As a new awareness comes into public consciousness through various sources like the Grandin’s book, Silberman’s Wired article or Haddon’s novel or Robison’s life story, it is hoped that all of us will develop a better understanding about why some people behave the way that they do—as well as gain some insight into how they are able to do things the rest of us cannot do. We may become more tolerant or we may come to be more aware of the power of real diversity (and its price). Or, we may be more willing to have certain services available for affected children and adults. Or, some of us may see some of these traits in ourselves or our friends or our family members.
Whatever our reaction, it gradually becomes apparent that we may be on the edge of not one but two major changes. The new visual and other technologies may allow us to use our brains in far more powerful ways than the conventional technologies of words and numbers and books alone. But at the same time, without being fully aware of what we are doing and how we are doing it, we may be helping to create larger numbers of individuals who are unusually well suited to work within these new worlds. It may be far too early to understand what is going on here or what it signifies. However, there do seem to be some parallels with dyslexia research that might be helpful.
Paradox and Social Benefit
Dyslexia was first recognized and described more than a century ago, in the 1880s, some 60 years before autism was first described. Like autism, it was initially thought to be extremely rare. Now it is seen as affecting as much as 15 to 20 percent of the population, depending on the definitions used, and as having profound effects on education, employment, and life success. There was little scientific or government attention to dyslexia until the last decade or two when both increased greatly, with substantial funding for research. Throughout, there has always been a tendency to look at the problems associated with dyslexia and the focus has been on ways to fix the problems. But also, from the earlier days, there has been a very small group of individuals who believed that with the dyslexia came certain advantages (sometimes, or even often, but never always).
Among these was the late Harvard neurologist Norman Geschwind (a distant relative of Dan Geschwind, quoted above). He believed that the same unusual neurological formations that lead to dyslexia could also promote a range of superior abilities. Accordingly, he has provided a discussion that may also may have some relevance to autism spectrum disorders: If the problem condition also has advantages (in some cases), he wondered, then how can we learn to control the condition and not give up the (sometimes considerable) advantages? Geschwind's comments on the possible prevention of dyslexia take on an extra dimension of significance when we consider autism as well. Geschwind explains: “the dilemma . . . becomes obvious. Not only do many dyslexics carry remarkable talents that benefit their society enormously, but the same talents exist in unusually high frequency among their unaffected relatives. If we could somehow prevent these brain changes, and thus prevent the appearance of dyslexia, might we not find that we have deprived the society of an important and irreplaceable group of individuals endowed with remarkable talents?”
In spite of this, Geschwind was hopeful that the advantages and disadvantages are not necessarily connected. This hope was based on evidence that there are many nondyslexic “individuals among the relatives of dyslexics who are . . . possessed of remarkable spatial talents. . . . We know that especially frequently the sisters of dyslexics are likely to share the talents without the disadvantages of dyslexia. Once we gain intimate information as to the mechanisms of formation of the anomalies that lead to the superior talents, we should be able to retain the advantages while avoiding the disadvantages.”
Thus, Geschwind hoped to have, eventually, one without the other. We too may well hope for this (with dyslexia and with autism), but we need also to consider the possibility that it may not always be possible. We may need to consider that it may be an essential part of the nature of things that, in a significant number of cases, one cannot have one without the other.
Is it possible that our brains have such design constraints? Is it possible that unusual proficiency in one area will often mean a significant lack of proficiency in another? Or, conversely, is it possible that a deficiency in one area may indicate the likelihood of special abilities in other areas? Or, given a third case, if one has fairly balanced capabilities, is it probable that, in many instances, extraordinary abilities (in either of two incompatible modes) may be precluded? Most recent neurological evidence suggests that this may in fact be so.
Albert Galaburda, an associate of Norman Geschwind, carried out microanatomical studies of the brains of dyslexics. After detailed examination of several cases, Galaburda and his associates described the role of microscopic lesions (areas of damage or diminished growth) and the unusual symmetry of certain formations that had been observed in all the dyslexic brains that they had examined. Galaburda observed that the microscopic lesions may be capable of suppressing the development of some areas, but he suggested a role for them in actually increasing the development of other areas.
This research suggests a biological basis for the frequent paradoxical coexistence of special abilities and disabilities in the same individual: “We all know that these lesions may in fact be capable of reorganizing the brain. But they don't always reorganize the brain to produce dyslexics. I am sure that similar mechanisms are used to reorganize the brain to produce geniuses too, and sometimes both of them occur in the same person.”
Norman Geschwind pointed out that the study of dyslexia is filled with paradoxes. If the observations of Geschwind and Galaburda are borne out by further research, then perhaps one of the most striking paradoxes is that many of those with the greatest abilities can also be expected to have unusual difficulty in areas that are easy for those with average abilities. Similarly, we could find that the study of Asperger syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders may also be filled with paradoxes—the greatest of which may be: when we come to learn more about autism (as with dyslexia), is it possible that we may find that we cannot live entirely without it, at least in some moderate measure? As Dan Geschwind noted above, these studies tend to take us to deeper levels, forcing us (as did Tesla’s story) to think in fresh ways about deep diversity in human intelligence and capability.
Endnote A -- This 3-part web log entry is based on Chapter 22, Thinking Like Einstein, by Thomas G. West, where full references are provided. An earlier, shorter version appeared in Computer Graphics, a publication of ACM SIGGRAPH, the international association for professional computer graphic artists and technologists.
Endnote B -- According to the entry from MedlinePlus from the National Library of Medicine: “Asperger syndrome (AS), one of the autistic spectrum disorders, is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by an inability to understand how to interact socially. AS is commonly recognized after the age of 3. People with high-functioning autism are generally distinguished from those with AS because autism is associated with marked early language delay. Other characteristics of AS include clumsy and uncoordinated motor movements, limited interests or unusual preoccupations, repetitive routines or rituals, speech and language peculiarities, and non-verbal communication problems. Generally, children with AS have few facial expressions. Many have excellent rote memory, and become intensely interested in one or two subjects (sometimes to the exclusion of other topics). They may talk at length about a favorite subject or repeat a word or phrase many times. Children with AS tend to be self-absorbed, have difficulty making friends, and are preoccupied with their own interests. There is no specific course of treatment or cure for AS. Treatment may include psychotherapy, parent education and training, behavioral modification, social skills training, educational interventions, and medications for specific behavioral symptoms.” (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/aspergerssyndrome.html)
Endnote C -- When Temple Grandin was on her book tour promoting the paperback edition of Thinking in Pictures, she came to Washington, D.C, for a book signing and a lecture to a autism parent group. At the book signing, I asked her to sign the copy of her book that I had just purchased (although I had already read another copy earlier). At the same time I presented her with a copy of my own book, In the Mind’s Eye, which I thought she might find interesting. She took one look at my book and said that she had always wanted to read it. I asked how she knew of it. She said she had seen a review of my book when she was correcting the proofs for Thinking in Pictures. When she saw the review, it was too late to put anything more into her text, but she could add a book to her list of readings for her first chapter — where to my surprise she pointed it out. The next day we had a long telephone conversation about the similarities and differences between her treatment of visual thinking in relation to autism and my treatment of visual thinking in relation to dyslexia. I had always hoped to look more into these connections, but whenever I brought it up to researchers in the field, I was told that the two conditions were too dissimilar. Nothing could be learned, they explained, from looking at them together. For some time I have suspected that they might be wrong. I thought that the high visual aspect in two rather different but overlapping conditions might lead to some insight both unexpected and valuable. (Possibly more valuable because unexpected.) Perhaps we will see, one way or the other, in the not too distant future whether my (our) hunch might be correct.