Trading genius for Asperger

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Fluid psychiatry

The term "spectrum" is conveniently used to describe a wide variety of autistic children. As always in psychiatry, we find a few commonalities, create a reasonably strict definition with a reasonably selected checklist/questionnaire, only to arrive at a disorder that may range from serious disability to a brain that is capable of nothing less than a genius achievement. Such a disorder may extensively overlap with similar disorders that may then be seen as just comorbidities. All the time we need to remember that psychiatry run by interviews and questionnaires is a very inexact science. We need better modeling of mental diversity that rests on sturdier foundation of neuroscience.

Autistics: Bob and Rob

My two closest friends with the diagnosis of autism, Bob and Rob, are as different as chalk from cheese. Bob is 20 and cannot utter a single understandable word. My biggest success in communicating with Bob is when we locked eyes for a brief moment when I told him it is ok to watch YouTube. He loves music on YouTube! In my imagination I read his reaction as "Really? All the world tells me it is bad for my bad brain". The other of my friends with the diagnosis of autism, Rob, is 14 and he is an honor student. The only unusual weakness about Rob is that he is easily bullied by his younger brother who is nearly a head shorter. Conversations with Rob are amazing. He always asks very unusual questions that do not normally come to a mind of a 14-year-old. He seems to always remember what I told him previously (e.g. about my own life, which he is always curious about). He respectfully addresses me as "Sir", which is pretty odd. If Rob did not attend special school for intellectually disadvantages children, which biases my perception, I would consider him one of the brightest teens in my surroundings. He is a bit odd as nearly all intellectuals who convert they meandering trains of thought into surprising acts and/or habits in life.

As we are utterly ignorant as to the underlying neural correlates and potential causes of autism, we are probably dealing with a whole range of cases that may be maladaptive, pathological, or simply different from the average. We may have cases caused by environmental pollution, traumatic birth, infection, as well as cases attributable to human neurodiversity. In that wide rage, there is a lot of room for a subset in which the potential of genius is squandered by the cookie-cutter approach to children with developmental delays or developmental oddities, incl. precocity. The whole area of therapy may be a case of groping in the dark with some modalities helpful, others harmful. The best we can hope for are human experts who find out by trial and error what strategies might work best for children in a category that seems to delineate differently in each expert's mind. Co-discoverers of autism, Kanner and Asperger, worked with just 11 and 4 children respectively when first describing the disorder

The definition of autism is imprecise enough to say nearly nothing about the neurological cause

Asperger Syndrome

Asperger Syndrome is a subset of highly functioning autism in where children show pretty high intelligence despite a set of behaviors that rank them as Aspies. When I was researching childhood passions, inspired by Winner's rage to master, I looked around for most obsessively passionate children I could find. I was struck by a huge proportion of children who matched my criteria and yet were branded with the Asperger Syndrome. Michael Fitzgerald is a psychiatrist who wrote "Genius Genes: How Asperger Talents Changed the World". Having worked with 1,500 autistic children, he is a man who sure knows the subject. In the book, he looked at past cases of human genius, which made him identify strong correlation with the characteristics of Asperger. Could really Newton, Einstein, Darwin, or Jefferson be Aspies? Our ears easily perk up when we hear the name of Einstein, so he is often a victim of wildest associations, comparisons, false claims, and anecdotes. However, a close look at his biography, esp. childhood, provides a great deal of evidence. I only have some issue with the claim that genius or Asperger are born rather than made. I do believe that the brain conceptualization in development is far more important than genes in achieving a genius mind, or the label of a developmental disorder. The claim that Asperger and genius are closely associated can be easily explained in terms of precocity or precocity paradox. As passions are the prime force that shape the brain in development, a link between passion, Asperger, and genius becomes pretty strong.

There is a large overlap between Asperger and a passionate mind

Reward-based conceptualization

One of the main forces that drive the development of a genius brain is the learn drive. It can grow rapidly if the rewards associated with learning are particularly strong, and the freedom of development allows of the brain's concept network develop all well integrated concepts that can easily go into high activations associated with random creativity, and high reward. That's the root of the rage to master. This process leads to passions that determine the wiring of the brain in the conceptualization process. Those passions are not always welcome by the adult world. They may lead to precocity if a child becomes fascinated with symbols (reading), painting, or music, i.e. areas that are easily approved by adults and may turn out helpful at school. A precocious child may stand out in the crowd and be a subject of bullying, which is the first step to social awkwardness that may be simply the effect of conceptualizing a set of defenses against social adversities. This process is unpredictable. The stronger the reward or penalty, the deeper the conceptualization and the greater the chance of stepping away from the norm. If defenses produce a feedback loop with more awkwardness and more penalty, we may have a runaway process that leads to a developmental or mental disorder. A simple solution to the problem is freedom. A child needs to be able to probe the social environment, step in or withdraw on demand as explained in the Mechanics of eustress. A wise kid Danny (not an Asperger) asked "why does not bullying happen in public?".

Passionate brains carve out well-crystallized architectures that may depart from the norm

Mechanism of precocity

Precocious kids and aspies have an important thing to common: high sensitivity. High sensitivity may be an accelerant of conceptualization that leads to precocity. However, conceptualization is tantamount to the adaptation to the status quo, if a child adapts optimally to respond to cues from the parents in a short period of time, in may, paradoxically be at a disadvantage to adapt to a new social setting, e.g. of school. This process can derail social conceptualization if high penalties are involved. This is magnified by the fact that a precocious child may stand out in the crowd and seem odd to her peers. As adaptation is traded for stability, precocious kids may be less adaptable in new environments, which my lead to odd social behaviors. However, the same mechanism when extended to the first year of school may produce a straight A student whose mind is dominated by the wish to please adults and teachers. Again, being a goodie-goodie is often a cause of bullying, which again can affect social conceptualization.

