Donate

Categories

Advert

XHTML

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

Is Asperger Syndrome a Good Thing?

A meme that keeps going around is that Asperger Syndrome (AS) is somehow universally good. The DSM doesn’t list things that are beneficial, so any diagnostic criteria has to be for something that has some serious down-sides – even if there are positive aspects to it. Of course on the Internet the debate won’t just end there.

Positive Aspects of AS

The main positive aspect of AS is intense concentration on topics of Special Interest, if a Special Interest is something that is related to a high paying job (such as computer programming) then that’s a really good thing. Of course a Special Interest that isn’t related to well paid employment or for which most people get paid little and only a lucky few get paid really well (such as music) isn’t going to be a good thing by objective criteria.

It seems that most people on the Autism Spectrum have sensory advantages over Neuro-Typical people (NTs). Better vision and hearing are quite common. It’s good to be able to notice small and quiet things that most people miss, but that’s not a benefit that most people seem to particularly desire. The down-side is that loud sounds and bright lights are more unpleasant and it’s easy to be distracted by things that other people won’t notice.

The desire to give lectures has obvious benefits for any profession where giving lectures is a large part of the work, this is one reason why so many Aspies end up in academic careers. The down-side is that this is usually combined with a lack of ability to recognise when people aren’t interested in receiving a lecture.

Things can work out quite well for people on the Autism Spectrum who have a special interest that relates to a well paying career, who don’t have any problems that prevent them from getting and keeping a job.

Neutral Aspects of AS

On forums some Aspies report that they don’t want to have friends, presumably their needs for friendship are met by the interaction with other forum members. As far as I can determine they are happy like that. I’m sure that such people are a lot happier than people who want friends and don’t have any.

The incidence of asexuality among Aspies is apparently a lot higher than among the general population (something like 30% vs 1%). This isn’t a bad thing for those people (I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that asexuals are less happy than people with average sexual desire), but it is evidence to suggest that Aspies are not the next stage in human evolution.

Negative Aspects of AS

The DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for AS has as section C “The disturbance causes clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning“, in the proposed changes for DSM-V it’s merged into “Autistic Disorder” with section D being “Symptoms together limit and impair everyday functioning” [1]. These seem like clear disadvantages, it doesn’t seem possible to be diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum without having some real disadvantage.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) seem to usually be correlated with Sensory Processing Disorder. Symptoms of SPD can include a lack of tolerance for noise, lights, certain types of clothing, dirt, and lots of other things as well as being physically clumsy. SPD is not in the diagnostic criteria for any ASD but it seems that most people on the Spectrum experience it to some degree and many regard it as the worst down-side of Autism.

Spiritual Aspects of AS

I’ve seen a claim that AS gives them some advantage over NTs in terms of spiritual development. When someone manages to prove that their God exists or whatever other supernatural belief they have is based on fact then I’ll consider this possibility.

I think it’s worth noting however that most religions seem to place some emphasis on humility, that seems to go against claiming that one’s neuro-type is genetically predisposed to being successful at religion.

Conclusion

There are many positive, neutral, and negative aspects of AS that I didn’t list, I only mentioned some of the more common ones. How the positive and negative aspects compare differs on an individual basis, some people seem to be better off by objective criteria. But it seems that the best outcome is to have a different life experience that isn’t objectively worse, which usually seems to involve a career in computers, science, engineering, or academia.

Really if we were better then the Neuro-Typical people (NTs) would envy us, and I haven’t seen much evidence of that. The NTs who do think that AS is a good thing seem to have little knowledge of AS.

10 comments to Is Asperger Syndrome a Good Thing?

  • F.P.C.

    We mustn’t forget that a signifant portion of the “problems with AS” is not so much the AS itself, but rather, everyone else who does not understand AS.

