Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Asperger's and Talent

Autism is often a seriously crippling disease, one that for much of human existence would have been fatal before reproduction.   Nonetheless, it's a relatively common affliction.  When such illnesses persist in the gene pool, it's tempting to guess that the responsible genes, or some of them, are beneficial in some combination - as in the case of sickle cell anemia and a few similar diseases.  Is it possible that Autism is a multi-gene version of the same sort of thing?

A few psychologists have made that argument, for example in Genius Genes: How Asperger Talents Changed the World . Such arguments typically depend on identifying a number of past and present individuals who made dramatic impacts on history despite - or perhaps because of Asperger's syndrome. The credibility of the claim is in doubt of course, but I find it pretty interesting.  So do a lot of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders - Temple Grandin once referred to NASA as a "sheltered workshop for autistics."

If you spend much time hanging around, say, physics departments, you will see a number of individuals who though not quite clinical, clearly have something in common with those diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.  Wifes and girlfriends have been known to call us Aspies.  You will also see a few who are clearly over that borderline.

My own guess is that the same types of focus and obsession that define the Aspie are needed for sucess in certain intellectual occupations.  That doesn't mean that all those geniuses were Aspies or Autistics, but I find it plausible that on the big spectrum, most of them are closer to Aspie than the average person.

PS - I'm firmly convinced that essentially all of Rand's hero characters are autistic or Aspie.  Very likely, she was as well.