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Autism Spectrum: Are You On It?

Less grandly, there may be something to the idea of an affinity between autistics and the Information Age, given that autistics, with their difficulty imagining minds apart from their own, tend to relate better to animals and machines than to people. Online, the off-putting physical manifestations of spectrum disorders are stripped away. Celebrity autistic Temple Grandin has said that “there is nothing out there closer to how I think” than the web, with its structure of associative links. The web is shaping our behavior in “what is broadly a more autistic direction,” argues behavioral economist Tyler Cowen, such as the way it lets us “pursue our identities and alliances based around very specific and articulable interests.” (Mobile phones, too: In the utilitarian, no-small-talk idiom of texting, he sees an autistic style of communication.)

The investor Peter Thiel has said of Internet companies that “the people who run them are sort of autistic. These mild cases of Asperger’s seem to be quite rampant. There’s no need for sales—the companies themselves are weirdly nonsocial in nature.” This is a vision of Internet culture as spectral, of whole corporations that miss social cues. It explains how services like Facebook and Google continually offend people with their missteps—whether changing privacy settings without permission, or photographing homes for Google Earth, or, in the case of businesses like Napster and Bit­Torrent, being completely indifferent to intellectual property—and then seem genuinely, naïvely surprised.

Still, it has become fashionable in some circles to describe the spectrum as the very womb of modernity. “If you were to get rid of all the autism genetics, there would be no more Silicon Valley,” Grandin told a ted audience. David Mamet, in his book Bambi vs. Godzilla, writes, “I think it is not impossible that Asperger’s syndrome helped make the movies,” citing such movie-director traits as “early precocity,” high information-processing capacity, attachment to routine, unconventionality, and social deficits. A recent ripple of business journalism has emphasized the narrow competencies of those on the high-functioning end of the spectrum as a competitive advantage: “In Praise of Misfits” (The Economist), “If You Really Want to Innovate, Put an Autistic Person on Your Team” (Business Insider). Specialist­erne, a Danish company, employs 60 people on the spectrum to do software testing and other repetitive tasks.

Cowen, one of the most prominent champions of autism-as-superpower, came to believe he has “an autistic cognitive style” after receiving an e-mail suggesting as much from a reader of his blog, and has credited his take on autism as being “much influenced” by his former colleague Vernon Smith. In The Age of the Infovore, Cowen makes the energetic if labored case that autism is “a hidden cultural force” and that “understanding human neurodiversity in terms of impairments is fundamentally misleading.” He extols autistics’ “cognitive strengths”: “They are better at noticing details in patterns, they have better eyesight on average, they are less likely to be fooled by optical illusions … and they are less likely to have false memories of particular kinds.” In his zeal to present autism in a positive light, Cowen flirts with dottiness, writing things like, “Autistics are the culmination of Buddhist thought and indeed Buddhist practice,” and coming very close to diagnosing the entire country of Finland as autistic.

The same rose-colored impulse has driven an Aspie wave of revisionist psychopathography, in which such diverse historical figures as Thomas Jefferson, Orson Welles, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Andy Warhol, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are supposed to have been residents of the spectrum. The time-traveling diagnoses often feel like cloud-reading—the case for Darwin as Aspie, as set forth in Genius Genes: How Asperger Talents Changed the World, relies on diagnostic bullet points: his childhood as “something of a loner,” his “obsession” with nature, his routine of counting the laps of his nightly walks in later life. They also seem to have fueled more diagnoses in the present. “I got a letter from around the world from a man who was diagnosed when he was 80,” says Genius Genes co-author Michael Fitzgerald, a professor of child psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin. “A lot of people read my book, and that was the first time they found they had autism. Someone rang me from China to say he’d read about his distant relative in the Civil War and for the first time realized he had Asperger’s.”

Even fictional characters come in for the treatment. In 2008, the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions published a peer-reviewed article about “nonconforming, socially awkward” Bartleby the Scrivener, arguing that “retrospective analysis indicates that Bartleby may in fact have been a victim of the modern diagnosis of [autism spectrum disorder], more specifically, a high-functioning form of autism termed Asperger’s syndrome.” Cowen, for his part, avers in Infovore that Sherlock Holmes is “the most fully developed autistic character in the Western literary tradition.”