Saturday, November 5, 2011

Disjointed thoughts from a hard-core systemizer on Asperger's

I found myself nodding when I read Phoebe's post commenting on this Nature article suggesting that parents with milder, autistic-like traits may be more likely to have children with full-blown autism. I scored something frighteningly high on systemizing quotient when I took an internet version of Baron-Cohen's systemizing/empathizing scale, and it wouldn't surprise me much if my husband's test results looked similar. Note also that people stopped comparing me to Daria only when I started wearing contact lenses and experimenting with blonde highlights.

The Nature article makes it clear that the science is very much up in the air, and I'm somewhat inclined to agree. When I took the empathizing/systemizing test, I was struck by how uncomfortable I felt being asked to agree or disagree with statements like "My friends all think that I am empathetic and a great listener." How many really socially skilled people are comfortable answering "Strongly agree" to a dozen questions like one? Aren't most genuinely empathetic people a little humbler than that? Of course there must be some correlation between being socially skilled and being socially self-confident, and too much nervousness about one's social skills can itself be socially disabling. On the other hand, I felt much more comfortable answering "Strongly agree" to systemizer questions like "I enjoy looking at subway maps." They felt much less value-laden.

For what little it's worth, as a kid, I knew plenty of geeky adults married to other ex-geeks and just one child with full-blown autism, whom I'll call C. C.'s father was an electrical engineer, yes, and I can't recall his mother's background. She'd gone to college and was apparently a member of Mensa, which at the time seemed vastly more impressive than it does now. C was not the kind of mild eccentric Asperger-y type described lovingly by Tyler Cowen. At age eight, I'd go over to knock on the door of C.'s house and begin a conversation along the lines of, "Hi, C. Is your mom or dad home? My mom wanted to give your mom back her plates from the picnic." C would then laugh, yell "Bus driver!", make some hand signals that indicated that he was pretending to drive a bus, and then run away shrieking with laughter... while I stood there holding his mother's brownie platter.

Eventually, C outgrew the fascination with the phrase "bus driver. " When he was a little older, at about 14 or so, a grad student from the local college would come over and help tutor him in social interaction. This mainly seemed to consist of watching Family Matters episodes and asking C. questions like, "What is Laura feeling right now?" I can assure readers who are not children of the late 80s/early 90s that the show was sufficiently non-nuanced that it is difficult to get such questions wrong. Yet C. struggled. Eventually, though, he did seem to catch on... and eventually graduated high school... and then college... and today still lives with his parents, but has been holding down a steady job as an accountant since shortly after graduation. Perhaps ironically, C's neurotypical younger brother and sister both took longer and had more difficulty finishing college degrees.


  1. The gender issue here strikes me as interesting and, if not scientifically-unexplored, not really discussed in press more generally. "Sociable" does not come naturally to all girls, which is something it's easy to forget when considering grown women, virtually all of whom learn, at least, to be as warm and open as is expected in their milieu.

    If we just think of this in terms of incentives, there are huge incentives for girls to get with the program, whereas for boys, if they can wing it as a "math person" or whatever, they may accept a certain degree of bullying (or not, if they get channeled into geeky schools/home-schooling) in exchange for getting celebrated as a genius.

    And then there is, of course, the question of what other kids see when they see geeky. A geeky boy is not necessarily coded as effeminate, and often is really just viewed as another hyper-masculine subset, like football quarterback but without the same degree of prestige. Whereas a geeky girl will often read, to her classmates, as masculine, which will in turn be interpreted as lesbian. Given the flawless progressive credentials of the average schoolchild, this shouldn't pose a problem, but alas, sometimes it does. Point being, there's far more reason for a girl to snap out of it, as it were, than for a boy to do the same, assuming equal mild spectruminess.

    But then, come adulthood, who are these geeky guys going to mate with? Contrary to "Big Bang Theory," it's not gonna be Penny. It's going to be on-the-surface socially-adept women, with the same spectrum-ish raw material underneath.

  2. Speaking as someone who has experience, though noon auctoritee: my younger brother has autism far worse than C, and my mom has some traits that don't seem 100% neurotypical. I tend to, among other things, have trouble reading social cues, be a bit too literal-minded, and get a lot of A's (the last being true both in school-before and college-now). If I have a gender angle, it's this: I can get adequate grades in math and science, but, even before any possible influences from socialization, I always thought that both were quite boring. Instead of being a "math person" or a systematizer, I've ended up as a big language/literature geek. (However, I also was homeschooled, so any pressure to "snap out of it" mostly came from my mom's efforts to make me aware of conventional politeness: smile, respond to stock phrases, etc.)