Wednesday, February 01, 2012

On Asperger Syndrome

In the New York Times, Paul Steinberg writes what is bound to be a controversial op-ed.

Asperger syndrome and Aspies — the affectionate name that people diagnosed with Asperger syndrome call themselves — seem to be everywhere.

Considered to be at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, Asperger syndrome has become more loosely defined in the past 20 years, by both the mental health profession and by lay people, and in many instances is now synonymous with social and interpersonal disabilities. But people with social disabilities are not necessarily autistic, and giving them diagnoses on the autism spectrum often does a real disservice. An expert task force appointed by the American Psychiatric Association is now looking into the possibility of changing the way we diagnose Asperger. True autism reflects major problems with receptive language (the ability to comprehend sounds and words) and with expressive language. Pitch and tone of voice in autism are off-kilter. Language delays are common, and syntactic development is compromised; in addition, there can be repetitive motor movements.

Nevertheless, children and adults with significant interpersonal deficits are being lumped together with children and adults with language acquisition problems. Currently, with the loosening of the diagnosis of Asperger, children and adults who are shy and timid, who have quirky interests like train schedules and baseball statistics, and who have trouble relating to their peers — but who have no language-acquisition problems — are placed on the autism spectrum.

In recent years speculation has abounded that Albert Einstein must have had Asperger syndrome. Christopher Hitchens speculated that his intellectual hero George Orwell must have had Asperger. Indeed, Orwell had major problems fitting in at British preparatory schools — not surprisingly, he hated the totalitarian tenor of teachers and school administrators — but someone on the autism spectrum could probably never have become a police officer in Lower Burma, as Orwell did. Similarly, writers like Charles Morris have noted that Warren Buffett is thought to have a condition on the autism spectrum, presumably Asperger syndrome.
George Orwell might never have been able to write his brilliant essay about the shooting of an elephant if Asperger syndrome had been part of his permanent medical record.
In his 2009 book “Parallel Play,” Tim Page, a former music critic for The Washington Post, describes his relief in being given an Asperger syndrome diagnosis as an adult and thus having an explanation for his longstanding social difficulties. But the rubric of a “social disability” would be more accurate than “autism spectrum” for people like Mr. Page, and potentially just as relieving. In addition, adults and children who have normal expressive and receptive language skills can benefit more fully from social-skills programs than adults and children with true autism. In fact, Tim Page learned a large measure of his social skills from an Emily Post course, just as Warren Buffett credits a Dale Carnegie program with changing his life.

For Mr. Buffett and Mr. Page, these social skills do not come naturally and automatically. But these men are able to compensate more completely than a truly autistic child or adult whose language deficiencies and cognitive deficits can often put him at a level of functioning in the mentally retarded range.

My commentary: exactly, social skills can be learned by otherwise normal people; and some very successful men have had to learn what did not come naturally to them. That some skill does not come naturally to one, does not mean one is disabled.

One last:
Given that humans are social animals, interpersonal intelligence is perhaps the most important natural human skill — as valuable as or more valuable than verbal-linguistic intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence (to use the terminology of the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner), the skills focused on in school.

The grand trio of Indian independence, Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, would not be considered geniuses by the logical-mathematical intelligence dominated notion of genius - which notion is pushed mostly by the logical-math types. But with everything I've learned about them, I would classify them as geniuses of the highest order. If we cultivated interpersonal intelligence as assiduously as we do musical and mathematical talent, our world would be a much better place.