    The evidence for this is around us, constantly. Just look at how AS kids are treated in schools, or by the ASD professionals. This is my area of interest and I can honestly say that I can count on one hand the number of ASD professionals (speech paths, special ed teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists, ABA therapists, etc) I have encountered who truly understand Aspies. AS kids in my experience are always lumped in to one category, where people are trying to treat the label and not the individual. The ‘lack of empathy’ thing is my pet peeve because I believe the people saying this do not know how to recognise the empathy an Aspie is feeling or displaying. Also, empathy can come in many different forms so trying to box it up in to a very narrow definition doesn’t help matters.

    The Aspies I know (and there are many) have a heightened sense of social justice and ‘making the world a better place’ compared to NTs. This is true of AS kids too (again in my experience).

  • anon

    Why do you relate spirituality with beliefs?

  • iMac

    Being a tiny minority can be a disability in itself, because you live in a world designed by and for the majority. The majority also treat themselves as the standard, so that minorities are not understood, distrusted, patronised, bullied, etc.

    But I do think that people with AS have a social and emotional learning disability (least ways, I have). I don’t know how to handle interaction with assertive, more sophisticated people (e.g. at work), in order to influence them (and not be swamped by them and their ability to influence others). I have the IQ to do very innovative things, but I lack the “political” skills to know how to handle assertive, strong-willed people in my work social environment. I also have a problem with complexity (presumably an executive function thing), so if someone is pushing a complex solution and I want a simpler solution, I am at a social disadvantage. If someone is loudly pushing out their complex ideas, I find it hard to develop my own simple, but innovative, ideas, because I am constantly off-balance, trying to absorb the barrage of complexity.

    Hope this makes some sense.

  • etbe

    anon: Generally spirituality is associated with beliefs in unproven things. Anyway my point here is not to write an essay about belief systems as that topic can’t be covered in the amount of space available, it’s just a side note on the issue of whether AS is a good thing.

    FPC and iMac: One problem with the way average people deal with minority groups is that they seem to have a check-list of ways to make allowances. This means that any minority group that they don’t know about or that has a range of differing needs that is significant (as in the case of AS) ends up not being treated particularly well.

    iMac: the social problems vary a lot, what you describe as your experience makes sense, but it’s quite different from my experience. Socialising is by many measures the most difficult task that humans perform, so there’s many ways to fail at it.

  • Shannon

    Heh, nice dry humour in some of your points there, Russ. :)

  • Hiya Russell,
    Your comment that “Better vision and hearing are quite common.” doesn’t jell with my experience I’m afraid; many of the people on the spectrum that I know have visual perceptual issues that cause fragmentation of vision or are easily overwhelmed visually by things that people not on the spectrum wouldn’t even notice. Similarly for issues with incoming speech being jumbled, mixed up with background noise, etc.
    I do like the comment:

    The incidence of asexuality among Aspies is apparently a lot higher than among the general population (something like 30% vs 1%). This isn’t a bad thing for those people (I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that asexuals are less happy than people with average sexual desire), but it is evidence to suggest that Aspies are not the next stage in human evolution.

    Very true. ;-)

  • john walker

    Russell have you read V S Ramachandran on AS ? If so what do you think?

  • etbe

    Chris: Your statement “easily overwhelmed visually by things that people not on the spectrum wouldn’t even notice” seems roughly equivalent to “It’s good to be able to notice small and quiet things that most people miss … The down-side is that loud sounds and bright lights are more unpleasant and it’s easy to be distracted by things that other people won’t notice”. I don’t think that we have any disagreement here.

    While there are some people who have serious perception issues, I think that the vast majority of ASD people who are able to live independently don’t have such serious problems.

    John: No.

  • john walker

    Ramachandran -He is a Leading Neurologist – (as best as I understand him) Postulates that it is linked to problems in mirror neuron circuits related to mimicking things like facial expressions and speech in early childhood.
    The Book is called ‘the tell tale brain’

  • etbe

    http://etbe.coker.com.au/2011/11/24/receiving-death-threats/

    I’ve written the above post about a death threat that was entered into the comments section of this post.