Autism as an academic advantage

In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education Tyler Cowen argues for autism as part of a "neurodiverse" world that has many kinds of normal, noting that "diagnosed autistics are very often those people who encounter major problems in life," while those for whom autism provides an advantage are rarely diagnosed.
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...

A partial list notes that autistics have, on average, superior pitch perception and other musical abilities, they are better at noticing details in patterns, they have better visual acuity, they are less likely to be fooled by optical illusions, they are more likely to fit some canons of economic rationality, they solve many puzzles at a much faster rate, and they are less likely to have false memories of particular kinds. Autistics also have, to varying degrees, strong or even extreme abilities to memorize, perform operations with codes and ciphers, perform calculations in their head, or excel in many other specialized cognitive tasks. The savants, while they are outliers, also reflect cognitive strengths found in autistics more generally. A recent investigation found, with conservative methods, that about one-third of autistics may have exceptional skills or savantlike abilities...

It turns out that the American university is an environment especially conducive to autistics. Many autistics are disadvantaged or overwhelmed by processing particular stimuli from the outside world and thus are subject to perceptual overload as a result. For some autistics, that is debilitating, but for many others it is either manageable or a problem they can work around. The result is that many autistics prefer stable environments, the ability to choose their own hours and work at home, and the ability to work on focused projects for long periods of time.

Autism as Academic Paradigm (via Kottke)


  1. There was another interesting recent account on autism and perception of music. It was in Olivier Sacks Musicophilia.

  2. As I read this my eyes are welling with tears at the frustration, anger, and downright despair I am currently experiencing trying to find a junior high school for my son who is on the spectrum.

    The kid is smart and talented, and alright, pretty darn weird…but in a good way(?)! eg-comparing advertising to siren songs from the Odyssey, playing Bach’s Minuet in C on the cello flawlessly, drawing a spot on cartoon of Homer and Bart as Icarus and Daedulus. And just last night I showed him a picture of myself standing on a bluff overlooking the Danube and asked him if he knew what river it was. He did…and he’s never been there. I asked him how he knew and he said because he recognized the buildings on the Pest side of the river! He also would not allow me to gush over his baby photo in front of his sister as, “it would make her feel sad”.

    Private schools will not take him (and rightly so as they are all too conventional for him), public schools will eat him alive, and then we have private special ed schools. The latter is our only hope given the small classrooms and nurturing envt but they continue to say that he has no learning disabilities. The admissions officers for these schools speak about these children as if they were shit eating cannibals when not outright pitying us/him.

    So, THANK YOU, Corey, for this as I know there are those who believe my child does have a future even though these schools have no interest in a kid they have never even met.

    1. firstly, I would like to say that I wish I was half as skilled as your son. I went through public school with autism (well asperegers technically, but its part of the spectrum) and when I got to the high school stage (public goes from K-8 in my district) I was told explicitly not to go to the local public high school by a friend of my mother’s “there’s drugs and fights and sex and all the bad things that can be said of teenagers” and instead to go to the Catholic school (because Catholic teenagers are somehow better behaved than non-catholic teenagers), I ignored that advice and went to the public school. Now, I am not normal, noticeably so. I however found many amazing people (some of whom, I am proud to say, my mother and stepfather and certainly my mother’s friend would not approve of) and got through public school just fine, I am incredibly happy that I took that opportunity to go to a public high school (a Canadian one to be specific, I don’t know what your public schools are like but this one had all the problems any high school would have) and although there were hurdles certainly, I got through. The most, no matter what anyone says about how important english, math science, history and all the rest are, the most important thing to me that happened in that school was the friends I made, they made me a better person and I can always turn to them if I ever need to. In fact they were integral in helping me become much more social and I am even friends with people who don’t like each other(I hope these people can bridge that gap someday) and people I formally did not like. These people, more than anything else changed my life and without them it would be little more than an empty shell. My point is, even if your son does not go to a public Junior High school I (despite being only 18 and certainty not wise in the ways of the world) advise you to at least let him try to go to a public high school for a while with the understanding that he can quit and change to a private ed school whenever he wants, I think he’ll make some really good friends and have a great time. That’s how I feel and I hope you’ll at least consider it.

