Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Autism, Asberger's, Geeks and Nerds - How They Think and How Life Would Not Be the Same Without Them

I have just returned from Temple Grandin's excellent talk "Perspectives in Autism". In it, she described some of the distinctions between autistic thinking and "Earth person" thinking. One major distinction, according to Grandin, is that autistic thinking is characterized by a very specific and graphic train of thought rather than a verbal generalized process. For example, if I ask you to think about a church steeple, most likely a generalized representation of a tall pointed roof perhaps with a spire or cross on top. You might form a picture but that picture represents a generalization of a church spire that you could easily describe verbally. The autistic person confronted with thinking of a church spire will visualize a series of images corresponding to perhaps all the specific church spires they have ever seen. So instead of a generic spire, they will imagine several specific church spires in series i.e. St. Peter's Basilica, Notre Dame, and their local Lutheran church all which look quite different.

This idea is at the heart of what it is to be on the autism spectrum. Autistics are often socially awkward. That awkwardness stems from an inability to read other people's emotions. Not reading emotions seems to be related to the inability to make generalizations about how people appear when they are getting bored for example. Rather than associating a glassy look and yawn with boredom in general, they just see those features in one particular individual as characteristics of that person. In a very broad sense, the spectrum represents an in ability to see the forest for the trees. In a similar vein, varying degrees of prosopagnosia (poor or absent ability to recognize faces) results from the autistic brain seeing eyes, a mouth, a nose, long hair over the ears and a chin rather than their wife's friend Susan. That kind of "bottom up" thinking works well if you are a scientist working from facts to develop a theory. But the way "normal" people seem to recognize faces is using a "top down" approach. They have a generalization of maybe a Caucasian face and then use the details of eyes, mouth and chin to define that generalized face to your wife's friend Susan.

In this light, Temple pointed out that various successful treatment modalities for Autism all share the same core traits. The autistic child or just plain geek needs to be exposed to a library of specific examples of how to act and behave in various specific situations in a positive way. And they need to be exposed to a panoply of examples of things in everyday life and how to categorize those things in various ways. Before autism was even recognized as a disorder, Grandin's mother did these things and provided her with tools and experiences to sort out the jumble of pictures and sensations that bombards a young autistic brain. Left to their own devices or alone in a corner, they may never leave their own limited world.

Another fascinating insight Temple Grandin shared with us is her weakness in algebra. She cannot keep up with Pythagoras' symbolic or more verbal expression a^2+b^2=c^2.. So algebra eludes her. But the geometric view which you can visualize as four squares arranged with their sides forming a right triangle;makes perfect sense to her image based processing. In fact, science and medicine are littered with examples of concepts which have been described by different investigators from different points of view which become ensconced in the literature as distinct entities which are really the same thing. In the field of psychiatry, for example, Grandin herself pointed out that ADHD, Auditory processing disorder, Asperger's syndrome, autism, or just your average geek, all represent variations on a theme rather than distinct categories.

As such, arguments or fixations about which cubby hole an individual falls into are moot. Anyone familiar with dermatology knows that there are at least fifteen inflammatory skin diseases described by various investigators as distinct diseases which are all psoriasis. In a similar vein, string theory ran into trouble when several different variants came to light which seemed unrelated and made the whole concept of describing reality with strings more mathematical gymnastics than an advance in physics. But more recent work has shown those seemingly isolated descriptions of string theory to actually represent the same underlying physics from alternate viewpoints. Indeed the greatest thinkers I have known myself have had the unique ability to see these relationships and to simplify rather than muddy the waters of their respective disciplines. In short, they were lumpers rather than splitters.

"Top down" thinking, on the other hand, is suited to creative endeavors. Religion is one example. In a sense "faith" the untestable dogma of any religion works well as we see reality through the lens of this faith. And in many ways this kind of viewpoint is positive and beneficial to societies. But when you begin with the idea that Earth was created 6,000 years ago as is and then take facts and tries to mold what is apparent and testable to conform to your top level belief, the wheels come off. Intelligent design proponents are easily humiliated by even a neophyte student of evolution. Darwin's theory is a classic example of using data and facts to generate an insight which is now testable and incontrovertible.

We need these people who are more interested in things rather than other people. Without "Aspys" who have been directed in a positive way, we would have no calculus, relativity, computers or the internet. In fact, without them, we would soon be in the dark altogether!

To your health,

Dr Z

Peter Zvejnieks, MD is a board certified physician in Columbia SC. His blog can be found at

Article Source:,_M.D

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