Case study: Genius or Asperger

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

Creative Laila

Laila is 25 and she was extremely generous in revealing many sensitive details about her life. She painted to me in exquisite detail her entire story of schooling, education and socialization. Her prolifically creative mind gifted me with 60 pages of detailed answers to my questions about her childhood, kindergarten, school, family, hopes and fears. Some of that material in excerpts is presented below (with permission and authorization).

Laila was a precocious child, a straight A student, and her writing are full of vivid early memories that defy childhood amnesia. Laila has also been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and ADHD. Is she an aspie or a creative genius? She reports to have developed two behavioral systems: one for the real life and one for the on-line world. The real life is tough for Laila for many reasons. Her detailed account of daycare and schooling shows that her most vivid memories are associated with being constantly watched and supervised. She was fearful of violating rules or meeting with disapproval from adults.

In the virtual world, Laila feels free and creative. In the real world, due to her sensitivities, Laila adapted weak defenses. It often happens with straight A students. Being compliant at school and at home may turn out as a maladaptation in the real life (see: Dangers of being a Straight A student). As the virtual world is not intrusive, Laila developed excellent adaptation. She feels free and creative. She communicates vividly and convincingly. Her only on-line worry is that her virtual world might once spill into the real world and poison her existence.

When Laila went to college, she was full of enthusiasm and hope, however, the rigors of college life would gradually wear her down to the point of exhaustion during the academic year. As soon as novelty wore off, performance dropped dramatically (from A to F). Laila has programming skills. She can do 20+ straight hours of rapid coding when she is interested. At the same time, studying subjects of no interest is literally painful for Laila (see: Displeasure of learning). For many people, physical labor is often less onerous that learning things of little relevance to one's life. Laila feels attracted towards blue-collar work due to "the possibility of freeing the brain to think about whatever it wants all the time without hindering the demands placed on me".

Mechanism of turning inward

We have engineered a society that can easily be contrasted with unlimited freedom of virtual life: daycare, compulsory schooling, authoritarian parenting, oppressive social rules and traditions, heartless life of corporations, and even unpleasant people in crowded streets. A highly sensitive and highly creative individual can immerse herself in the world of virtual freedom and the real world starts looking very unattractive. On one hand we can mass produce hikikomori, on the other, those "virtually liberated" individuals will need to permeate back to real world culture and leave an imprint. This will change the world for the better. However, an affected individual may find it hard to find a job or interact with the seeming hostile and faceless social crowd.

For a highly sensitive person, the weirding of social interaction begins in the closed system of socialization typical of daycare and school:

One of the major mantras repeated throughout the school was "No talking!" This was incredibly confusing because on the one hand, people would often be seriously reprimanded for speaking at the wrong times, but other times, when people would speak seemingly out of line, the teachers would engage normally without repercussions. This scared me, and I decided to never risk it, so I never talked at all unless spoken to by an adult, or on the playground or a lunch

Natural pleasurable human communication becomes a prisoner-warden relationship. Instead of optimum socialization we have a training of submission and obedience, which is the source of the worst school habits:

My teacher immediately turned to me and asked me sternly, "Do you think that's something you should be doing?" I shook my head, because I knew from her tone what the answer was supposed to be

The same process of turning inward may extend to family relations, and through teen years into adulthood. Note that this is an own report and communication in the virtual world is clear, rich and vibrant. This is a reflection of forming separate behavioral systems for family, virtual world and society in general:

I was very sensitive, and I never understood why I was being yelled at when I had no intentions of causing trouble. Into my teenage years, this led me to feel that I couldn't be myself around anybody. I stopped talking entirely unless spoken to. I stopped expressing myself, I hid my emotions, and I kept entirely to myself and my online world where I was safe and could be myself. To this day I still have trouble initiating interactions with people in person, in particular my family

There are some echoes of hikikomori who can be highly creative and yet struggle with the "demands of society":