    2. My daughter was on the spectrum, Middle School was a night mare,horror. Pulled her out and put her in a small catholic school, the nuns are strict but impose order and rules. my daughter then thrived.

  3. I can see how autism would be advantageous in the standardized, bureaucratic and impersonal world of a large American Uni, as well as many other modern institutions. This makes me wonder if the rise in autism is influenced by the standardization and de-personalization of earlier education and the lives of young people in general.

    Perhaps autism is something of an adaptation to cope effectively with the warped expectations of modern society.

    Obviously autistic people should have environments where they can thrive, but it seems more of an indictment of universities to observe that their structure is only optimal for a small minority of “unusual” people.

  4. As you point out, it’s a spectrum disorder, Autism diagnosis is hand-waving. These advantageous traits are likely an artifact of the classification for those that don’t actually have the brain damage that underlies ‘severe’ autism.

  5. I have to say that’s pretty spot on. As a child on the spectrum, I gotta tell #2, it’s about to get better for your child. Don’t worry, it may seem really hard now, but what worked with my parents and I, was treating me like a kid. Not like a kid with autism, like a kid. As long as you do that with your child, and just treat him nicely and as an equal, he should excel. I’m headed off to college this year, and I must tell you, middle school is then hump. After middle school, things will get better. Also, if your child wants to watch TV and play Video games, let him. Especially online games and sitcoms, those really helped me learn more about expressing myself and interacting socially. Sorry if I derailed conversation a little, I’m just letting a concerned parent know that things will get better, and things that helped me improve. Sorry for taking so much space.

  6. I suggest the book “The Speed of Dark” by Elizabeth Moon for another look at autism’s possible good side.

  7. Xakh, I for one see nothing at all inappropriate or off-topic about your comment. Nor was its length excessive by any means.

    In fact, I found it a valuable perspective, and obviously very kindly meant. Thank you for posting.

  8. With all respect to the autistic, I’m sorry, it’s not a matter of “neurodiversity.” There’s some faulty wiring up there. It doesn’t make them bad people, it doesn’t make them useless, it certainly can have advantages, but that doesn’t make it a different version of normal (if that term is really all that meaningful or important).

    #2’s kid sounds like he has some real gifts, and – be he normal or not – those gifts are valuable. No one’s saying they’re not. But “autism” has become so watered down by kids self-diagnosing with Asperger’s and acting like it’s a religion that I can’t help but roll my eyes when people talk about it just being an alternate neural layout that’s as normal as any other.

    I think we do ourselves and the autistic a disservice when we pretend they’re awkward super heroes.

  9. middle school is then hump. After middle school, things will get better.

    Middle school is when teachers stop caring for you as “cute kids” and start treating you like prisoners or caged animals. It’s when the agenda of socialization supersedes actual learning, because you’ve pretty much learned all the basic life skills (literacy, arithmetic) by 5th grade.

    Also, if your child wants to watch TV and play Video games, let him. Especially online games and sitcoms, those really helped me learn more about expressing myself and interacting socially.

    I was “addicted” to sitcoms as a kid; subconsciously I think it was for the same reason. The risk I learned later on, though, is that broadcast sitcoms unrealistically portray real social interaction, and that they exclude anything that isn’t “family friendly”. However, I still think they provide adequate scaffolding so that you’re not completely frozen in observation during real social interaction; you can at least draw on a bank of responses to their responses, which then allows you to gather more social responses from real life and add them to your bank.

  10. Zuzu, I’m sorry your high school was such a nightmare. It’s far from universal, however.

    I’m curious: when you were watching sitcoms as a kid, did you laugh?

  11. Speaking for neurodiversity, I make an argument in my thesis for ADHD not as a learning disability, but as an academic advantage. This is about changing perception of how we organize learning (formal education) according to a “deficiency” analysis.

    For example, we can choose to look at children as having (so-called) learning disabilities, while overlooking how learning contexts are not appropriate to developing unique and valuable proficiencies.

    I use the analogy that kids with ADHD in a typical normative classroom (or AS kids for that matter) is like putting a Ferrari in an L.A. traffic jam. A high-performance engine in a car like a Ferrari idling in traffic will eventually choke, sputter and likely overheat, and there is no way you can use that chassis to its advantage in a city environment.

    Our schools are about managing traffic in an inefficient environment. We need more environments (e.g. racetracks) that will let these kids shine, and who knows what benefit this could ultimately bring to solving humanity’s looming problems.

  12. Thank you, XAKH. It is helpful to know what was best for others. Though I only allow unlimited Spore when homework is done.

    And Lobster, OK, but if the “neurodiverse” community identifies with such they get to choose how they are identified as a result of their experience.

    ie-My name is Bill, I have autism. Rather then, I am autistic, my name is Bill.

    AND trust me, Dennis Leary can kiss my ass, rarely does anyone make up a kid’s condition; esp. when the children are treated as pariahs if they are in any way associated with the spectrum. Though yes, I agree, such an association can be a disservice.

  13. I was that kid, Bklynchris. Now I’m an aspie academic. (Which has its own complexities, not least for my students and colleagues!) Keep fighting, your son will find his place: Ithaca beckons, no matter how many siren songs the neurotypicals sing.

    Good luck to you both.

  14. @#11 why would anyone want to self diagnose a condition that won’t allow for insurance coverage? A lot of people with autistic children don’t get a formal diagnosis for a reason.

  15. It occurs to me that a useful analogy might be the deaf pride movement. The difference being that with deafness, nobody goes undiagnosed, and nobody is wrongly self-diagnosing, so the issue isn’t nearly as cloudy.

  16. The fact of the matter remains that a great many (a majority, I’d wager) of so called high-functioning autistics struggle a great deal through school from start to finish.

    Mr. Cowen also treads the line of false dichotomy when he places success, to simplify, as high academic achievement and failure as anything else. An autistic friend I had growing up tests somewhere in the top 10,000th in terms of intelligence, barely made it through high school, dropped/flunked out of college and now installs electrical systems in new residential construction. It’s the perfect job for him. He works his own ours, works in a closed system with controllable and predictable variables and he couldn’t be happier. Maybe he could have hacked it out in college, but he likely would never have found happiness in the environment alotted by academia.

    As a much less IQ-gifted high-functioning autistic myself, I can tell you that college was hell. Navigating the social facet of college with peers, seminars, workshops, and professor meetings was exceedingly difficult for me as I know it is also for many high-functioning autistics who have no choice but to compensate socially with various learned tricks – something which I assure you is consistently exhausting. College is also a very stimulating environment almost across the board and pretty much everyone in the autistic spectrum is very sensitive to stimulation. What’s more, there are very few resources to help autistics navigate the academic landscape.

    Tyler Cowen’s thesis seems poorly supported and frankly, somewhat bizarre, though in line with the recent trend of the fetishizing treatment the autistic spectrum’s received. He seems to have cherry picked the characteristics of autism that, if isolated, would be ideal for a student in American academia while paying very little credence to the multitude of handicaps most individuals on the spectrum posses.

  17. I’m convinced that the autistic child in my life would be an excellent toy tester: He isn’t verbal, but he can find and exploit every mode in any electronic toy handed to him. And I’d like to think that toys optimized for his use, would also be useful to kids who aren’t as messed up.

    We buy him a *lot* of electronic toys, and it breaks my heart that they all seem designed to teach him stuff that doesn’t help him or us.

    I would love to create a toy company that open-sources designs for autistic kids: there is a frontier wanting to be explored, between the verbal and the graphic.

    Unfortunately I’m too busy keeping him safe and clean, to do much more than shop for more crappy toys.

    Something like a Duplo version of the NXT Lego computer is what I’m thinking about. I’d love to do for this kid, what ASL can do for deaf people.

  18. Xopher, your question to Zuzu about whether he laughed at sit-coms sparks the thought that because of their canned laughter they indeed serve an instructional role; knowing when to laugh is an important social asset.