Precocious children are at high risk of bullying, which may affect their social development

See how precocity may spell social trouble: Case study: Genius or Asperger

Precocity paradox

While precocity has its advantages, kids with developmental delays are less fortunate. Human brain has a very slow developmental trajectory. The greater the genius the greater the likelihood of delays. Kids who are late to speak, or late to read, are often under a heavy assault form the school system, from peers, and from the "experts" who engage in heavy fearmongering. Moms panic under pressure, and "slow" children are sent to intrusive coercive therapy. They are being "accelerated" by force. Under such an assault, it is little wonder that social fear and inhibitions affect the entire conceptualization process that may turn inwards. A Darwinian brain with a passion for collecting and breeding numerous animal species, becomes a recluse obsessed with his "one sided" passion. He may turn into a social misfit that needs a psychiatric label of Asperger. Incidentally, I was an obsessive animal collector too (see: Childhood passions). My passion for animals evolved into a passion for studying the brain. Passions are precious. However, I was never ostracized or stigmatized for my obsessions. I was free to explore and received active support from my mom and the rest of family. In my childhood, psychiatric consultation was a rare thing. Mom would get some advice on how to handle the difficult child, and I would just do my own stuff regardless. However, it could have all gone a very different way. In this text, I was bullied, I show how lack of family support and hostile environment can easily change the person in a matter of weeks. Such a change, when persisting for longer periods will affect child's behaviors. The brain conceptualizes differently in different settings. Powerful emotions are one of the strongest drivers of the conceptualization process. I could very easily become a social misfit. To this day, many people consider me a suspect oddity. Luckily, this seems to only affect those people who do not know my side of the story.

Therapies may turn out harmful if they fail to account for the precocity paradox

Therapy of freedom

When I speak to moms of children with Asperger syndrome, I see a worrying correlation. The more the parent believes in (1) the severity of the diagnosis, (2) the need for therapy, and (3) the value of schooling, the bigger the pressure, and the more severe the symptoms of social withdrawal. On rare occasions, when parents do not seem to care about delays or problems at school, "Asperger" seemingly resolves on its own. It is said to last for life, and odd genius is also likely to be an "affliction" that gets worse with age. I suspect Rob might be a case of "spontaneous recovery" even though his parents claim that long hours of therapy and schooling are to take credit. Rob's dad is a borderline genius too. I kept predicting good outcomes for Rob, and insisting they will happen with or without therapy, but Rob's dad was adamant to leave it to the experts.

A mom of an Aspie wrote about the therapeutic power of freedom. After 4 years of homeschooling, the kid thrives:

Homeschooling was the best decision in our lives. A frightened little boy who cries for no reason, is afraid to speak up, has bad experiences with his peers and teachers, has strong anxiety disorders, grows into a confident young man, a joker, perfectly coping with the environment, open to the world and new friendships. He is no longer afraid to say: I want it because it is important to me. He is no longer afraid to leave the house. When he left the confines of his home for the first time to see a friend, and then the cinema, I knew he was fine. Then a few more people who knew my kid before and after he was taken from school, decided that he was a completely different child. Why freedom? Because we do not depend on the methods used by teachers at school, and we do not depend on the various strange moods of children or teachers

Refrigerator mom

Which of the Aspies are likely to thrive? I believe that those who get most approval, love, tolerance and patience from his parents. This seems like an obvious thing to say except that love and tolerance imply an absolute ban on that kind of therapy that makes a child unhappy or bored. If the kid prefers to play with his spiders rather than to waste hours on speech therapy, his wish should be the command. See: Special needs education.

Leo Kanner who originally defined autism as a separate category spoke of "parental coldness, obsessiveness, and a mechanical type of attention to material needs only". His work lead to the unjust and hurtful term "refrigerator mom". However, there is a grain of truth in the concept. "Cold parenting" may have a contribution to developmental conceptualization that leads to Asperger Syndrome. I fear mostly about Aspies who are children of disciplinarian moms. These are often fantastic female minds with degrees and brains made cold by decades of self-discipline and self-flagellation. Those minds won't accept anything but the best academic performance for their kids. Any delay on the way towards set goals may trigger a spiral of disappointment mixed with anger and a perpetual ratcheting of demands put on a child.

Measuring progress

In precocity paradox, I explain that it is easy to differentiate between pathology and a long developmental trajectory. In the latter, we need to observe exemplary cognitive variables and the progress through the percentile ranks. Once we have those reassuring signs, patience is the key.

If measures are difficult, a simple observation of child's passions and the effect on the mind should suffice. Sadly, some of modern passions, like computer gaming, are considered worthless by adults. This is simply a reflection of the lack of trust in innate power of the human brain (see: Optimality of the learn drive). Genius takes decades to develop, and kids with Asperger may give parents particularly hard time testing their trust and patience.

All kids with a potential for developing a genius mind must simply be given freedom to develop on their own. Only the most enlightened mom can accept this assertion. An average affected family will be assaulted from all directions with "experts" wishing to amend all the departures from the norm.

If passions are vibrant, if patience reveals progress, and odd young mind is likely on a path to greatness. Love and freedom count for more than therapy.

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru