There’s a link between autism and genius says a popular-press summary of recent research.
If you follow this sort of thing (and I do) most of what follows doesn’t come as much of a surprise. We get the usual thumbnail case studies about autistic savants. There’s an interesting thread about how child prodigies who are not autists rely on autism-like facilities for pattern recognition and hyperconcentration. There’s a sketch of research suggesting that non-autistic child-prodigies, like autists, tend to have exceptionally large working memories. Often, they have autistic relatives. Money quote: “Recent study led by a University of Edinburgh researcher found that in non-autistic adults, having more autism-linked genetic variants was associated with better cognitive function.”
But then I got to this: “In a way, this link to autism only deepens the prodigy mystery.” And my instant reaction was: “Mystery? There’s a mystery here? What?” Rereading, it seems that the authors (and other researchers) are mystified by the question of exactly how autism-like traits promote genius-level capabilities.
At which point I blinked and thought: “Eh? It’s right in front of you! How obvious does it have to get before you’ll see it?”
OK, now I have to lay out some credentials. (Sorry for the repetition, regulars; I’m writing the following with an eye on the high likelihood that the researchers won’t already know who I am.)
I am not an autist, and to my knowledge have no autistic relatives. I was thought to be a child prodigy with exceptional mathematical gifts; in 1975 I was the first high-school student in the institution’s memory to present original research at the annual meeting of the American Mathematical Society. Unusually large working memory, check. I’m pretty sure the authors would consider me a genius, unless they know a lot of people who have been all of: A-list software architects, New York Times bestselling authors also nominated for a Campbell Award, musicians good enough to do session work on two albums, world-championship-level players of strategy games, speakers who’ve drawn packed crowds on six continents, martial-arts instructors, sought-after advisors to investment bankers, and founders of successful reform movements that arguably changed history.
I also have the advantage that my peer network has been stiff with geniuses for forty years. I’ve logged a lot of time interacting with both autistic and non-autistic geniuses, and I’m anthropologically observant. So hear this:
Yes, there is an enabling superpower that autists have through damage and accident, but non-autists like me have to cultivate: not giving a shit about monkey social rituals.
Neurotypicals spend most of their cognitive bandwidth on mutual grooming and status-maintainance activity. They have great difficulty sustaining interest in anything that won’t yield a near-immediate social reward. By an autist’s standards (or mine) they’re almost always running in a hamster wheel as fast as they can, not getting anywhere.
The neurotypical human mind is designed to compete at this monkey status grind and has zero or only a vanishingly small amount of bandwidth to spare for anything else. Autists escape this trap by lacking the circuitry required to fully solve the other-minds problem; thus, even if their total processing capacity is average or subnormal, they have a lot more of it to spend on what neurotypicals interpret as weird savant talents.
Non-autists have it tougher. To do the genius thing, they have to be either so bright that they can do the monkey status grind with a tiny fraction of their cognitive capability, or train themselves into indifference so they basically don’t care if they lose the neurotypical social game.
Once you realize this it’s easy to understand why the incidence of socially-inept nerdiness doesn’t peak at the extreme high end of the IQ bell curve, but rather in the gifted-to-low-end-genius region closer to the median. I had my nose memorably rubbed in this one time when I was a guest speaker at the Institute for Advanced Study. Afternoon tea was not a nerdfest; it was a roomful of people who are good at the social game because they are good at just about anything they choose to pay attention to and the monkey status grind just isn’t very difficult. Not compared to, say, solving tensor equations.
The basic insight here is not original to me. The term “neurotypical” was actually coined by a very bright autist who then proceeded to write a hilarious fake DSM entry on how wacky and self-defeating “normal” cognitive function looks from his point of view. I looked at his site years ago, saw truth, and have been collecting related observations ever since.
So, contra the authors, I don’t think there’s any actual mystery here – just the awesome power of not caring what the (other) monkeys think. That gives us time to be excellent.