Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Myth of Aspie Genius

Introduction
My son has been a little upset of late because he's realised that he's behind the rest of the class in some areas. I'll cover how I "dealt" with his feelings in another post but for now, I thought it was time for a look at the myth of Aspie Genius.

It's a sad fact of life that not all aspies are geniuses and that the "little professor" tag doesn't apply to everyone. In fact, it's a distinguishing feature of the aspergers diagnostic criteria that the IQ of an aspie is no different to that of a neurotypical.

This doesn't mean that aspies do as well in IQ tests as NTs because often the phraseology in the questions leads to interpretive difficulties (and time delays). It simply means that the aspie ability to "solve" is similar in scope, range and variance to NTs.


What can Adversely Impact Aspie Performance?
If we assume that the IQ is "normal", then it follows that some aspies will be more intelligent than their peers, some less so and most will fall somewhere in the middle. There are performance inhibiting factors across the spectrum which also need to be taken into account;

Interpretive issues
In terms of school work, this is the big one. Many subjects, particularly "English", rely upon a frame of reference.

I remember struggling with Romeo and Juliet over their illogical and "stupid" (as I wrote in essays then) behaviour. I was a good student but I still had no understanding of their motivation and as a result, I had major issues with the subject in that particular year. It wasn't until years later, with a lot more social development behind me, that it made sense.

It's not just the frame of reference though, quite a bit of the prose in primary school, even the "prose-based" maths questions, gave me trouble. It generally takes me a fair bit longer than most people to understand a question that is put to me - and the delay is much longer for verbal questions than for written ones because verbal questions carry more information to be interpreted; tone and gestures.

I often find that when I'm asked a question, my responses are so slow that people assume that I don't know the answer. In the last decade or so, I've started "false-starting" where I say a few words, then stop, correct, restart, correct, restart etc... It sometimes takes me forever to get a sentence out and I can see my co-workers getting irritated. I've been doing this because people give up and walk away after a bit of silence while false starting at least (usually) keeps them there while I interpret and think.

While an NT could answer a question straight away after hearing it once, my own processes are something similar to the following;
  1. Hear most of the question
  2. Pass 2: Re-think and interpret to analyse gaps and "guess words" - this is actually compensating for my deafness, not aspergers. Sometimes this will require several passes - and sometimes it will fail entirely.
  3. Pass 3: Look for Emotive words and listen to tone.
  4. Pass 4: Check for facial expression - does it make the picture different?
  5. Pass 5: Look for "trite phrases" and jokes which need translation/discarding.
  6. Think about the answer
  7. Wrap the answer in "user-friendly words"
  8. Check answer for over-technicality based on an evaluation of the recipient's capabilities.
  9. Screen out and replace any words which could have double-meanings or could be interpreted wrongly - this includes generalisations, eg: words like "always"
By the time I've done all this, the person has usually walked away.

Focus and Interest
Aspies have quite restricted interests and it's quite difficult for us to concentrate on things outside of that sphere of interest. It's not rudeness, it's a built-in factor. Just as the male brain allegedly thinks about sex every 7 seconds, so to our aspie brains are constantly flicking back to our special interests whether we like it or not. It's like trying to watch TV with someone who keeps "checking another channel" every few minutes. It's amazing that we can concentrate on anything other than our special interests.

I work in the financial sector, with computers and I have a special interest in computing. I've been in my current position for ten years and I still have trouble with the most basic concepts like the differences between invoices and receipts because I can't get them through my "blinkers". The same applied to me at school and unless I could find a way to tie subjects back to my special interests, I couldn't focus.

My wife often gets upset with me when I try to speed up her conversations - after all, it's not fair, she listens to me and I'm a wordy, drawn out sort of person. After all these years, she still sees my "hurry up" gestures or "...and the point is..." prompting to be rude. I know it's rude and I don't do it lightly - I do it when I feel like I'm starting to lose focus. It would probably be better if she were to take a quick break until my interest returns - I don't know.

