Intelligence Genes and Autism

The article is a little vague, but I suppose if you’re talking about hundreds of genes, it’s hard not to be (especially in such a short article). Using new statistical methods, scientists have found 939 new genes associated with intelligence. The article notes:

Many variants of genes associated with higher intelligence turned up in people who also lived longer and did not have Alzheimer’s disease, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or schizophrenia, the team reports today in Nature Genetics, suggesting that intelligence protects against these disorders. On the downside, genes associated with intelligence correlated with a higher risk for autism.

I have talked about genes and other features associated with high intelligence and autism on this blog before. While they say the connection between genes associated with intelligence and autism is “unfortunate,” I think scientists need to start wondering if this connection is more of a feature than a bug. In some forms of autism at least it may be a problem of too much of a good thing.

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The Struggle With the Daemon

I recently finished reading The Struggle with the Daemon: Holderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche by Stefan Zweig. For someone on the spectrum who is himself a literary writer (or, at least, I try to be), this book very much felt like it ought to have been titled The Struggle with Autism, especially as each of the three artists’ sections felt like an aspect of my personality was being emphasized–albeit, much more intense versions of me (I’ve managed to avoid descending into a final state of insanity, and I’ve never felt suicidal–though it’s my understanding that the last is an all-too common feeling among autistics).

Holderlin would seem the hardest case to make among the three, except many of his feelings as described by Zweig seem my feelings as well. Getting caught up in an obsession, and feeling like the rest of the world is a terrible imposition on your work is a very autistic way of being in the world–at least, from my experience.

Kleist, on the other hand, just screamed “autism” from Kleist’s description. For one, Kleist wandered all over Europe, and autistics are known to be avid wanderers (which can be a major problem when the wanderer is a child). “He was reserved to excess, and kept everything locked up within himself. He did not express his passions either in looks or in spoken words” (158). Zweig says

he remained mute, not from dumbness or sloth, but from overpowering chastity of feeling; and this silence, this dull, brutalising, oppressive silence, which he would maintain for hours when in company, was his most salient characteristic–that and absence of mind, a confusion which obscured his clarity of intellect. When talking, he would suddenly break off and stare into vacancy (158)

He could not converse unconstrainedly in an exchange of the small talk of ordinary life. Convention and customary obligations were repugnant to him, so that many assumed there must be something “dour and sinister” in this unusual companion; while others were wounded by his harshness and cynicism and bluntness when, as happened now and then, pricked by his own silence, he threw of all constraints. (159)

“Those who did not know him intimately believed him cold and indifferent. His intimates, on the other hand, were afraid of the fires that consumed him” (160).

If you’re autistic, perhaps especially if you have Asperger’s, this may sound quite familiar to you. If you know someone with Asperger’s, this also may sound familiar to you. Zweig’s description of Kleist throughout the book only reinforce my original conclusion (based on the above quotes) that Kleist had Asperger’s.

I have already written about my belief that Nietzsche had autism, and Zweig’s description only confirmed my beliefs. However, there is something quite interesting that Zweig pointed out that sounded quite personally familiar–and I would be interested if my autistic readers have had the same experience.

What makes Nietzsche’s transformations so peculiar is that they seem retrogressive. If we take Goethe as the prototype of an organic nature in harmony with the forward march of the universe, we perceive that his development is symbolical of the various stages of life. in youth he was fiery and enthusiastic; as a man in his prime he was actively reflective; age brought him the utmost lucidity of mind. His mental rhythm corresponded in every point with the temperature of his blood. As with most young men, he began in chaos and ended his career in orderly fashion, as is seemly with the old. After going through a revolutionary period he turned conservative, after a phase of lyricism he became a man of science, after being prodigal of himself he learnt how to be reserved.

Nietzsche took an opposite course. Instead of aspiring to an ever more complete integration of his ego, he desired complete disintegration. As he advanced in years he became increasingly impatient, vehement, revolutionary, and chaotic. His outward aspect was in strident opposition of the customary evolution of a man. While his university companions were still delighting in the usual horseplay of undergraduates, Nietzsche, though but twenty-four years old, was already a professor, aspirant to the chair of philology at Basel, that famous seat of learning. At twenty-four, Nietzsche’s intimates were men of fifty and sixty years of age, sages such as Jakob Burckhardt and Ritschl, while his closest friend was the most celebrated artist of the day–Richard Wagner. (288-289)

Zweig goes on and on about the staid, scholarly Nietzsche, then notes that when he was thirty, he resigned from his position with a pension, went to live alone in Switzerland and northern Italy, and transformed himself into the writer of Zarathustra–a transformation that ended with Nietzsche’s loss of sanity. His life is the reverse of Goethe’s.