My self-esteem is in pretty good standing, a major exception is that when it comes to integrating with larger society, I generally feel quite hopeless. I don't see this as a fault of my own, but rather a clash between the demands of society and the sorts of things I feel capable of dealing with. For example, I can be super productive and full of energy when it comes to my own projects when I find the spark within. But it comes spontaneously, and I can't decide when and in what context I'll be able to find this spark. It seems to me that white-collar work often demands efforts with predetermined "when" and "in what context", and I'm very often unable to find that spark when I need it in those situations. When faced with a task I'm not immediately interested in, my brain usually simply doesn't seem to function at all

It has been very easy for me to find my comfort in my own online and private bubble and to continuously put off thinking about the impending need to interoperate with larger society, even if for no other reason than to support myself

Employment challenge

Even a highly skilled individual may struggle to find her place. Getting a job becomes a challenge for reasons unrelated to skills. The problem is more about psychology, social interaction, and the love of freedom:

I think that if I knew that I was capable of selling hamburgers and that it could provide for my private room as well as enough time to pursue my passions that I would definitely consider it more heavily. Upon serious consideration, I feel like I've been clouded by a haze of negative impressions of work colored with hopelessness, such as 1) minimum wage being incapable of providing for all my basic needs, 2) that the only real options (as suggested by my family) are white collar work where I'm required to use my brain in miserable ways (which, in the experience I do have, are a quick route to depression and inability to continue), 3) that many jobs would make it difficult for me to sleep well due to inconvenient job schedule or shift times conflicting with my natural sleep schedule, and 4) that a full time job would inevitably leave me with too little time and energy to pursue what I truly care about. But I do like to think that there do exist possibilities available to me that shine through these cracks and that I just haven't seen it yet. Or maybe there's a compromise worth considering to be found as well

Fluid psychiatry

Laila's diagnosis of Asperger, and her IQ tests are their own story worth quoting literally. Here we also find hints of why Laila's creativity survived in the end. She switched to homeschooling, and was not pressured by her parents to get a job early.

I never suspected that I would be classified as having ASD or ADHD until around 18, when I had suddenly begun overhearing my dad talking to my mom about how "the signs were there all along," referring to video tapes of me in my early childhood, apparently playing with my toys in a repetitive fashion. I had always excelled in school, making nearly straight A's in elementary school, and doing just fine during my homeschool years (from years 11 to 15). When I went to college I also made mostly straight A's until it became too miserable for me to deal with, when the A's became F's and I dropped out by 18. I also remember my dad referring to the "strange behaviour" I would have while at the piano, whether it was improvising mindlessly for hours (he compared it to torture, saying I was playing the same thing over and over again), and when I would be seemingly spaced out staring out the window (but I was just rehearsing in my head). My parents have also always perceived me as being uninterested in social activity, which couldn't be further from the truth: I simply had insufficient access to socialization and insufficient comfort in confiding my needs to my parents, so my needs have always gone misunderstood.

The diagnosis itself happened like this: my dad took me to a clinic of some kind. We went into an office room and sat down in two seats in front of a desk with a man behind it. I don't remember much of what was said before my dad sent me out of the room because he didn't want his account of my behaviour to influence me. So I stood out in the hallway, but I could still hear the conversation. I remember my dad talking about how up until I was just over 4 years old I spoke in third person, and how he said it was "a *little* unusual". After that we were sent home with a questionnaire. I was to fill out one copy and my dad the other. I don't particularly remember much from it. It struck me as rather generic. But I do remember thinking about just how many ways you could interpret nearly every question in order to get entirely different--but equally honest--answers (which just contributes to showing how inexact a science this is!). Sometime after that, a few weeks, or a few months later, I don't exactly remember, I went in for an IQ test. I don't know what the results were other than that I apparently made a perfect score on the spatial working memory section (which I attribute less to some innate ability and more to my own obsessive interest in memory techniques a few years prior. I have heard people say that you can't study for an IQ test. I disagree!), which my dad loved to boast about. I do remember that in various other sections of the IQ test where I certainly answered incorrectly, my incorrect answers were the result of interpreting the question in an unintended way. Here's an example that I clearly remember: "Cell is to organ [as in biology] as brick is to ___" What I actually heard was this (because the questions were spoken aloud to me): "Sell is to organ [the musical instrument] as brick is to ___" This one really through me for a loop! Clearly (as it dawned on me in retrospect) the intended answer was "house", but my answer was "window" because what had come to mind was a scene of a robber aiming to make some quick cash, whether by selling expensive church organs or by throwing bricks through the rear windows of cars in order to steal from them. There were a number of other "easy" questions like this that I answered "creatively" (wrong) and realized this in retrospect. On at least one occasion I repeated the question to verify that I heard it correctly, but my utterance was taken as my answer, and the correct answer was given to me immediately and we moved on before I could note the mistake that had occurred. Very silly!