All I know is that it's a choice between a "hurry up" prompt, something that seems quite rude on the surface or a mental shutdown where I let her continue talking but take nothing onboard. The latter doesn't appear quite so rude but I feel personally that it's worse because I'm not listening at all.

This sort of thing affects me in lots of areas - yes, even at work. Sometimes when a meeting strays too far from things I need to start drawing or writing frantically just to keep myself in focus. I even avoid a lot of team meetings which I feel may be significantly off-topic because my behaviour would probably be too distracting to the other participants.

Comorbid Conditions
Aspergers seems to be a condition which doesn't often appear on its own. Often, it appears in the company of one or more co-conditions (comorbids). Each of these comorbids could stand as a condition in itself but often it's a "lite" version that combines itself with aspergers;

  • Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
  • Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dyspraxia (Clumsiness)
  • Tourette’s Syndrome
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
Not all Aspies have comorbid conditions but the numbers are amazingly high with ADHD in particular showing in 62% of cases according to some studies. These factors considerably impact the academic abilities of aspergers children.

You can find more information on these comorbid conditions here.


What can Positively Impact Aspie Performance?
It wouldn't be a balanced topic without a look at some of the things which can tip the scales in academic circles;

The Special Interest
There is simply no underestimating the power of the special interest. It's the key to aspie behaviour and success. As parents, you have a duty to not only know your children's special interests but also to accept and relate to them. Nothing else will put you into your child's life in quite the same way.

It's disconcerting how often I hear of parents and teachers trying to discourage the special interest "for the good of the child" without any real understanding of the impact they may be having. My own parents and teachers "banned" me from borrowing Doctor Who books from our school library because I was "reading the same series" all the time. As a result, I completely stopped reading any of the books in our school library although I still "borrowed" to keep them happy. Instead I started saving up and buying the books. Today, aged 40, I've got 531 Doctor Who books and I'm still reading them.

You should never attempt to block the special interest unless it's clearly dangerous. Examples of dangerous special interests I've observed in the aspergers community include; guns, toilets/feces, pornography, extreme religion and self mutilation. I get the feeling that parents would complain less about their child's extreme interest in a trivial thing, like stamps, if they knew what alternatives were available.

The way forward with special interests is to find ways to tie it into your child's schoolwork. This can range from including it in maths, history and english work to offering it as rewards for completed work. The scope will change considerably depending upon the interests in question - hopefully your child's interests will be wide enough to have a lot of dimensions you can exploit.

Being Different
There are a lot of academic advantages to being different many of which come out in creative works. There's a myth that aspies aren't creative which is, I think, a misinterpretation of the aspie lack of shared creative-play with other children.

Aspies are very capable in terms of general creativity and imagination. This can come through obviously in stories, poetry and artwork. It also comes across much less obviously in other areas. For some aspies, creativity can occur in mathematics, where complex patterns take on a meaning of their own. Sometimes it's in mechanics, electronics or other disciplines.

It's important to remember that just because your child isn't doing things "the right way", it doesn't mean that they're doing them "the wrong way". It's simply a case of doing things differently. If it weren't for aspies doing things differently, we wouldn't have the plethora of scientific discoveries and innovation made by (suspected) apies such as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

There's some good lists of famous people with suspected aspergers here and here.

17 comments:

themadandwild said...

Excellent post.

azcraigrr said...

Thanks for the great post - very enlightening. I always enjoy your open, honest articles (probably should comment more).

Anne Marie said...

For the most part, I agree with you, although I haven't done any research on this myself, that Aspies probably have the same IQs as NTs. Meaning, maybe it's a myth that we are all of us geniuses.

However, I believe that we have a special niche ("interest") and if we find that and make it our career, we will excel and even appear to be brilliant in that area.

Einstein was brilliant in his area, but he got lost and even sat on a street corner in New York once and cried because he couldn't find his way home.

