RainMan and a Spectrum Disorder

Newsweek’s recent cover story – Girls, Boys and Autism – profiles a new theory which proposes that the “mysterious and sometimes devastating condition may just be an extreme version of normal male intelligence” :

…we now know there are different kinds of intelligence, which can crop up in unusual combinations. The world, as it turns out, is full of people who find fractal geometry easier than small talk, people who can spot a tiny lesion on a chest X-ray but can’t tell a smile from a smirk. Most of these folks qualify as “autistic,” but not in the traditional sense.

But autism has many other faces. The condition, as experts now conceive it, is like high blood pressure – a “spectrum disorder” in which affected people differ from the rest of us only by degrees. The question is, degrees of what? Can autistic tendencies be measured on some scale? If so, is there a clear boundary between normal and abnormal? And is abnormality always a bad thing?

Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has a thesis that bears on all these questions. In a bold new book called “The Essential Difference,” he defines autism as an imbalance between two kinds of intelligence: the kind used to understand people (he calls it “empathizing”) and the kind used to understand things (“systemizing”). Though most of us have both abilities, studies suggest that females are better than males at empathizing, while males have a stronger knack for systemizing. By Baron-Cohen’s account, autism is just an exaggerated version of the male profile – an extreme fondness for rule-based systems, coupled with an inability to intuit people’s feelings and intentions.

I have been fascinated by “Autism” since the time I first saw the wonderful Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman starrer – Rain Man. But this Newsweek story uncovers an interesting facet of autism :

…autistic people score even lower than typical males on tests that involve predicting people’s feelings and interpreting their facial expressions. But when challenged to find the triangle embedded in a complex design, or predict the behavior of a rod attached to a lever, they fare as well as normal males, if not better… Even when they lack (such) savant skills, autistic people often excel at mundane, detail-oriented tasks.

Juhrs, a social-service organizer, has found that even profoundly autistic adults are often highly employable. “If theyÂ’re matched properly with work they enjoy,” she says, “they can do as well or better than people who arenÂ’t disabled.” In seeking out jobs for her clients, Juhrs never appeals to employers for charity. She asks if there are jobs they’ve had trouble filling. As it turns out, the Type S tasks that her people thrive on – inspecting garments, coding inventory, assembling components for the fuses on nuclear submarines – are often the same ones that ordinary people canÂ’t stand. “Once our folks get into going to work, they don’t want to miss a day,” she says. “We have to talk them into holidays.”

So, how does this help autists?

The E-S model may not capture all the nuances of autism, he says, but it sheds new light on the narrow interests and repetitive behaviors that people across the autistic spectrum display… The old theories said that this was purposeless repetitive behavior. The new theory says that the child, given his or her IQ, may be doing something intelligent: looking for predictable rules or patterns in the data. In other words, the E-S model may be incomplete but it’s still valuable – for it reveals the sanity and dignity of autistic behavior.

…the concepts of “E” and “S” offer a powerful new framework for thinking about boys, girls and autism. If Baron-Cohen is right, autism is not just a disease in need of a cure. It’s a mental style that people can learn to accommodate. Sometimes it’s even a gift.

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  1. Actually, the quote goes like this :”The heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of.” — John Dryden

  2. In trying to understand and accommodate these differently abled men and women,we are only embracing the multitudinous creation of God.even if you are touched by these people in a special way and dont know why, remember this adage “The Heart has its reasons which Reason knows not of”..

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