Asperger’s, Autism, and IQ

It seems that people who process sensory information differently are those we identify as having a high I.Q.

Of course, “sensory processing problems” is a main aspect of autism. Does this mean that those with autism ought to have a high I.Q.?

Well, historically people with autism have been shown to have lower I.Q.s than the general population. However, those with Asperger’s generally are seen to have higher I.Q.’s than average. Now, if Asperger’s is, in many ways, simply autism without the language delay, then this raises some interesting issues. Are the low I.Q. scores for those with autism a result of language issues? It seems that that may in fact be the case. Indeed, when alternative measurements of intelligence have been used with certain people with autism, their I.Q. scores jumped from “mentally retarded” to “genius.”

Consider the results from the first article. Two of the aspects of people with high I.Q.s are the ability to focus and to pick out details. These are aspects commonly found in people with Asperger’s especially. It is part of bottom-up thinking — the details give rise to the big picture for someone with autism. Neurotypicals, on the other hand, see the big picture first — this is part of top-down thinking. As a result, they may miss the details, just as bottom-up thinkers may miss the big picture.

In a sense, this means that “high I.Q.” is practically equivalent with “having autism.” Or at least “having Asperger’s.” And as we find more and better ways of reaching non-verbal and low-verbal autistics, I suspect we will find more and more high I.Q.s out there.

Part of the issue involves the general ability to integrate the details. Integration of details becomes increasingly problematic as you move along the autism spectrum. Those with Asperger’s can integrate the best among those on the spectrum, whereas the most sever may not be able to integrate at all. Such a person would, of course, be identified as having severe mental deficiency, since they cannot make any sense of the world at all. The result, it would seem to me, would be a sort of U-shaped range of I.Q., with large numbers with high I.Q. being closer to the Asperger’s end and there being a tipping point of inability to integrate then resulting in very low I.Q.s at the extreme other end.

The result of this would be a situation where those with Asperger’s would appear to have high I.Q.s on average, whereas those with autism would appear to have average I.Q.’s on average. Of course, if you average a group that in fact has two groups in it — one with high I.Q. and another with low I.Q. — you would expect the average of that larger group to be average I.Q. All of which points to some problems with looking at groups statistically without paying much attention to the details.

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Left-Handedness, Autism, and High Steroid Levels In Utero

Being left-handed, I have done a bit of reading on the topic. So I have known for a while that one of the causes of left-handedness is the presence of higher than normal levels of testosterone in utero. If there is a high level of testosterone during certain stages of brain development, hemisphere dominance can change, and left-handedness can be a result.

A new study by Simon Baron-Cohen shows high levels of steroid hormones in utero for children who later show signs of autism. Testosterone is, of course, a steroid hormone. This made me wonder if there is a correlation between left-handedness and autism.

Not only is there, but we have known about it since 1983.While the general population shows 37% non-right handed dominance (meaning left-handedness or various forms of ambidexterity; left-handedness alone is about 18%), that number is almost twice as high in people with autism: 62%. This is pretty much a complete inversion of neurotypicals’ handedness. More recent papers all suggest people with autism may be three times more likely to be left-handed.

Of course, autism is not the only condition strongly associated with left-handedness. Dyslexia is as well. And so are many mental disorders. Equally, about half of lefties are clearly neurotypical (not autistic, dyslexic, etc.), so it’s important to understand that while the presence of left-handedness may indicate non-neurotypical neural architecture, it does not necessarily do so.

Still, the correlation between high testosterone levels and left-handedness and the correlation between high steroid levels (including testosterone) and autism points toward Baron-Cowan’s theory of autism as a more male brain. Now, given that I subscribe to the “intense world theory” of autism (at least for myself and my son), I have to wonder if there is a relationship between these high steroid levels and neurohyperactivity.

Now, here’s a fun fact

Both autism and left-handedness are found more often in males than females. Yet, left-handedness results in a 50% larger corpus callosum, and autism is in part caused by a more active brain. Women also have a 50% larger corpus callosum than men, and their brains are more active than are men’s brains. So, ironically, more testosterone to such a degree that it causes left-handedness and autism makes those male brains more like female brains in certain ways (but in other ways, very obviously not–such as the lower connectivity in autustic brains). Either way, these differences may explain why there’s a great deal more gender fluidity among autistics (and more homosexuality among left-handers as well). These differences may contribute to the greater creativity seen in both groups as well.

Innovators and Copiers

I recently finished Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel. My official review of the book is in Politics and the Life Sciences, so I’m not going to go into a lot about the book right now. But there is something Pagel points out that I think is very important, and which I have been thinking about a great deal since I read it.

Pagel observes that (despite pop psychological narratives to the contrary), the vast majority of people are neither creative nor inventive. Rather, the vast, vast majority of people are ultrasocial — they copy what others do exactly as those others do them. This is known as social learning, and it is what allows human beings to live in such huge groups. In fact, if most people were creative or inventive, that would undermine ultrasociality (237).

