Post, Laura Schocker – which includes Susan Boyle, James Durbin, Dan Aykroyd, Heather Kuzmich, Dan Harmon, Alexis Wineman and Temple Grandin.
In another article, Hannah commented: “Many actresses are playing other people because they are shy. It’s just that they do not admit it to themselves, or others.”
From Daryl Hannah: ‘I hated being young’ by Garth Pearce, The Telegraph.
My related article: Introverted, Shy or Highly Sensitive in the Arts – Many actors, musicians, authors and other artists identify themselves as being shy, or consider themselves introverted or highly sensitive.
For an overview, see article: Asperger’s Syndrome By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
Also see two Self-tests on autism below, at the bottom of the page.
Life, Animated [book, movie] – “the inspirational story of Owen Suskind, a young man who was unable to speak as a child until he and his family discovered a unique way to communicate by immersing themselves in the world of classic Disney animated films.” http://www.lifeanimateddoc.com/film/
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Author Walter Isaacson notes Turing “did have a tendency toward being a loner. His homosexuality made him feel like an outsider at times; he lived alone and avoided deep personal commitments.”
“The Imitation Game” movie is based on the biography “Alan Turing: The Enigma” By Andrew Hodges.
Asperger Syndrome And High Achievement: Some Very Remarkable People by Ioan James (Professor of Geometry at Oxford University, UK).
Genius Genes: How Asperger Talents Changed the World by Michael Fitzgerald, Brendan O’Brien.
In his article “The Geek Syndrome,” Steve Silberman wrote, “Autism – and its milder cousin Asperger’s syndrome – is surging among the children of Silicon Valley. Are math-and-tech genes to blame?”
He gives an example:
“Nick is building a universe on his computer. He’s already mapped out his first planet: an anvil-shaped world called Denthaim that is home to gnomes and gods, along with a three-gendered race known as kiman.
“As he tells me about his universe, Nick looks up at the ceiling, humming fragments of a melody over and over. ‘I’m thinking of making magic a form of quantum physics, but I haven’t decided yet, actually,’ he explains.
“The music of his speech is pitched high, alternately poetic and pedantic – as if the soul of an Oxford don has been awkwardly reincarnated in the body of a chubby, rosy-cheeked boy from Silicon Valley. Nick is 11 years old.
Finding a diagnosis
“Nick’s father is a software engineer, and his mother is a computer programmer. They’ve known that Nick was an unusual child for a long time. He’s infatuated with fantasy novels, but he has a hard time reading people.
“Clearly bright and imaginative, he has no friends his own age. His inability to pick up on hidden agendas makes him easy prey to certain cruelties, as when some kids paid him a few dollars to wear a ridiculous outfit to school.
“One therapist suggested that Nick was suffering from an anxiety disorder. Another said he had a speech impediment. Then his mother read a book called Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals.
“In it, psychologist Tony Attwood describes children who lack basic social and motor skills, seem unable to decode body language and sense the feelings of others, avoid eye contact, and frequently launch into monologues about narrowly defined – and often highly technical – interests.
“Even when very young, these children become obsessed with order, arranging their toys in a regimented fashion on the floor and flying into tantrums when their routines are disturbed.
“As teenagers, they’re prone to getting into trouble with teachers and other figures of authority, partly because the subtle cues that define societal hierarchies are invisible to them.”
Continued in The Geek Syndrome, by Steve Silberman, WIRED magazine.
[The apple-puzzle image is from the Facebook/Autism Research Institute site.]
There are many criticisms by psychologists and other experts of how much symptoms of neurodiversity and other forms of “difference” should be “treated” – one article on the topic: Pathologizing and Stigmatizing: The Misdiagnosis of Gifted People.
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Blinded by the brilliance
A speech-language pathologist, and nationally known expert on Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism, Timothy Kowalski notes there’s a classic warning in the field that goes “Don’t be blinded by the brilliance.”
He explains, “Because a lot of parents may perceive their six-year-old holding quantum physics discussions and can tell you everything about the celestial bodies, but they absolutely have no friendships whatsoever. They become blinded by that child’s ability to be so brilliant in that one particular area, but fail to see the whole picture…”
From article: Timothy Kowalski, MA on Asperger’s Disorder.
Related article of mine: Creativity and Asperger’s.
One of many quotes: Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist interested in intelligence and creativity development, comments:
“I think a lot of things that we call ‘quirks’, or maybe even some things we call ‘disabilities’, can turn out to be some of the determinants of high levels of creativity…”
Self-tests – not a substitute for professional evaluation, of course, but interesting:
Short Autism Screening Test [at Psych Central]
Autism Spectrum Quotient [Psychology Tools]
Note – one of the reasons I am interested in this topic is my scores on these tests show I “have symptoms associated with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.”