Now let me give a brief of my own life. In grade school, I wore dress slacks and button-down shirts. In high school, I started wearing jeans, but they were dress jeans. I went to college to major in recombinant gene technology, then attended graduate school in molecular biology. During grad school, I started wearing t-shirts and listening to contemporary rock (alternative music–I started in with the grunge scene with Nirvana’s In Utero, when I was around 22). It was around this time that I started reading Nietzsche, and I also started writing more fiction and poetry, and myself growing more and more chaotic.

I dropped out of grad school, had two massive anxiety attacks, started writing Hear the Screams of the Butterfly to deal with all of my emotional issues, and also took a year of undergrad English classes to get into a graduate program in Creative Writing. While there I was quite bohemian in my lifestyle. If there was a reversal, it was when I started my Ph.D. program in the humanities, where I started off doing creative writing, but ended up with a scholarly dissertation. After graduating, I met my future wife, got married, had three children, and have lived the past decade wasting my scholarly and writing talents in looking for gainful employment. I’ve also grown more radical in my politics, and I think more daring in my art.

Now, do not get me wrong. I would trade nothing for my wife and children. In that I’m a happy Goethe, so to speak. However, an inability to go “full Goethe” in the sense of his life development, has meant considerable employment difficulties. At the same time, I have been fortunate in also not going “full Holderlin/Kleist/Nietzsche” either. I’m instead in an uncomfortable truce, neither giving in to my obsessions nor being able to live a “normal” life.

The scientist I was in college became the artist became the artist and interdisciplinary scholar–became more and more interdisciplinary, unspecialized, going in the opposite direction of most people. I’ve grown less conservative over time, less satisfied with life, more radical. That is, from order to chaos. Nietzsche is a model for my own changes, though I certainly had no intention to follow that model–it just seems a natural development. Yet, I struggle against that development, and thus (mostly) keep it under control. The forces of order and the forces of chaos are always in a constant struggle within me. I continue to alternate between art and scholarship. If anything, my family is what keeps the struggle just barely on the side of order.

The Freedom To Do and Be

Wednesday night I attended a talk at Southern Methodist University by Deirdre McCloskey, an economist at the University of Chicago. She is the author of a series of books–The Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity, and Bourgeois Equality–in which she argues that economists have misunderstood the driving force of economic growth and widespread wealth. It’s not savings, and it’s not capital investment–rather, it’s ideas. And it’s a specific set of ideas: treating people equally, equality under the law, and respect for people who engage in business. She argued last night that when people are given the freedom to do what they want to do and be who they want to be, that freedom results in the creation of wealth.

This made me wonder how much wealth the world has lost because autistics are not allowed to do what they want to do, and to be who they are.

 

16p11.2

Autism is probably not a single thing, but is likely rather a variety of syndromes. This is possible because in complex systems like the developing brain, a variety of causes can have the same effects, and the same cause can result in different effects in its interactions with other causes.

Alterations in 16p11.2 have been identified with autism and most recently with specific neuroanatomic differences. Note, though, in their descriptions, that they identify low IQ and poor language skills. If this is typical of 16p11.2 variants, it can hardly explain those of us who are identified as being on the spectrum and yet having high IQs and even a degree of language mastery. The Intense World Theory version of autism probably does better with people such as my son and I, as well as many of the more gifted autistics. But that would imply at least two major divisions within autism that it may be a good idea to completely separate from each other.

Link Between Autism Genes and High Intelligence

It is not even remotely surprising to me that there has now been demonstrated a link between autism genes and higher intelligence. The linked study demonstrates that those who have some autism genes have higher intelligence. Autism may, thus, be an extreme expression of these genes such that it becomes disabling. In this sense, autism is similar to Tay-Sach’s disease, in which those who are heterogeneous for the gene have very high intelligence, while those homogeneous for it have the disease (and, in almost every case, a doctorate). Slight expression creates high intelligence alone, while more expression gets you autism.

This drives home the fact that autism is genetic. It also drives home that the last thing on earth we want to do is get rid of it. At the population level, there may be a strong benefit to having these genes in the gene pool. In exchange for a few severely autistic individuals, you get many highly intelligent people. Some of those people have varying degrees of social awkwardness as part of that expression, of course, but some of that comes from the fear people have for highly intelligent people and for people who think or act differently from them.

This also drives home the degree to which there is a spectrum that extends beyond the “autism spectrum.” I suspect that people with ADD/ADHD are also on the spectrum, on the other side of Asperger’s. Not coincidentally, those with ADD/ADHD tend to have high intelligence as well. The inability of schools to deal with the gifted, ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s, and autism are all part of the same problem. And the same is true of the fact that contemporary culture is equally incompetent in dealing with the existence of those who are most likely the smartest among us.

Why So Many on the Autism Spectrum Are Creative

Why aren’t you a creative genius? Is it because you’re not smart enough? Perhaps you’re not crazy enough. Perhaps the problem is that you’re neither smart nor crazy enough.

