Where do you fall on 'the spectrum'?

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Today is Autism Awareness Day. The statistics are striking. One in 68 children is diagnosed with autism, one in 54 males. It is a somewhat mysterious "disorder," but occurs much more frequently than previously thought. In fact, a case can be made that all of us can be found somewhere on the autism "spectrum," and what we think of as "autism" may simply be the dysfunctional extreme of a much wider spectrum. 

One of the early identifiers of this condition was a physician in England named Arthur Conan Doyle, better known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, a character who, some say, exhibits many of the characteristics of Asperger's Syndrome, a higher-functioning form of autism. In fact, until recently, the range was identified as the Autism-Asperger's Spectrum. I'm guessing the Asperger's connection has also been made with Sheldon, the science nerd in the popular sitcom, Big Bang Theory.

I'm not an expert on any of this, but I've been curious about autism since I saw the explosion of autism-related services listed in one of our Chicago Parent resource guides a few years back. Until then, I thought autism was extremely rare. It's not. And I've done enough stories on the subject to know that, at its most dysfunctional, autism is a long, difficult road for the parents, not to mention the children who often suffer greatly from it. They need, and deserve, both our empathy and society's assistance.

But not all the reports are discouraging. Recently I read an article in Sun magazine, by a writer named Poe Ballantine, that made me think more expansively about this issue. So in the spirit of awareness raising, I thought I'd share some of his ideas.

Ballantine and his wife, Cristina, have a son who has been, as he puts it, "labeled" autistic.

"I was wary of the ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] label for my son," he writes. "I soon figured out that I could get any diagnosis or medication I wanted just by taking him to different doctors. The whole business was ambiguous and bizarre. … The mental-health profession wants to stamp everyone with a label. Where does it stop?"

He resisted the prescriptions of the medical establishment and, after applying "an old-fashioned remedy called 'love,' my son, who was once friendless, isolated, and struggling in remedial programs, now has friends and is getting As and Bs in a mainstream fifth-grade curriculum."

Not everyone, of course, can boast such success stories because autism is often extreme and difficult to manage, which Ballantine readily admits. But he knows this landscape, both from personal experience and research, and observes, "I am always relieved to come across optimistic views on autism. I suspect that autism is a natural intellectual function correlating to our increasing need for specialized, nonlinear and advanced 'thinking styles' and not a disease or a 'developmental disorder.'"

He is particularly intrigued by the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychopathologist at Cambridge University (not the comedian), who has done genetic research on autism for years and, according to Ballantine, theorizes that "most autistics have a drive to systematize. Mathematicians, physicists, engineers, logicians, number theorists, software programmers, and quantum cryptographers are all good examples of systematizers, and in each of these fields you'll find higher rates of autism."

Systematizers tend to be male — along with 80 percent of autistics.

"By their asocial predispositions, narrow preoccupations, tendencies toward ritual and repetition, sensory filtering, and so on, Ballantine says, [autistics] are able to work long periods without distraction on deep projects that might bore other people to death."

He acknowledges that "at the end of any spectrum is dysfunction, chaos, madness, disease, and snack machines getting pushed over. … I wouldn't want to rely too heavily on psychology or go all New Age on you and declare that autism is a gift. It does, however, seem possible that, with its considerable claim on the population, its numerous talented representatives, its frequent association with rapid brain growth, and its continued ability, despite exhaustive research, to evade cause or cure, what we're calling 'autism' (and the heavy psychological inference of 'abnormality' or 'disorder') might well instead be cerebral evolution."

Are human beings — in particular our brains — evolving before our eyes, the pace of that evolution accelerating, spurred on by accelerating technological change? I don't know but it's a fascinating notion.

Which is not to say that everyone is becoming "autistic" or a "systematizer." According to Baron-Cohen, on the other end of the spectrum is the empathizer.

"As a rule," Ballantine writes, "systematizing and empathizing are opposed. If you're strong on systematizing, then you don't want some goober to come along and mess it all up. If you're long on empathizing, then it isn't likely that you'll stare willingly into an electron microscope for 12 hours or obsess about how the pillows are arranged on the couch. Systematizers are rule-based, less flexible, and more inclined to stick to patterns and positions. Empathizers are more emotionally oriented and free-form in approach, care less about rules than about getting along."

We may have been looking at autism too narrowly. Instead of the autism spectrum, in other words, we're all on the human spectrum, which includes extreme systematizing on one end, extreme empathizing on the other — with most of us found somewhere in the great middle, blending elements of both. 

We'll need both if our species is to survive. The question is whether the systematizing portion of the human brain, which seems to be evolving rapidly, will be matched by the evolution of the empathizing portion so that the human psyche does not become perilously imbalanced.

Exciting times, it seems, lie ahead, but one thing is clear. 

We all need to pay a lot more attention to autism.

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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