Autistic Genius: Real or Imaginary?

I’ve run across a couple of other writers recently who’ve made efforts to debunk the notion of autistic genius, and since I’ve been one to lean heavily on the idea that “autistic intelligence,” according to Hans Asperger himself, is “a vital ingredient in all great creations in art and science,” I’d like to join in by clarifying what I think likely is and is not at work in terms of autistic creativity.  Both writers, I feel, make the points they set out to make; their arguments however do not address my own longstanding reasons for believing Asperger was right. The modest aim of this post, rather than surveying work done by others in support of Asperger’s contention, is to draw attention—without glorifying or overselling “autistic intelligence”—to why I believe it could well be that autistic people have made contributions to civilization which are disproportionate to our numbers.

The arguments I’m leaving aside then, valid though they may be, are those of Laurentius Rex and Jonathan Mitchell.  In his post The Myth of Genius, Mr. Rex performs an able takedown of a statement that had caught his attention elsewhere, “The severe autistics are in fact geniuses.  Autism will eventually be seen as symptomatic of genius and not retardation.”  After making an inventory of various examples and conceptions of genius, he concludes, “… it is absurd to assume that all autistics are hidden genii.”


For Mr. Mitchell’s part, in Undiagnosing Gates, Jefferson and Einstein, he offers a painstakingly documented examination of three well-known “geniuses” often taken to be or to have been autistic, casting doubt on whether they in fact belong on the spectrum at all.  He questions the wisdom of using such people to “make an autistic person feel better about himself,” noting that the flip side to such efforts may be to “induce anger and bitterness to the autist who considers himself far less successful than many neurotypicals.”

Mr. Mitchell’s concerns are the lowered self-esteem, undue expectations, and encouragement of false hopes engendered when the successes of prominent, purportedly autistic figures are promoted as examples of what is attainable by all autistic people.  As a fellow American, he may share my view that it’s not our own interests that are served when we buy into the myth that “anyone can grow up to be President.”  Suffice it to say that I second Mr. Mitchell’s concerns, and generally distrust the overselling of possibilities to any people.

As it happens though, Mr. Mitchell himself provides an entry into the perspective I’ve come to hold, on the bio page of his blog, where he states “I have a unique point of view in that I wish there were a cure for autism.” Not that I share his wish—what I appreciate instead is that the larger autistic community to which he and I belong has failed so miserably to socialize him to the majority point of view.  One might say that autistic people in general, almost by definition, are not easily socialized into conformity of thought.  “Going along to get along” can for us be so much more trouble than it’s worth that it becomes a practical impossibility.  As everyone does, we have to choose our battles—and sticking out like a sore thumb, while painful, is often preferable to the exhaustion that can come of the effort to see the world as others see it.

This all is obvious enough of course, but I don’t think its big-picture consequences—as they come into play across billions of individual lives spanning hundreds and thousands of generations—are at all so commonly understood.  A population that harbors a phenotype which brings a fresh eye, every generation, to every human situation is going to be significantly more likely, it seems to me, to create new possibilities for itself (domesticated fire, migration, dance, music, art, agriculture, writing, democracy, technology, etc.) than one that does not.  We might consider that disability, in the long history of autism, is an extremely recent word.

Keep in mind too that for all we can debate the semantics of who “is” and “is not” certifiably autistic, the autistic traits themselves are present across the population in varying degrees, working their effects regardless.  Cultural evolution happens—so long as we stay clear of eugenics—with limited influence from how we classify those who make it happen. When we do focus on individuals—whether it’s Jefferson, Einstein, and Gates, or our own lives—we miss that forest for those trees.  Those who are diagnosably autistic might be thought of as a reservoir of autistic traits for the population as a whole; rumor has it they breed with that population and actually raise their mixed-brain children within it.  Those children in turn breed further, producing even more offspring who view and influence the world from an autistic perspective—all while they lack official diagnostic validation.

I suggest, with tongue still only partially in cheek, that an autistic perspective is at work any time someone fails to comprehend that “because we’ve always done it this way” is a good-enough reason.  The autistic, as I’ve written elsewhere, are those who lack the common sense, who fail to receive the received wisdom, who don’t pick up on “how things are done.”  If we are condemned to re-invent the wheel, to for example learn social interaction as a foreign language, to tediously back-engineer it by observing how other folks interact, then we possess a skill set and a perennially fresh, outsider’s perspective which are chronically lacking in others.

I could go on, as others have, about thinking in pictures and working with patterns, or the ability to ride that line between perseveration and perseverance, to maintain interests and projects for years or a lifetime; genius, it’s been said, is 99 percent hard work.  Genius though is also a word that was hijacked by the inventors of standardized intelligence; its root meaning has more to do with tutelary, attendant intelligences—precursors to guardian angels, from before their Christianist makeovers—that work through each of us, one to a person, not only through outstanding individuals.

To use Mr. Rex’s phrase then, the “hidden genii” are behind everyone, not just the autistic.  My suggestion—speaking metaphorically—is that these genii are what drive human cultural evolution.  If certain sub-populations with certain types of mental conditions have made disproportionately large contributions to civilization, I propose that this is in good part because those conditions have made it harder for them to become socialized to “the way we’ve always done it,” and easier for them to listen to their unique genii, the hidden intelligences (or the different drummers) that are there for all our ears to hear.

Nature, granted, is wasteful, inefficient, and unfair.  Just as most gene mutations, in biological evolution, are not adaptive, most new memes, in cultural evolution, are not adaptive.  And yet genetic and memetic “mutation” supply the raw material for the infinite variety of adaptive and beautiful ways of being alive on this earth.

You may hear your own genius clearly, and even so hear nothing which will bring you fame, glory, or a decent paycheck.

That there would be genii at all though, for me seems wonder enough.

on 11/20/09 in featured, The Unconscious | No Comments | Read More

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