At first I was fixated on the idea that none of this makes any sense. I felt that the diagnoses were based solely in mis-interpretations and from the biased perspective of my dad. I felt that I was simply a sensitive person, unable to adequately express myself, and that my family didn't really know who I was (I think this is still true). But since then, while I still think the diagnosis itself was rather shaky, I am more open and interested in how exactly I might fit into the autism spectrum. Because it is definitely true that I feel "different" from most kids. And I unintentionally associate with a disproportionately large number of autistic people online and feel quite at home.

When I was about 8 years old I discovered the joy of having an immaculately clean room. For the next 5 years or so I insisted that my room be perfectly in order. I would become anxious and on-guard whenever people would enter my room because I needed everything to be perfectly in place, and I worried that people would nudge something out of the way. I was obsessed with loud speakers. I collected them and named them and role played with them with my sister. I would decorate my walls with them and arrange surround sound configurations around my room. For me this was all a phase, however the drive behind these behaviours was not a phase, and has just been displaced with time. Today I find that same sort of satisfaction in other endeavors such as my projects. I actually feel most comfortable in extremely *messy* environments these days!

Perhaps it is the case that I was lucky enough to experience freedom through being homeschooled and by not being pestered by my parents to get a job before I'm ready. I don't know how it would have been for me if I had attended public school past elementary school, but I do feel that the increased amount of freedom I had during homeschool was a good thing. This isn't to say that I particularly like the homeschool regimen that I had, just that it was much better than what public school would have been. In fact I think most of the things I was given to read during homeschooling I was completely spaced out and thinking about other things while I was reading them.

Regardless of my actual experience, I certainly feel like it is true that freedom is essential to allowing minds like this to flourish, and that a lot of the "impeded behaviour" that may be perceived when such minds are placed in the confines of normal expectations is just a result of the clash of those minds and that environment. Something I really appreciate about my dad is he has always insisted on giving me space to engage in the activities of my own choosing at home. That includes video games, TV, music, books, toys, building things, etc.

I suspect I have experienced a lesser degree of childhood amnesia than most people. My earliest memory which can be confirmed by my parents is from when I was one year old. I have always had an abundance of memories from ages 2 to 4. I had an incredibly active and enriched early childhood which I'm very thankful for. I feel that my memories are only more abundant and vivid the earlier in life they originate. More recent memories, especially those spanning my teens, are much scarcer. I was considered advanced at a very young age, rather than a slow developer. My older siblings love to recount stories of me playing video games without looking at the screen and while talking about other things. That said, perhaps it is still true that I have been slow to find my footing in other ways, especially when it comes to finding a way to earn a living in society

Trading genius for Asperger

Laila's case is an eloquent illustration of how we trade creative genius for Asperger, ADHD, or hikikomori. By whipping children into obedience, we distort their reality and produce awkward adaptations. Where it not for the blessings of the on-line world, I would never heard of Laila, and she might suffer in isolation finding no outlet for her creative passions. Instead, she will likely find an on-line pursuit. Perhaps a blue-collar work will be a bridge and a chance to see the open light of social interaction. Her main creative problem today is the da Vinci syndrome that she still struggles with (see above on the rapid fall in enthusiasm for college).

I hope to post an update in the future. My bets are very optimistic and mostly rests on the opportunities of the web, and Laila's own creative power documented in her own writings.

One man's Asperger is another man's creative treasure

Further reading



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