  19. I don’t have autism and don’t personally know anyone with autism, but I tend to agree with Clayton’s problems with Cowen’s article. I, too, thought some of the statements were bizarre and didn’t reflect that of someone who had any actual experience with autism. And what do you know, I scroll to the bottom of the article and find that Cowen is a Professor of Economics…

    Anansi133: most toys sold in the US ARE crap. I don’t know what the statistics are, but I would venture that at least 75% of the toys on the shelves in Toys’R’Us or Wal-Mart are licensed from some franchise that also happens to have a tv show and/or movie and/or clothing line. Additionally, many products are of poor-quality construction from China: just compare Mega-Bloks to LEGO. The latter are manufactured of higher-quality plastic (stronger with more give/bendiness) to stricter tolerances in places that aren’t China. I completely agree with your sentiments on open-source toys – unfortunately, I think the market is just not there: there’s a decent set of exploratory toys (e.g. electronics kits and books on how to obtain a good chemistry set in the post-9/11 world), but these are targeted at the same older age group that would enjoy the NXT. And while the NXT is probably the most accessible, it’s certainly not cheap at $280. For such a magnificent toy, it only accounts for a tiny portion of LEGO’s profits – most of which comes from the Star Wars line of products.

  20. I do think that anyone who has not had direct contact with severe autism tends to misinterpret and underestimate the effects of the condition, due to the amount of media coverage given to the more “lightweight” disorders on the autistic spectrum.

    Given that Tyler Cohen is a professor of economics rather than psychology, I am assuming that he probably does not know what he is talking about.

  21. Most people with autism are also intellectually disabled. As the writer says, some are savants, however the information I have is that this is around 10% of those with autism. I think it would be advantageous to state that most of those in the autism spectrum with life outcomes that approximate the general population are those with Aspergers, not Autism. I think this is an important point.

  22. Clayton (#21) is on the mark.

    For many students on the spectrum, college is a very, very difficult matter. From social situations to class discussion (of, say, a poem with sexually frank language), things can be very difficult.

  23. Dear BKLYNCHRIS,

    I don’t know how involved your son is but, my 12 yr old son has done extremely well in a private school. Not your typical preppy “we are all going to Ivy Leagues” but a very small community – very progressive, and you must stay involved, do ALOT of prepping, allowing him meeting time with teachers, get acquainted with the campus, find a buddy to walk him around the first weeks, all ahead of start of the school year. Try a Montessori or similar type environment. Then build your own extracurricular activities with like minded outside the box people.
    My son is a wonderful violinist, but traditional classical groups squash him – we love bluegrass for ensemble, and it’s great to play outside the Starbuck’s. You have to find what works – it’s very do it yourself. Trust that you do know and correct when you make a mistake, but don’t give up!

    Lobster – you need an education – sorry!

  24. I’ve worked with an unusual number of spectrum kids and teens, and although anecdotal, my experience tells me that given the wide range of talents and interests in spectrum kids, you can’t really paint that broad a stroke and say that autism = good college skills.

    Most of the kids I’ve worked with, though quick, are too quick. They know ABOUT things, but don’t KNOW them, and cannot distinguish the difference. They are too quick to discount or ignore important details that don’t fit a rigid, efficient, engineering model way of working in the world. The kids I’ve worked with often miss out on actual perception of data in front of them in favor of what they think should be there because of something they’ve read. (“No one does X. X doesn’t make sense.” even though I’m actively doing X in front of them and do X every day of my life.) Spectrum kids may be “better” at “pattern recognition”, but not all types of patterns and I find they very quickly reduce things to patterns that they are comfortable and familiar with. That’s not necessarily what makes a good academic student.

    I do think it’s a crying shame that we don’t perceive what spectrum kids are talented at (though it’s admittedly a challenge when they keep repeating WHAT’S YOUR FIRST NAME WHAT’S YOUR LAST NAME DON’T ASK PHONE NUMBER THAT’S PERSONAL SOME THINGS ARE PRIVATE.”). And I do appreciate the author’s desire to educate the unaware about the skills that spectrum kids do have. But I’m not convinced that spectrum student = good academic skills.

  25. Yhank you everyone for your kind words. Anansi, I have so often thought about toys and as of late, more specifically, video games.

    #24-I disagree that there is no market given that I have thrown money at every possible therapy, with as many successes as not. In fact, unless you are versed in the life on the spectrum you really cannot have an idea of the huge industry that feeds off every parents fear and anxiety.

    warhorse- I do have him in a small progressive school but those most inclusive don’t have a secondary program. My daughter does go to an “all go to Ivy” school, but all I want for both my children, Hell, even myself, is a career like Clayton’s friend.

  26. A clinical diagnosis will only be made if there is active disability. As such there is no surprise in the comment that sub-clinical cases are not diagnosed and are doing comparatively well in life.

    Still, interesting article.

  27. Hmmm Magic Bean, I can see how your experience is much more relevant to the future of children on the spectrum than that of research conducted by the aforementioned academic. (um not)

    Again, I do not see the causal relationship in the article that your final statement does. Its ironic given your earlier statement, “The kids I’ve worked with often miss out on actual perception of data in front of them in favor of what they think should be there because of something they’ve read.” In fact, I see your comments more akin to my experience with educators when talking about his prospects (those being the ones who have never met him).

    Your description of your teaching experience is what we parents of spectrum kids call “deficit defined” education. We have no use for that it does not help us. It sounds like you’re burned out and I, for one, would not want you working with my kid. Am I saying my kid will flourish in an academic setting of higher learning? Admittedly, NO. Am I saying that he will not? Decidedly, NO. Are you even suggesting he won’t given your anecdotal experience? Better not.

  28. Hey, can we remove the “kids” tag? Contrary to popular belief, adults have autism too. For example, the article is about university.

    Arguably, a lot of the people in university are very childish, but that’s true of most supposedly adult institutions.

    Funny, I thought it was fairly obvious they were talking about a particular subset of austisic people.

  29. I am a member of the BoingBoing community but am commenting anonymously this time.

    Thanks Cory for posting this. As an adult diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder only after my child was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, I found this article good to read.

    On the other hand, some of the comments here took away much of the hope that the article had given me. BoingBoing readers are this ignorant of the autism spectrum? (Which includes Asperger’s, Apoxia.)

    Bklynchris – you will get there. But it won’t necessarily be all roses when you do. For example, I spent lots of money and time and we were very lucky to get a place in a good school – could scarcely fault it. He was ascertained at the worst level for Asperger’s Syndrome at the start but ultimately got the right grades and a university place. He has even studied overseas, and lives independently now with his girlfriend. His social skills are good, though this took time and teaching. The psychiatrist is very pleased, and says that it would now take a trained person to detect any ASD in him (except at times of stress). Everyone who knows him is pleased, and so is he. My reward for this success from many members of the general public? People say that the diagnosis of Asperger’s has been an exaggeration the whole time, he is a lightweight at worst, and I shouldn’t have projected my neurosis onto him.

    They pick me as a bit of a weirdo – and I am. I have sensory acuities that make socialising and work difficult, and unusual interests (among other things – won’t bore you with the list). I haven’t wanted to make an identity out of being at the light end of the autism spectrum, but comment threads like this teach me that there is a lot that needs to be done to change the negative perceptions of us. Maybe I will start to speak out more.


  30. I’ve only known a few people at college with any form of autism (at least that I could notice), most of them some degree of Aspergers. The one that comes to mind first was very intelligent academically but had almost no social literacy. He would ask questions at inappropriate times during lectures and to my knowledge had few or no friends. And this is at an engineering school where social awkwardness is the norm. It’s not surprising that he left after about three semesters.

    So while I don’t doubt that there are some autistic people who thrive in the academic world, my experience is that just as many find it a poor fit.

  31. There is a german 3-parts documentation about Savants named “Expedition ins Gehirn”. If you understand german, watch it e.g. on youtube, if not, try to find it subbed. If nothing else it is *very* fascinating.

  32. the spectrum is large. Assume that we are only talking about the percentage that are employable (which might include more aspergians). This includes those who have noticeable issues and those who do not. Those in the latter category are not likely to get a diagnosis unless they experience a lot of difficulty getting jobs or gaining a social life. Those in the former category are going to get a diagnosis at an early age. The perception about this ‘advantage’ is misleading. NTs, those not on the spectrum, have oodles of job prospects from the get-go and those jobs that people on the spectrum who are employable will have are much less from the get-go. So while academics is within the realm of employment for a class of people on the spectrum, it is a smaller pool to being with. Also computer programming, engineering, etc. I dont think people would choose to become autistic because of ‘the advantage’ knowing that includes being averse to large crowds, loud sounds, and having nearly no social life and other possible outcomes.