Yet, it seems obvious that humans are inventive and creative. Look at all the technology we have around us. Look at all of the art and scientific discoveries.

Yes, and look at all the outrage over the latest discoveries. Look at all the outrage over the latest styles in the arts. Look at all the complaints about technology. Most people are reluctant adopters of anything new, and are in many ways Luddites at heart.

Thus, we see the same patterns for science, the arts, and technology. We have the inventor/discoverer. Then we have the early adopters. Then, when enough people adopt it, we have everyone else adopt it — once they see that it is good, they copy it.

The great innovations are rare. More common are social learning plus mutations, resulting in slow cultural evolution.And truly revolutionary innovations are extremely rare — and often result in the creator/inventor becoming social outcasts for their trouble. More strategic innovators will tinker on the edges of what we have so that others will accept the new things more easily. Poetic innovations go farther with more people if you introduce them in the context of poetic forms people like and know.

Humans are, overall, very good copiers, but very bad innovators (340). He observes that in game theory models, systems with many innovators tend to do far worse than those with many copiers. The systems that survive best are those in which almost all of the agents copy and there are only one or two innovators. The copiers all free ride off of the innovators, but if that did not happen, there would not be the kinds of complex societies we find in the world. To have spontaneous orders, you need mostly copiers, with few innovators disrupting the system.

I have primarily discussed artists, scientists, and inventors as innovators disrupting things, but there is another kind who also arises: political leaders. Political leaders emerge precisely because most people are strong social learners and, therefore, followers (362). As a result,

the cooperative enterprise of society is always finely balanced between the benefits that derive from cooperation on the one hand and the benefits that derive from trying to subvert the system toward your own gain without being caught or overpowered (363)

as all rulers in fact try to do. The difference between scientists, artists, and innovators and politicians is that the latter use their tendency to innovate to try to subvert the system and make it work toward their own advantage, while the former are not working so strategically, and are primarily interested in their narrow interests.

Coincidentally, there are two groups of people widely recognized as being unaffected by social pressures.

There are poor social learners, like those with autism — whose poor social learning may allow them to be more innovative, since they don’t feel the need to adapt to what everyone else is doing. Such people also happen to be rather focused on narrow interests. If this sounds like most scientists, artists, and innovators, it may not be entirely a coincidence.

Then there are the sociopaths, who are good social learners and highly strategic, like the vast majority of people, but who do not have a conscience. They work to subvert the system toward their own gain without being caught or overpowered. We see this in the cheaters of society, those who try to scam people, those who try to get power over others. Governments are full of these people. We elect them all the time.

People from either group lead the world. The rest of the world copies them and their innovations. In the case of the cultural innovators, the result is ever-more wealth for everyone. In the case of the sociopaths in government, the result is ever-more power for themselves.

Sheep Go To Heaven, Goats Go To Hell

What constitutes the “social awkwardness” of those with autism? I have discussed how autistics’ discomfort with lying can lead to socially awkward situations, but there is another thing I have noticed by observing my son and reflecting on what I know both through experience with and through reading about autism that definitely leads people to consider autistics as socially awkward.

Neurotypicals are naturally social, and the reason they are naturally social is that they are uncomfortable unless they are conforming to the group they are in. If you are a Catholic, you would feel uncomfortable not kneeling to pray when everyone else is. Or pick any social situation and refuse to do what everyone else is doing — that anxiety you feel is how people with autism feel in pretty much any social situation. Neurotypicals of course know how to solve the problem: conform. Conforming does not solve the problem for autistics.

More, autistics don’t feel the need to conform. We will join in if we want to join in — or we will not join in if we don’t want to join in. How is this going to be perceived by neurotypicals? As socially awkward behavior. Neurotypicals think everyone should conform because, after all, if they are uncomfortable not conforming, then others must be as well. This feeling gets transferred into a social rule (sometimes into an explicitly moral rule), and those who do not conform are at best perceived as socially awkward, at worst as not being a member of the social group at all. Yet, this failure to conform may be a source of a great deal of social change. How many cultural changes have been made because someone with autism did something different? Perhaps more often than we realize.

Someone with autism is going to only do something if he or she wants to do it. There is no social pressure felt by them. They may try something everyone else is doing, simply to see what it’s about, and if they like doing it, they will continue doing it, but if they don’t like doing it, they simply won’t do it. Like everyone else, though, they aren’t likely to merely say they aren’t doing it because they don’t want to; rather, they are likely to rationalize it after the fact, declare it “stupid” or “irrational.” It’s likely neither irrational nor stupid (from a cultural standpoint), but rarely do people allow you to say outright that you don’t like something because you simply don’t like it. They demand a reason, and in the end, you will get one — though it may be expressed in a “socially awkward” fashion.