I'm brilliant at words. I win most of my cases. Math baffles me, I get lost all the time, and I don't recognize my own clients.

I don't think IQ tests are good measuring sticks for people with Asperger's, and I am now going to contradict what I said above:

Maybe we ARE geniuses, all of us Aspies, but in our own little areas of interest.

Gavin Bollard said...

Anne Marie,
You're not actually contradicting anything. I guess I was trying to say that our ability to focus on our special interests lift us well above the others in our field.

And I think that applies to all aspies.

My son is behind the rest of his class in many subjects and has a lot of trouble with spelling and memory.

His current special interest is Star Wars Battlefields (a playstation game). He's worked out hundreds of moves even though he can't read the manual. He's figured out the names and purposes of various troopers, leaders and vehicles - and he knows the names of all the planets for which there is a battlefield.

He's even been able to design and replicate many of the vehicles using only standard lego bricks. It's quite an achievement.

I'm not suggesting that this particular savant-like ability will do him any good in real life but the combination of strong focus and special interest will almost always result in expertise.

Eponine said...

Just a quick note on comorbids - according to the DSM-IV-TR, schizophrenia and ADD/ADHD actually cannot be diagnosed alongside a PDD. Does this mean they don't occur together? No. They do, and it doesn't stop them from getting diagnosed as such either. I find it odd the way the DSM phrases it. From what I hear, though, this is going to change in the DSM-V, to allow for those particular comorbids.

Gavin Bollard said...

Eponine,

Your point is correct under DSM IV.

What complicates things is the fact that comorbidity actually has two (nearly opposite) definitions;

1. A completely unrelated condition
2. A condition caused by or related to...

The first is the more widely accepted definition.

Both definitions relate to extra conditions and differ only in their relationship to the existing condition.

If we accept the first definition, then it's saying that for ADHD to be considered a comorbid of Aspergers, the condition would have to be completely unrelated. It's obviously not the case. It's highly unlikely that any two similar neurological conditions are entirely unrelated.

In that sense, I support the DSM IV's statement.

The problem is that it makes the concept of comorbidity irrelevant. If we can't accept that comorbid conditions include a relationship then the only time we can use the word with any authority would be times when we don't need to use it. For example; to describe a person with both Aspergers and a broken arm.

Such a statement would be of very limited value.

I tend to prefer the second definition of comorbidity because I don't think you can rule out any links between conditions entirely. Such links vary considerably from one person to another and according to a variety of genetic and environmental factors.

I've always treated comorbidity as a co-condition with probable links.

There are a lot of things wrong with the DSM IV which I'm hoping will be corrected in V. The definition of comorbidity is one of them.

Catana said...

There are a lot of good points here, even if you did get almost completely away from the original topic -- aspie genius. For the record, it doesn't matter whether you're an aspie or an NT -- high IQ does not mean you're a genius. Sorry, but the label of genius is reserved for people with extraordinary accomplishments. That leaves out all gifted children, no matter how smart they may be. It also leaves out virtually all aspies, as well as almost all NTs. Genius is extremely rare, so please, let's drop the claim for aspies. It just makes us look like idiots who are trying to boost our image.

"Aspies have quite restricted interests..." Change that to "many" aspies and you'll be correct. Some of us have very extensive interests.

Rachel said...

Hi Gavin,

Great article. A few comments:

1. One of the things that has an impact on our ability to learn, whether in school or on the job, is the amount of stress our nervous systems are under. For people like me, with very over-responsive systems, it can be difficult to focus and to integrate information. That may account for why so many of us are brilliant in some areas, but behind in others. It also may explain why we sometimes get hooked on detail, rather than being able to integrate information: the details allows us to focus when we're overstimulated.