  33. Please, moderator, post this.

    Hello, long time anonymous, aka Einstein here.
    I havent yet fully read the article but I got far enough to want to make a point……

    I am one of these lucky people, Im autistic in the greatest way imaginable. I have whats considered, High Functioning Autism, some have said Aspergers Syndrome as well. Supposedly Einstein himself was likely autistic. I have had a very hard and easy life. Hard in the way that all my life Ive been dirt poor and I had a horribly mean abusive step father. Easy in the way that life comes easy to me. Hard tasks for some are extremely simple for me, and yet occasionally extremely easy tasks are somewhat difficult for me as well. I learn by not listening.

    I goofed off in school the entire time and somehow subconsciously absorbed all the information and an A+ test was very common for me although I absolutely never did any class work or homework. It netted me a constant C+ average doing this. I had many many teachers tell me that I was wasting my ability, I just assumed that was a speech they gave all the kids.

    Went to college expecting it to be the place of knowledge, an all encompassing and way to get information instantly. I quickly found its a scam, knowledge comes slowly and given with blinders on keeping you down a certain path and forcing you to overlook your own intelligence for “the way things are done”
    My IQ tested between 140 and 180, as a child before 12 I tested off the charts at supposedly around 210.
    I was scouted by a couple different agencies that lets just say, love to use 3 initials to hide their true agenda. EX. ICA, BFI, you get the idea. I have never told anyone this but I purposefully failed the tests given to me.
    I decided I needed to find others like me, but after many failed attempts I realized Im quite alone and even those who matched me intellectually couldnt seem to overlook their own egos long enough to ever change their own holier than thou opinions. In other words I not only have a great mind but a great ability to seek truth regardless of if I am right. I could care less if I win an argument, if I am wrong I want to know it so I can be as close to living in reality as possible.
    Here are some other things Im good at, math, ciphers, puzzles, visual estimation of length/size/etc., remembering an insane amount of abstract knowledge. I type around 100 wpm usually, I naturally, slightly speed read. I play saxaphone, baritone, drums, bass, guitar, keyboard, autoharp, flute, harmonica, accordion, and many home made instruments Ive made. Not only that but I was blessed with a larger than average size and strength. I have extra bone density and the ability to grow massive muscles on my large frame that appear to have strength above men of my size, for instance, my father still holds 4 or 5 weight lifting records at the high school we both attended, I hold 2. I have other strange things like the ability to make myself extremely hot, to disconnect from pain, I rarely sleep more than 4 hours a night, sometimes spending 4-5 days awake and then only crashing for about 12 hours then repeating the cycle. I have literal volumes of inventions that I have never showed anyone, everything from hundreds of car improvements to things as simple as high altitude electricity producing kites.

    Being this form of autistic doesnt come without its problems and flaws. I have a hard time finding and keeping good people for friends, I see through their lies, which makes it very hard to stay friends with them. I also appear to intimidate most of my friends so I find it hard to have meaningful conversation or discussions. Mostly they keep me around for when they need my help or information. I also have a very hard time remembering that I shouldnt expect so much from average people, so Im constantly let down or disappointed. I sometimes have trouble understanding what people are feeling, I have ALWAYS had to pay conscious attention to my spelling and grammar since that is my weakest point, I sometimes have trouble expressing myself in any way, emotionally, mentally, verbally. I suffer from extreme depression because Ive found the old saying to be more than true, “ignorance is bliss” it truly is. The more I learn the more I understand what kind of people live in this world and what kind of social brainwashing goes on. I also have something wrong where I rarely get excited about anything. Im talking I am almost never impressed, Ive done amazingly fun things and met rockstars from 311 to Neil Young, done 150mph wheelies, had multiple threesomes, seen amazing shows and acts, and none of it impressed me a bit. Furthermore the most disturbing thing is constantly being the outsider. Can you even imagine how difficult it is to be standing there with the truth and trying to teach it to a large group, only to have them make tawdry jokes and all gang together to disagree? I cannot count the number of times this has happened. So there it is. My life in a nutshell. Life and things come easy, but its very lonely and frustrating at the same time. I might add that Ive never had a problem with the ladies though, Ive had a ridiculous amount of women want me, but Ive been very very picky about who I let in. Ive never had a relationship last less than a few years. My current one being 10 years but then again we both see other women, together so that keeps it interesting.

