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)