Living on the Edge: Is There a Little Asperger’s in Every Geek?

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Bill Gates on Reddit (Creative Commons)
As most of us know, Asperger’s Syndrome is a developmental disorder that results in a delay in understanding social skills. The syndrome often manifests as a battle between highs and lows—a very high intellect struggling against unusual preoccupations, or eccentric rituals, or communication difficulties.

Asperger’s falls on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum and is distinguished from flat-out autism by less-severe symptoms and the absence of a language delay. Many people are not diagnosed with Asperger’s until later in childhood (the average age is 11), or even as late as adulthood. Asperger’s symptoms can be masked by gifted behavior (and vice versa), as the two behaviors share many common aspects. According to UK psychologist Lorna Wing, the high end of the Asperger’s continuum includes highly intelligent individuals who demonstrate “social impairment in its subtlest form as [their] only disability. [Asperger’s] overlaps with learning disabilities and shades into eccentric normality.”

This week’s Economist Magazine (April 16, 2016) cites a recent South Korean study that found that “one child in 38 between the ages of seven and 12 has some degree of autism.” In fact, the number of children diagnosed with some form of autism has doubled since 1970, perhaps because of increasing awareness of the syndrome and more precise or inclusive diagnostic criteria.

But this widening of the entryway to diagnosis brings up an interesting point. If autism falls on a spectrum, what do we do with the child who falls just one point short of the diagnostic cut-off? Of course, when given an either/or choice, most parents would certainly choose a diagnosis that rules out a “developmental disorder,” if only based on the medical-office-saturated future that those frightening words foretell. But in practice, falling just short of any diagnostic line means being barred from therapeutic assistance. And that can leave parents in a frustrating predicament.

Social observers have begun to notice the commonalities between “geek” behavior and Asperger’s behavior. Steve Silberman, in Wired Magazine, notes that “It’s a familiar joke in the industry that many of the hardcore programmers in IT strongholds like Intel, Adobe, and Silicon Graphics… are residing somewhere in [the] Asperger’s domain.” He relates that “Kathryn Stewart, director of the Orion Academy, a high school for high-functioning kids in Moraga, California, calls Asperger’s syndrome ‘the engineers’ disorder.'” and “Bill Gates is regularly diagnosed in the press: His single-minded focus on technical minutiae, rocking motions, and flat tone of voice are all suggestive of an adult with some trace of the disorder.”

And my favorite of the quoted “experts,” Microserfs novelist Douglas Coupland, is convinced that “all tech people are slightly autistic.”

Whether or not this is true, it begs the question, “How many geeky kids are mildly autistic?” Is Asperger’s the common denominator that creates a geek? For a number of reasons, there have been no systematic, controlled studies of this subject, but from a completely unscientific point of view, it wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows geeky kids to discover that a significant number of them fall somewhere on that Asperger’s or just-shy-of-Asperger’s scale.

But why does it even matter what label a child has? Shouldn’t we all just potter along, doing our best with what we’ve been given? Actually, to name a problem is the first step in mastering it.

Photo Credit: WelcomeToLearn on Flickr

Here’s an example: Imagine a teenage boy applying for college. His grades are top notch, he has a driving passion for computer programming, he has taught himself several varied programming languages and attended a number of advanced summer computer camps, and he’d like to attend a highly competitive university. In preparation for the fierce battle that is the college admissions process, he slogged gamely along, playing an instrument he didn’t love during his high school career, and joining the only athletic team that would take him, the cross-country squad. He’s got the academics, the extracurriculars, and the passion. On paper, he seems like an ideal candidate.

Only, he has a pretty slow processing speed, and can’t finish the SAT or ACT before time is up, plus he gets distracted during the tests, so his scores aren’t reflecting his true potential, plus he’s really having trouble with the college interviews. He doesn’t do well with eye contact or reading the interviewer. He answers questions far too directly, succinctly and seriously, and he gets terribly sidetracked by the phone ringing on the interviewer’s desk. His application essays haven’t sparkled with personality either; although he can write gorgeous creative stories, his literal interpretations of the essay questions are coming across flat and pedantic.

If this talented young man were given a label—let’s call it Almost Asperger’s—his parents and teachers could have been aware ahead of time that his mild challenges would be rearing up to cause trouble during the college admissions process. Perhaps his impressive intellect, polite demeanor, and lack of a disciplinary record conspired to place him in the easily ignored camp. “He’s been doing fine all through school (a bit reclusive, perhaps), so there’s clearly nothing to worry about, and no intervention necessary.”

Except when there is. Just like the child who has Actual Asperger’s, the child with Almost Asperger’s will have some trouble with the everyday activities that most of us take for granted. He may have trouble with face-to-face communication, or with multi-tasking, or staying focused. He might be unusually dependent on routine, or perhaps a bit clumsy. You just won’t notice his limitations as clearly, especially when his intellect is masking them.

The Davidson Institute for Talent Development points out in their comparison of gifted children to children with Asperger’s that when a gifted child loses focus, the cause is generally external (i.e.: noise in the room), whereas when an Asperger’s child loses focus, the cause is generally internal (i.e.: they’ve begun to daydream). When your child comes to you at 11:00pm and says he still hasn’t finished his homework because he couldn’t concentrate, it helps to know which demon he’s fighting.

It comes down to understanding the causes of our children’s behavior. It’s easy to lose patience with a child who can’t explain why he can’t keep his mind on his homework; we think “Why doesn’t he just try harder?” But if we knew that he was struggling against something he can’t actually control (his Almost Asperger’s brain), we would certainly respond differently, likely with more patience and an array of well-researched suggestions. And life would run a bit more smoothly. Nothing causes the bond between parent and child to fracture faster than pinning an undeserved demerit on a sensitive child.

This is not to say that Asperger’s-type symptoms should all be pathologized, or considered undesirable, or abnormal. Many are simply quirky, or even lovably eccentric. In fact, many of us, when reading checklists of Asperger’s traits, immediately recognize people we know and love—perhaps even ourselves. The syndrome does appear to have a hereditary component. Understanding where quirky behavior comes from helps us worry about it less and celebrate it more.

According to Steve Silberman of Wired, “the genes responsible for bestowing certain special gifts on slightly autistic adults [are] the very abilities that have made them [the] dreamers and architects of our technological future.” In other words, to be a bit “Aspergery” (also known as a “broad autistic phenotype”) is to be perfectly wired for success in specific fields—tech, art, and science among them. In fact, Hans Asperger himself wrote, “It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.”

So, is Asperger’s what makes a geek a geek? Maybe. Are geeks a collection of under-the-radar Aspies? Could be. The diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s is essentially a checklist of traits. Perhaps your geek doesn’t have them all, but maybe he does have a few. He might not “qualify” for a label, but he can certainly benefit from the specific therapies Aspies use to help them navigate the world. In any case, recognizing that a child’s quirks are ingrained can help parents create a safe, pro-quirkiness space at home, the most important refuge for outliers.

Regardless of the percentage of geeks who are on the spectrum, if we agree that many of the traits we geeks have in common are Aspergery, we’ve made a huge step toward understanding what makes ourselves and our children tick. And if we take the next step, and begin to consider those traits “our normal,” then we’ve begun to erase the stigma and opened the way to celebrate the positive and frankly astonishing things those idiosyncratic traits help us to achieve.