Sunday, July 20, 2008

Life on the ragged edge of eccentricity

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, asperger's syndrome, memoirs

The DMS-IV calls it "Asperger's Disorder", and distinguishes it thus:
  1. Severe and sustained impairment in social interaction.
  2. The development of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.
  3. The disturbance must cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
  4. In contrast to Autistic Disorder, there are no clinically significant delays in language.
  5. There are no clinically significant delays in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self-help skills, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction), and curiosity about the environment in childhood.
  6. The diagnosis is not given if the criteria are met for any other specific Pervasive Developmental Disorder or for Schizophrenia.
Let's compare point A with these items:
  • Have very high standards for performance, which they apply to themselves.
  • Independent and original, possibly eccentric.
  • Work best alone, and value autonomy.
  • Have no desire to lead or follow.
  • Live primarily inside their own minds, and may appear to be detached and uninvolved with other people.
Looked at positively, these five items are characteristic of good workers in almost any creative field. However, taken a little too far, these characteristics can be very off-putting; Criterion A might be a natural result.

Item B above is written to sound weird. Think another way: "Has narrow interests, enjoys a few, focused activities, is very consistent and persistent." These could describe virtues. Think of a prototypical trial lawyer: consistent and persistent is what you want, in spades! But these characteristics are also seen in people described by the five bulleted points above: those who fit the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator INTP.

INTP abbreviates Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinker, Perceiver. This personality type tends to be creative, withdrawn, and inwardly-directed. Take the INTP personality to an extreme, and you pass first through Asperger territory, then into Autism. I am INTP, about which more later...

I know several people with varying degrees of Asperger's Syndrome, and I've known several people in the past that, in retrospect, also fit the pattern. On the "mildly impaired" end of things, I think of Robert Leighton, the Physics Department chair at Cal Tech, and my boss for a few years. Brilliant, eccentric, and much better as a scientist than as an administrator, though he managed to do a pretty good job running the Department. Having myself learned to "build a personality", having found my natural endowment somewhat lacking, I could recognize the same in him. We got along very well.

At the "more impaired" end, but still a far cry from being Autistic, I think of two Operating Systems Analysts I knew who worked for Control Data in the 1970s and '80s. There was a running joke about the company's top programmers, who were "kept in cabins in the Minnesota woods and fed infinite amounts of pizza and Pepsi." On an occasion when these gentlemen were permitted to attend a developers' conference, they were painfully asocial. Not that they didn't try...they just couldn't. But if you got either one going on his favorite corner of the "deep code", watch out! You'd get a force-fed education in just how that stuff worked. It was amazing to see these shy guys, who couldn't raise their eyes above the floor, become eloquent, passionate, and engaging. None of us then had ever heard of Hans Asperger or the condition named for him.

I count John Elder Robison as my newest Aspergian acquaintance, having read his memoir look me in the eye: my life with asperger's. As he describes himself in later life, I see someone a lot like Dr. Leighton. He learned, over a span of decades, how to be liked by others, something that comes almost without effort to personality types with an "E" (for Extrovert) at their beginning. E types outnumber I types about 8 to 1, and as author Robison discusses where he fits into the spectrum of human life (not just the Autistic spectrum), he explains that a touch of Aspergian traits seem to be part of the creative personality.

Aspergians have a rough time growing up. They experience more rejection than most kids. I was particularly taken with an item that Dr. Asperger noted, but that is not part of the modern diagnosis: clumsiness and athletic ineptitude. This part of Robison's experience really mirrors mine: the last chosen for a team, the first ejected. In my case, I have a secondary explanation. I had polio.

On a side note, I am not self-diagnosing myself as Aspergian. I recognize that I have a bit of the hypochondriacal tendency that makes one speculate, "Do I have that" about almost anything. While I did undergo some psychoanalysis as a pre-teen for being "withdrawn", my experiences are much milder than those described by John Robison. He seems to be one in a line of Aspergians, which he did not really scope out until he'd made peace with his father, shortly before his father died. And his son is somewhat Aspergian, to a milder degree.

In his 20s, Robison had become a sound and special-effects technician for KISS (smoking guitars, for example). He could have continued a career as an electronic savant. He thinks now that would have led him further toward full Autism. Somehow, he had it in him to make the choice for a more "ordinary" life. But he found that he didn't like being a corporate drone, even a high-paid one. For twenty years he has owned and run a very valued repair shop for high-end European autos. Being the owner is what it took for him to get the degree of autonomy he needed.

That is one strong characteristic of the Aspergians I know, a need for autonomy. It is a cruel reality that many of them are so bad at the social relations needed to actually live well as their own boss, or to carve out an autonomous niche in a corporation. It takes enormous energy.

I consider this book required reading for everyone. We all know some people who are a bit weird, and in many cases, Asperger's condition is why. Let's begin to think of it as Asperger's Condition, rather than "Disorder" or "Syndrome". That makes more sense, and is kinder.

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