Friday, July 15, 2022

Thoughts on Autism

Since starting this blog, I've been avoiding discussing close relatives and my current relationship. However, I have mentioned psychiatric disorders on several occasions, primarily in the context of people in the biographies that I've read. For example, Ludwig Wittgenstein was almost certainly autistic. I thought I'd make separate comments about autism, because, from my point of view, it is an emerging topic. During the 1940's, early studies concentrated on severely impaired autistic children, and it was not until the 1990's that high-functioning autistic children came under study. Since then, in the early 2000's, high-functioning autistic adults were studied, and now the topic is broadly discussed under autism spectrum disorder, which covers all ages and a wide variety of symptoms. The main symptom is social impairment, but there are many other symptoms, such as repetitive behavior, sensitivity to loud noises, learning disabilities and special intellectual talents. The same symptoms are not necessarily present in all autistic people. It appears that autism runs in families, but that aspect does not seem to have been studied much so far.

For the record, I don't think that I'm autistic. In my family background, I had an uncle who could have been autistic, but I have no way of finding out now. As a child, he became fascinated with watches, and as an adult he became an engineer and designed and made a clock that was used on one of the NASA missions to Mars. I hardly knew him, but one of his daughters thought that he could have been autistic. I think that he may only have been an introvert, and I've noticed myself that introversion can be confused with autism, though the two are neurologically unrelated. To an undiscerning observer, it may not be apparent that an introverted person prefers to be alone, whereas autistic people may prefer to socialize but lack the skills necessary for social acceptance. There is also a certain amount of confusion about autism and intelligence. Nerdy students probably have a good chance of being autistic, but many autistic people are poor students. I've noticed that autistic people tend to socialize with each other, since it is difficult for them to develop friendships with those who are more socially adept, but they may still have different intellectual abilities within their group. Because I am intelligent and introverted, some people may have thought that I'm autistic, but I'm not.

It is relevant to me to know something about autism, because I've spent about fifty years, some of which were hardly harmonious, among autistic people. My ex-wife is probably autistic, and so is my son. My current partner is autistic, and so are some of her relatives. Her immediate family is very high-functioning. Her ex-husband graduated from Yale and Yale Law School. She graduated from Cambridge and the University of Chicago Law School. One son also attended Yale and is a software engineer. Another son has a Ph.D. in mathematics and also works in the tech industry. The two children make so much money that they probably could retire in their early forties.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been intrigued about my ex-wife's family with respect to heritable mental illness. No one ever talks about this kind of thing, so, in the course of my genealogical research, I investigated her family background. On her father's side there was no sign of mental illness. However, both her mother and an aunt exhibited psychiatric symptoms. I found that her mother's grandmother had attempted suicide at 19, became pregnant at 20, before marriage, and proceeded to have four children. Her husband was a petty criminal who died in prison at the age of 45. She was born in 1875 and disappeared in about 1909, abandoning her four children. I think that she was probably the source of later mental illness in the family, though it is also possible that her husband contributed. Looking at four generations of her descendants, a variety of autistic symptoms have occurred right up to the present. My view of my ex-wife is that she is an average-functioning autistic person who may not know that she is autistic but has always been socially inept. High-functioning autistic people can be more interesting, but the same social impairment is still apparent.

On a more general level, I have been thinking about how the human brain works and how its resources are limited. Having good social skills demands far more brainpower than you might expect, so the brain makes tradeoffs. In a stable social setting, such as a homogeneous upper-middle-class environment, the social stability may obviate the need for social skills somewhat and leave room for the development of intellectual skills that are associated with greater social prestige, better career prospects, or both. This could explain some of the success of some high-achieving autistic people. In general, the rise of the tech industry has facilitated this process. It is possible that the genes for high-achieving autistic people have always been there, but the opportunity for their expression may have been more limited in the past.

I think that the Internet and digital technology have made the environment much more autism-friendly than it was a few decades ago. However, this isn't necessarily an entirely positive development. First of all, there is no advantage for low-functioning autistic people, and, more importantly, the high-functioning autistic people like Bill Gates and Elon Musk may be exceptionally talented in some areas, permitting them to make billions of dollars, while their social ineptitude probably makes it challenging for them to foster a cohesive society. For example, Bill Gates is never going to make a moving speech. Although there may be other causes, it is probably not a coincidence that social cohesion began to erode with the rise of the tech giants. Of course, some of the tech people don't seem particularly autistic, but I think that the net effect of the new technology has been to make the environment more autism-friendly than it was in the past. One area of recent social change that could be autism-related is the rise of political correctness. Autistic people, particularly the high-functioning ones, like rules, and they are often insensitive to social subtleties. Thus, robotic people seem to be becoming the norm, and, for better or for worse, we may be witnessing the death of humor. 

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