    If you managed to read this whole thing, congrats. Please dont take this as a way for me to brag about myself, I merely wanted to be honest and open on a topic that is very near to me.

    Lastly I must add. Who makes up disease names? Why is such an amazing human called an idiot savant? Why is it that I am (supposedly) smarter then 99.999% of the population yet I have a Syndrome(aspergers)? I dont find myself greatly flawed, I find it as an amazing gift that I am very proud to have. I am extremely proud to say that I am autistic and I feel for those of you who know autistic people who unfortunately do not have these abilities. But think of it this way, maybe that confused, non verbal, stumbling, autistic boy gets the joy of experiencing music like you never will, where single notes can cause a feeling of such beauty and comfort in his mind that you couldnt even fathom.

  34. As a parent of a kid with autism, I love to hear of people who do well, who negotiate the world with ease. In the concern to empower people with autism and their caretakers, it’s nice to recognize that it represents no real impairment for a percentage. I’ve met capable people with MD’s and PhD’s who I believe are Aspies, not neccesarily diagnosed, in medicine and science. While it’d be nice to believe everyone can be a Temple Grandin, it kind of sets a lot of parents and kids up for failure. I am not convinced that this isn’t an epidemic. It’s possible that an toxin or toxins or toxic process has been introduced into our lives that makes this more prevalent. Hopefully research will find this. I personally believe it’s be something oddball we hadn’t considered. I get the newsfeed everyday on the words “autism” and “autistic”. Lots of kids without language wandering off in cities or woods, many drowning in pools or streams. I worry about my daughter being able to someday cross streets on her own. I love my daughter as she is, but I want the world to be easy and safe for her too. She is less safe and has a harder way than peers without autism. A friend’s kid persistantly feels the need to get naked and escape from rooms and houses. Very nice to recognize strengths. Very nice to be concerned about not offending others. Missing an epidemic, or increased problem of toxicity, not so healthy.

  35. I think if high-functioning autistic/Asperger’s individuals are thriving, then it’s fair to say that their condition is not a “plague,” but rather a different way of thinking and living. However, as a neuroscientist, I wanted to point out that many, many people on the autism spectrum are NOT high-functioning. In fact, up to 70% of individuals on the autism spectrum (the numbers vary between studies) exhibit some form of mental retardation. And even high-functioning autistic people can suffer from symptoms aside from the eccentric social behaviors that Cowen categorizes as “neurodiverse” — sleep disturbances, seizures, immune disorders, etc. Presumably, they would be better off if they did not have these symptoms, even if they are satisfied with their unique ways of social interaction.

    De-medicalization of autism spectrum disorders downplays the negative experiences of many people on the spectrum, much like claiming that clinical depression (which also carries a set of physical symptoms in addition to emotional symptoms) is not a ‘real’ disease. If people are satisfied with their quality of life with an ASD or with depression, they are not required to seek treatment, but people suffering from the more severe symptoms of these disorders are desperate for a cure.

  36. Reminds me of a t-shirt I saw in Austin: “Keep Autism Weird” (obviously a spin on the better known “Keep Austin Weird”).

  37. “I think if high-functioning autistic/Asperger’s individuals are thriving, then it’s fair to say that their condition is not a “plague,” but rather a different way of thinking and living.”

    What’s “just different” and what’s a disability is not really an objective determination, but that also doesn’t follow. That some people manage to thrive despite a disability or even use some aspects of it to their advantage does not make it not a disability. Or maybe it does, but at that point the word basically becomes meaningless.

    @Warhorse: What is lobster wrong about?

  38. Replying to the middle school mother’s comment that a public school would eat her son up. That’s not correct. My son was in private middle school. I switched him to a public school that has a program for Aspergers. In 3 years he went from an F student to honor roll scoring 1400 on the SAT, doing plasma physics research as a rising high school senior at a university in our state. He was in large normal classes and progressed to AP classes, with a special “time out” classroom & teacher to monitor his progress each day, supplementing the regular teacher to keep him on track, focused on content mastery, & skills. Yes he’s a special ed student, but everyone knows he’s the highest IQ special ed student they’ve ever had. A public school w/ program expertise for these kids was EXACTLY what he needed. He will succeed in a top college setting; people are more accommodating of differences there. It’s worth moving to where these programs exist for your child.