According to Dean Simonton, “The most important process underlying strokes of creative genius is cognitive disinhibition—the tendency to pay attention to things that normally should be ignored or filtered out by attention because they appear irrelevant.” But that’s hardly enough. This describes the mentally ill as well, and anyone on the autism spectrum. What differentiates the inability of the merely mentally ill to filter out things from creative people is that the latter also have high I.Q.s that allow them to filter the world in a more conscious way. Of course, this also explains why so many creative people are also bipolar, schizophrenic, etc.

Given that an inability to filter out information from the world is a trait of autism, it is perhaps not surprising that so many people on the spectrum are creative. Even if high intelligence among those with ASD had the same distribution as the general population, the ASD population would have a much higher percentage of creatives, since the general population has a low percentage of people with cognitive disinhibition.

I’m a good example of this phenomenon. Little things I see, little things I hear spin out into stories and poems all the time. A fragment of conversation, an odd thing noticed out of the corner of my eye, random things which pop up in my mind, into my consciousness. I have to consciously filter out these things. Things others, apparently, filter out unconsciously.

This lack of filter means I am bombarded by sensory information and mental concepts. I can get easily distracted by them. They keep my attention. I could be mistaken for having ADD, but perhaps that’s not a mistake. Perhaps ADD is a manifestation of cognitive disinhibition — perhaps enough to create an attention deficit, but not enough to make mental illness. Again, intelligence makes the difference. Intelligence is the filtering device, what turns the noticed things into something new. The instinctive filterer is replaced by a more conscious one. But that means one has to learn how to do it.

How does one create the discipline necessary to turn one’s cognitive disinhibition into creative genius? Intelligence is not enough, though it is a necessary element. What is needed is the right environment, one which praises and values creativity. Not in an abstract way, but directly, to you, in your life. Parents telling you that your picture you drew is awesome. Teachers praising your art work and writing skills. Encouragement is positive feedback, driving you to want to turn all those little details you’ve noticed into something new for others to see. This encouragement can turn internal, acting as a self-selector, a way of concentrating those noticed bits and pieces into creative works.

The difference between madness and creative genius can often be the difference in environment, in the encouragement of others. A support network can make you become your best; the lack of one can drive you mad. The example of John Nash is apt: he was at his most creative and least mad when he had a supportive network.

Does our current culture support the creative genius? Or does it drive them underground, into the shadows, attempt to medicate them all away? Such people are disruptors of the status quo, keep the world off kilter, challenge preconceptions. Conformists cultures such as ours (being a collective guilt culture, our culture is doubly conformist) despise disruptors, challengers, creative geniuses. This is why the genius is in retreat. It is culturally rejected, denied and medicated away when possible. But without it, society will meet with stagnation, merely maintain without creating nearly as much value and wealth in the world as it would with them. Only if a creative genius happens to have the right family support can he or she develop and create. But our institutions increasingly do not support such people. In fact, too often, they actively discriminate against them. Because they do, there is less value, less wealth, less beauty in the world than there could be. All exchanged for the sake of the kind of comfort one can only have in an impossibly unchanging world.

Making Fog—And Other Connections

While other theories of autism explain it as a disability, the Intense World Theory of autism explains it as an intensification of the neurological processing. This approach also explains how it is that many people with autism have strong abilities as well.

Daniel’s strength certainly lies in his ability to make strong causal connection. For example, one morning, as I was taking Daniel and Dylan to the babysitter’s, Daniel noticed his breath in the cold air.

“I’m making fog.”

I told him that he was right. I also told him that fog was water in the air and that fog and clouds were the same thing.

“And when clouds come together, they make rain?” And he brought his hands together and intertwined his fingers.

He was, of course, right. When clouds become dense enough, rain drops form and fall. These are the kinds of observations Daniel makes all the time. He was able to make that leap of logic that most 5 year olds –- heck, far too many adults, let alone children –- cannot make.

Around that time,  Daniel also asked me, “What is air?” I told him that it’s what we breathe. He then asked me, “How do lungs work?” After I told him, he asked if the lungs looked like the heart. I want you to think about the implications of that connection he made.

Perhaps the most astounding one he ever made involved magnetism and electricity. Daniel had a fascination with power plants there for a while, and I showed him online about how generators work–that the water or steam produced by heating water with coal, wood, or fission spun a generator that produced electricity–and where the electricity went. I didn’t go into details about exactly how the generator produces electricity, only that spinning was involved. Later, when Daniel asked me how magnets work, I told him. I explained about how electrons are flowing through and around the magnet. He then said, “So, if you spin it, it will produce electricity?” And that is, of course, what is being spun in a generator to produce electricity. He was six at the time.

I wish I could remember them all.