2. There are many ways to measure intelligence, a (timed) IQ test being only one of them. So far, the Aspies with whom I've come into contact are all brilliant at something. I don't mean that they're geniuses, but that there is an intelligence there that is fundamentally different from the intelligence of others. Perhaps it's simply that our minds have to work so hard at making sense of the world that there is a certain sharpness to our thinking that is different from that of your average person.

3. I really enjoyed your list of the steps you go through before responding, and how you keep people from giving up and going away. For much of my life, the cover for my slowness of comprehension/response to verbal information was to talk with great intensity and speed in order to take over the conversation and not be left looking "dumb." Alas, I'm now too old to push myself like that, so I'm beginning to realize just how slow on the uptake I am. It's very hard on my poor ego, but I try to remember that it's a processing difficulty, not a question of intelligence.

Shane Lowry said...

As the father of two very young kids I found the article a great read.

It's probably too young to tell if they have aspies or not, but the fostering of your children's interests is always a good idea and a great way to help all kids learn.

Thanks.

Shane

Kavon said...

This post was very helpful. Until a few months ago I always thought that Aspies were all really smart, but a friends recent diagnosis changed that for me. I have 1 friend with AS who is really smart at computer science and does good grade wise in school. My other friend, who just got diagnosed, has a little more trouble in school. This post, as all of yours, was very enlightening to me.

Alison said...

Hello,

Thank you for another great post. Regarding your list of steps followed before responding to a question, specifically "Pass 2: Re-think and interpret to analyse gaps and "guess words"-- I wanted to include auditory processing difficulties as an additional possible reason for this step as well. I often only hear parts of sentences or miss a few key words, and have to do the same thing, even though my hearing is fine.
I also agree with Catana that some Aspies do have extensive interests-- this has been my experience.

e said...

I have a lot of trouble with math word problems. I must reduce them to just facts first, completely getting rid of the scenario, all the while getting pannicked and angry over the stupidity of how the math problem was presented. I also have a great deal of difficulty with regular questions that are nested or complex. In order to answer them, I have to break it all down into individual questions or facts. I consider myself good at logic but I must always break a problem down into the smallest most basic bits and then reassemble in a way that makes sense to me.

I am glad you wrote this :

"Aspies have quite restricted interests and it's quite difficult for us to concentrate on things outside of that sphere of interest. It's not rudeness, it's a built-in factor. Just as the male brain allegedly thinks about sex every 7 seconds, so to our aspie brains are constantly flicking back to our special interests whether we like it or not. It's like trying to watch TV with someone who keeps "checking another channel" every few minutes. It's amazing that we can concentrate on anything other than our special interests."

I was relieved to see it worded that way by someone else. I think of this when I read something about Aspies being self-centered, as if it is a matter of choosing to block out anything that isn't about me. It just isn't like that. I've been back to college 3 or 4 different times. I can't seem to get a degree because the general classes are too hard, too foreign and don't stick to me. I've majored in music ed, computer programming and psychology, acing all the courses for the major but failing miserably at anything else.

Meetings - At work, we recently had 2 days of workshops and 2 days of staff meetings. I sat through them playing games on my iTouch. I took some ribbing for it, especially when my supervisor walked in and I managed to hide it. I tried to convince the "ribber" that it was the only way I could pay attention. (to be even more honest, it was the only way I could sit there for 6 hrs and not go completely berserk). Anyway, I too, have to do something else, even if it is only doodling, to pay attention. I really think I retain far more than I would if the speaker had my undivided attention. When I do that, even if everything is heard, rarely is anything retained or even understood.

Anonymous said...

it's interesting, about the schizophrenia and ADHD co-morbids. i've gone through periods of very odd beliefs--but i always assumed ASD and schizophrenia were mutually exclusive.

i guess that explains John Nash also. :) before he began having psychotic breaks--at least as depicted in "A Beautiful Mind"---he seemed extremely AS to me (down to the stim-like hand gestures.)

it's another interesting set of questions to think about. thank you for the article and blog.

Anonymous said...