  39. #39 Ravenword: Heck, one doesn’t even need to go that far into the spectrum to discount Cowen’s thesis. The fact that he uses exceptions to the norms of even high-functioning autistics as the foundation of his argument is sufficient reason to discount the whole thing.

  40. agreeing with #47 and commenting to #2 (bklynchris). My son is also at a public school (grade 5) and is doing amazing. Public schools can be your friend — know your rights under the law (IDEA), and be polite, but firm & active! Move to a different school district if needed and/or possible.

    7 years into this, and the day-to-day is still hard, but I’m stunned at the progress. We had to teach our son what nodding yes and know meant bit by bit, but he did learn. Now he’s “just” the weird kid in class who happens to be able to memorize immense volumes of information.

    I don’t know what his future will bring, but I’m cautiously optimistic. That’s a lot of progress for me from 5 years ago!

  41. The prevalence of ASD in adults has always been relatively high it seems. There are a number of pieces of evidence that suggest this.

    Where are the adults? Yes, some are in institutions, psychiatric hospitals and group homes, with labels such as mental retardation and schizophrenia. Most are probably in the community, either living independently or with family.

    About the speculation that autistics do well in college, I can offer up one data point. Szatmari et al. (1989) was an adult follow-up of autistics who scored in the normal range of intelligence. Half of them (8) attended college. All but one of those who attended college had graduated at the time of the study. This is considerably higher than the general population rate.

  42. bklynchris –

    I think you are taking what I’m saying a little too personally, and are making a number of incorrect assumption about what I do and what I mean. So please let me clarify.

    I’m not a school teacher, for one. I run a rare type of volunteer org that accepts volunteers of all ages and abilities. We have never turned anyone away who wants to come. I am FLOODED with requests from parents of spectrum kids and schools for spectrum kids begging to get their group out to my org because it’s a wonderful experience that every one of them has valued. We work hard to make a positive and accepting experience for spectrum kids and their parents because they can’t find that kind of acceptance anywhere else. Without exception, every one has asked to come back multiple times. So despite the picture in your imagination, I must be doing something right! So with that out of the way….

    I’ve worked with quite a number of spectrum kids who’ve gone on to college (and even wrote about their experience with me as part of a college application.) But the kids that have gone on don’t have any special skills that make them better students than any other college student. That doesn’t mean they are not capable or don’t deserve to be in college. They make perfectly fine students, have perfectly fine programs of study. But they are not brilliant students simply by definition of being autistic, and in fact, sometimes miss out on things because of autism…thinking too fast and missing important information, not processing all the information that is necessary, thinking in familiar, comfortable linear patterns. Quick and voluminous does not make a great student by definition.

    Jacques Lusseyran is one of my all-time favorite heros. (Blind guy who led a major French resistance group against the Nazis). So I’m not unaware of the incredible potential of the human psyche when the brain processes information in a non-typical way. But I don’t want to angel-ify autism either, and make it out to be all wonderful and perfect and better than neurotypical. It is hard and complicated and challenging. For everyone.

    #42 “But think of it this way, maybe that confused, non verbal, stumbling, autistic boy gets the joy of experiencing music like you never will, where single notes can cause a feeling of such beauty and comfort in his mind that you couldnt even fathom.”

    That is partially a beautiful thought, and I appreciate that you are trying to express the humanity behind what is so socially unacceptable. But we *all* experience deep beauty and joy, autism doesn’t give you a special hold on truth and beauty. Just as neurotypicals are incorrect to believe that because you are autistic you cannot experience beauty and joy, you are incorrect to think that others don’t experience the same depth that you do; you cannot objectively measure the depth of someone else’s joy.

  43. Is it less of an advantage in universities in the rest of the world? What makes the authour think American universities are special somehow?

  44. What Jonathan said!

    I’d go to the LA Times with this — give the firm some much needed publicity


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