So it seems to me that autistics’ tendency to not conform would be interpreted by neurotypicals as being “socially awkward” behavior. However, it might be the very behavior that makes us question what we are doing, and which can sometimes lead to cultural changes and social transformation.

The Autistic Perspective: Passion vs. Ambition

John Hagel has a paper in which is discusses the difference between passion and ambition. I don’t want to go into all of the differences he raises between the two. You can read the article for that. But his distinction immediately made me think of myself and of those of us on the spectrum.

People on the autism spectrum do not have ambition. But we do have passion. Equally, I think the farther away from the autism spectrum and the closer you are to the solipsistic end of the neurotypical end of the neurodiversity spectrum, the more likely you are to be ambitious rather than passionate. This would imply that the more top-down your thinking, the more strategic a thinker you are, the more likely you are to be ambitious rather than passionate. The more bottom-up, the more analytical a thinker you are, the more likely you are to be passionate rather than ambitious.

Naturally, these things are on a spectrum. But we have to wonder in what ways ambition and passion are really opposite things. We hear of ambitious politicians, but rarely truly passionate politicians. We hear of passionate scientists and artists, but rarely truly ambitious scientists and artists. Is it any surprise to learn that there are plenty of people on the autism spectrum in the latter group, but few if any in the former?

If we think about the dynamics involved in, say, a business, we can see what might happen. The passionate will be happy working at whatever they are passionate about. Meanwhile, the ambitious will move up the company, get raises, etc. And they will do so on the work of the passionate. Worse, many who are passionate at their work will often be viewed as not worth promoting precisely because they are perceived as not having enough ambition — which often really means, “We don’t perceive him as caring as much about the company.” But that is wrong. The passionate worker is the one who cares more about the company, while the ambitious worker cares more about himself. Of course, since it is the ambitious who are at the top of the company more often than not, they will naturally relate to others’ ambitions. Thus, rewarding the ambitious over the passionate is institutionally reinforced.

People need to come to understand that the person quietly working over in the corner, from whom you hear little or nothing, but who is working constantly, is the one who cares about the work, who cares about the job, who cares about the company. Those are the things that ought to be rewarded more, rather than personal ambition.

When Your Work Is Who You Are

My wife has observed that my work is deeply intertwined with my identity. It was not the first time she observed it, but sometimes the Nth time you hear something is when you start to think about it.

I hadn’t really thought about it before because she was and is right. It seems so natural to me. I am a poet/playwright/interdisciplinary scholar/spontaneous order theorist. When I wake, those things are on my mind; they are on my mind throughout the day; they are on my mind when I go to sleep. My mind is always active, thinking about my various projects.

Asperger’s has been called the “Little Professor Syndrome,” and I certainly fit that description. When I was obsessed with dinosaurs, I could have held my own with a paleontologist; when I was obsessed with sharks, I learned everything I could find on sharks; when I was obsessed with plants — and later narrowed that obsession to orchids — I learned everything I could find on plants and, particularly, orchids. That obsession later turned into molecular biology in college, then economics, then quantum physics (at least, to the degree one can learn about it without math), then chaos theory and complexity, then fiction writing, then poetry, then play writing. The older I have gotten, though, the more I have retained past interests. I remain curious about molecular biology, and I often think with the concepts of biology; I have increased my interest in economics, combining my interest in complexity with economics into Austrian economics and spontaneous order theory; I still write plays and poems.

One of my more recent obsessions is learning about autism. When I learned my son had autism, I did the autistic thing and became obsessed with the topic and learned everything I could about it. My familiarity with molecular biology and neurobiology helped. It was in dong this research that I learned I had Asperger’s.

It turns out that those with Asperger’s deeply identify with the work they do, with the work with which they are obsessed.

If the person with autism can find a place that will indulge his obsessions, he will be a great worker and will do great work. If the person with autism cannot find such a place, he won’t allow that job to interfere with his “real” work. One can perhaps imagine what the outcome of that is likely to be.

For autistics with advanced degrees, like me, the logical place to work is a university. And if universities were primarily interested in research, scholarship, and teaching, they would be the ideal place for autistics. Unfortunately, universities are primarily interested in more fully developing their bureaucracies, playing university politics, and engaging in all sorts of social games at which autistics are terrible. If universities were places where a professor could see that something was not working, and the next semester change the way he taught classes based on his observations of what worked and what did not, they would be ideal places for autistics. However, universities are now places where professors are pressured into teaching the same way as everyone else, no matter what the educational outcomes may be.

It seems, then, that there are no places to support people with autism. There is no institutional support; the institutions we have are structurally opposed to both the strengths and weaknesses of autistics, while thoroughly supportive of both the strengths and weaknesses of neurotypicals.