What's your opinion about Son Rise's approach to restrictive interests and stims? (which is to join in and try to build from them in order to teach social skills?

TheCurs said...

A very insightful post. Unfortunately Autism is still massively misunderstood by so many and, in my view, the myth of the 'Aspie Genius'is perhaps the most dangerous of all. An individuals intelligence or IQ score actually tells you very little in regards to whether or not that person could have Asperger's, to be honest it tells you nothing. If it did then a basic IQ test would surely be prerequisite when seeking a diagnosis. I'm a 37 year old male and was diagnosed with AS 5 years ago. My DX consisted of 3 appointments with a Clinical Psychologist, two of which I attended personally along with my mum, my brother and aunt and one in which my mother went on her own to discuss my behaviour, how I related to others etc. during very early childhood. During the two interviews I attended I was asked mainly about how I relate to others now, my social difficulties, my sensitivity to noise, my intense absorbtion in my special interestsm, how I process written and verbal information, how when within groups of people, even sometimes if I know the people quite well, I will often feel extremely anxious and self-concious and withdraw into myself and only speak if I absolutely have to. Basically, how clever I may or may not be was never bought up because Aspies can crop up right along the intellectual scale, just like NT's do. Also just how accurate are IQ tests anyway. I did one online shortly after getting my DX and scored 130 and yet I need family members to help explain things like bank statements to me. Anyway I'm getting off track a bit. I just want to say I also find the lists of supposed historical Aspies very misleading. When you consider that people on the Autistic Spectrum only make up a very small percentage of the general worlds population, the liklehood that few, if any of the names on these list had Asperger's I would say was very low. Especially if these people are being considered based upon their intelligence over any possible actual, y'know, Asperger symptoms.

Anonymous said...

A very insightful post. Unfortunately Autism is still massively misunderstood by so many and, in my view, the myth of the 'Aspie Genius'is perhaps the most dangerous of all. An individuals intelligence or IQ score actually tells you very little in regards to whether or not that person could have Asperger's, to be honest it tells you nothing. If it did then a basic IQ test would surely be prerequisite when seeking a diagnosis. I'm a 37 year old male and was diagnosed with AS 5 years ago. My DX consisted of 3 appointments with a Clinical Psychologist, two of which I attended personally along with my mum, my brother and aunt and one in which my mother went on her own to discuss my behaviour, how I related to others etc. during very early childhood. During the two interviews I attended I was asked mainly about how I relate to others now, my social difficulties, my sensitivity to noise, my intense absorbtion in my special interestsm, how I process written and verbal information, how when within groups of people, even sometimes if I know the people quite well, I will often feel extremely anxious and self-concious and withdraw into myself and only speak if I absolutely have to. Basically, how clever I may or may not be was never bought up because Aspies can crop up right along the intellectual scale, just like NT's do. Also just how accurate are IQ tests anyway. I did one online shortly after getting my DX and scored 130 and yet I need family members to help explain things like bank statements to me. Anyway I'm getting off track a bit. I just want to say I also find the lists of supposed historical Aspies very misleading. When you consider that people on the Autistic Spectrum only make up a very small percentage of the general worlds population, the liklehood that few, if any of the names on these list had Asperger's I would say was very low. Especially if these people are being considered based upon their intelligence over any possible actual, y'know, Asperger symptoms.

Dan said...

I love puzzles, and one of my great pleasures is sitting down to do the puzzles page of the daily newspaper each day. I also have enjoyed doing IQ tests, and remember smiling my way through my first when I was in first grade - in hindsight it is clear that I had been taken out to do the test because I was already identified as "a bit different". I like doing them, and I do them very well.

I don't think that being good at puzzles, which is essentially all an IQ test is, measures "genius" though, nor actually means very much other than "Dan is good at puzzles". My brother, who is autistic, is not good at puzzles, but he has truly amazing ability in other areas. I guess we all have gifts of our own, though perhaps aspies and auties are more specialised.