Worse, because people like me are so personally identified with their work that that there is little differentiation between the work and person (please note I said “the work” and not the ideas, as particular ideas will be chucked if they prove not to work out), we tend to take it quite personally that nobody wants us or wants us to do what we are good at. We resent the fact that we cannot make a living being who we are, because of the prejudice against us built into the institutional structures of society. I do not know if there was ever a time when things were better for those with autism; however, I suspect that before the growth of bureaucracy as a fundamental institution in all areas of life, life for high-functioning autistics, at least, was much easier.

Honesty, Loyalty, and Autism

Two of the positive attributes attributed to those with Asperger’s/Autism are loyalty and honesty.

People with autism are very loyal. I have always felt strong loyalty toward my employers (although none have ever returned the favor). I am fiercely loyal to my wife (though my fierce honesty does sometimes make it appear otherwise — though I promise [Sweetie] that in my mind the two do not conflict). I am loyal to all my friends and family. It’s part of my nature. But it appears that it is in the nature of any with autism.

Now, the issue of honesty is an interesting one. It’s not that someone with autism cannot lie. I can lie. Daniel can lie. I’ve caught him. But he’s easily caught out, primarily because when he’s accused of lying and he’s not, he has a huge meltdown over it. So if he’s calm after you accuse him of lying, he’s lying. And as for me, when I lie, it really, really, really, really, really bothers me. It’s like a deep brain itch I can’t scratch. So I don’t lie. It just bothers me too deeply, and I’d rather not be that uncomfortable all the time.

At the same time, people with autism are known to believe pretty much anything anyone says to them. This is perhaps attributable to the fact that with theory of mind, one attributes others as having the same mind as oneself. I don’t lie, therefore others don’t lie. Except that’s not true. People lie all the time. And when you reach the level of self-awareness I have about who I am, especially in regards to my high functioning autism, you come to realize just how much people lie all the time.

I’m still prone to believe you in the moment, but I can at least now look back and see I’ve been lied to.

For example, when I tell you I’m going to do something, you can go to the bank on it (unless my terrible memory makes me forget). I remember things better if I write them down; if I write something down, you can guarantee I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter what it is; it doesn’t matter how small it is; it doesn’t matter if I’m tired or if something else comes up. If I say I’m going to do something, I’ll do it. However, this is absolutely not true at all when it comes to neurotypicals. I have noticed neurotypicals will tell you they will do something, then change their minds or come up with some excuse for why they can’t, etc. And this is assuming they ever intended to do it at all, and weren’t just trying to make you feel better or shut up at that moment.

This is where conflicts between those with autism and neurotypicals can arise. Two neurotypicals will lie to each other without a second thought about doing something together, and then blow it off when minds are changed. Do that to someone with autism, and they will say, “Nope, that’s what you said. You said you were going to do it.” Thus, those with autism tend to “call out” neurotypicals on their small lies with which they fill the day. And let’s face it: people don’t like to be called out on their b.s. But since autistics don’t like to lie, and therefore don’t like to be lied to, they have a tendency to point it out when you lied to them. Thus, a source of our “social awkwardness.”

Indeed, people want to be lied to all the time. They want to be told they look nice when they don’t. They want to be told their project is good when it isn’t. They want to be told they’re good people who don’t lie all the time just to get through the day. But you know what you won’t get from someone with autism? Any of those things. They’ll tell you you don’t look nice in that dress. They’ll actually critique your work. And they’ll write blog posts telling you that you are all a bunch of petty liars. And that, too, is a source of our social awkwardness.

Of course, the tendency to believe others when they say things can get someone with autism in trouble. Suppose you have two people, one (A) with autism, another (B) who is neurotypical. They are working on a project together. B is working on something that must be finished before A can work on his part. A asks B how things are going. B says he ran into a problem, but he was working on it and would let A know when it was ready for him. Do you know what A will do? A will believe B and not bother B ever again. Three weeks later, when the boss asks A about the project, A will tell the boss about the conversation he and B had — and guess who will get in the most trouble? It will be A, who knew there was a delay, but didn’t come forward sooner. A of course won’t understand in what the problem is or why he’s suddenly in trouble. If someone points out to him that he should have come forward sooner, he will reply that that make sense, but in reality it doesn’t make that much sense to him. Didn’t B say he was handling it? If this happens to A enough times, he’ll end up fired, but be completely clueless about why he was fired.

Now, I can point all of these things out, but all of this comes about from reading and from thinking through past experiences. I have a head-knowledge that this takes place, but it is unfortunately only intellectual and not useful knowledge. I know I will continue to make these mistakes, and it’s frustrating to know that you will and also to know that in the moment, you will “forget” all that you know.

About the only thing I know to do is to beg those who have to deal with those with autism on a daily basis to please always say exactly what you mean and mean exactly what you say. If you say you are going to do something , please do it. It’s extremely frustrating for the autistics in your life if you don’t.