The Chronicle Review

Autism as Academic Paradigm

July 13, 2009

Thinking back on history, maybe you've wondered how it was that American colleges and universities could ever have contributed to racist discourse. But Princeton and many other institutions kept out Jews, and "academic" defenses of slavery, segregation, and eugenics were commonplace until broader social changes rendered such views unacceptable.

The sad truth is that dehumanizing ideologies are still with us in the modern university, although they take very different forms. Prime examples include the unacceptable ways we sometimes talk and think about the autism spectrum.

A few years ago, Michael L. Ganz, who teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health, published an essay titled "Costs of Autism in the United States." Nowhere in the essay does he consider whether autistic people have brought benefits to the human race. Can you imagine a comparable essay titled: "Costs of Native Americans"? Ganz might think that autism is strictly a disease, but he never mentions or rebuts the fact that a great number of autistics reject this view and find it insulting.

David Bainbridge is a veterinary anatomist at the University of Cambridge. In 2008 he published a book with Harvard University Press, Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: A Fantastic Journey Through Your Brain. In the book he claimed that autistics were lacking in the quality of human alertness, and he compared their cognitive faculties unfavorably with those of brain-damaged monkeys. Deborah R. Barnbaum, a philosopher at Kent State University, wrote a book (ironically titled The Ethics of Autism, Indiana University Press, 2008) pondering the philosophical implications of the supposed fact that autistics cannot understand the mental lives of other people; yet this result has not held up in experiments and it also could be refuted by a few simple conversations with autistic people.

The point is not to focus blame on these particular individuals, as they have soaked up common ideas, attitudes, and presuppositions from a broader setting. It's quite possible that these writers are all "nice people" in the usual sense, but still they have not developed any sense of revulsion or hesitancy at such portraits of other human beings. The sorry truth is that until we are made very consciously aware of the implications of our words, it is all too easy to slip into bad habits and harmful rhetoric, even in politically correct 2009.

I've cited some of the more obvious examples, but the underlying biases are much more deeply rooted. A lot of people at colleges are aware of dealing with autism (and Asperger's syndrome; I will refer generally to the autism spectrum) in their "special needs" programs. The more complex reality is that there is a lot more autism in higher education than most of us realize. It's not just "special needs" students but also our valedictorians, our faculty members, and yes —sometimes —our administrators.

That last sentence is not some kind of cheap laugh line about the many dysfunctional features of higher education. Autism is often described as a disease or a plague, but when it comes to the American college or university, autism is often a competitive advantage rather than a problem to be solved. One reason American academe is so strong is because it mobilizes the strengths and talents of people on the autistic spectrum so effectively. In spite of some of the harmful rhetoric, the on-the-ground reality is that autistics have been very good for colleges, and colleges have been very good for autistics.

The economist and Nobel laureate Vernon L. Smith, a former colleague of mine, is one of the best-known examples of a high achiever on the autism spectrum. Vernon, in Discovery: A Memoir, attributes his extreme focus, his attention to detail, and his scholarly persistence to his connections to the autism spectrum. Richard Borcherds, winner of the 1998 Fields Medal in mathematics, has been diagnosed as having Asperger's. Temple Grandin, who teaches animal science at Colorado State University, is a brilliant autistic woman whose ideas have revolutionized how American slaughterhouses treat animals. There are very likely many more examples, albeit unrecognized ones. Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism researcher at the University of Cambridge, argues that autistic high achievers are far more common than most people realize, most of all in mathematics and engineering. He stresses systematizing behavior as an important cognitive strength of autistics.

In spite of some of the common rhetoric, each year specialists are teaching us more about the cognitive strengths of the autism spectrum. In the 1960s, it was a common view that, except for a few savants, most autistic people were intellectually disabled ("mentally retarded" was the less than felicitous term), and to some extent this stereotype persists today. But a growing body of work pinpoints areas where autistics outperform nonautistics.

A partial list notes that autistics have, on average, superior pitch perception and other musical abilities, they are better at noticing details in patterns, they have better visual acuity, they are less likely to be fooled by optical illusions, they are more likely to fit some canons of economic rationality, they solve many puzzles at a much faster rate, and they are less likely to have false memories of particular kinds. Autistics also have, to varying degrees, strong or even extreme abilities to memorize, perform operations with codes and ciphers, perform calculations in their head, or excel in many other specialized cognitive tasks. The savants, while they are outliers, also reflect cognitive strengths found in autistics more generally. A recent investigation found, with conservative methods, that about one-third of autistics may have exceptional skills or savantlike abilities.

Autistic people usually have a superior desire and talent for assembling and ordering information. Especially when they are given appropriate access to opportunities and materials, autistics live the ideal of self-education, often to an extreme. In my new book, Create Your Own Economy, I refer to autistics as the "infovores" of modern society and I argue that along many dimensions we as a society are working hard to mimic their abilities at ordering and processing information. Autism is a topic that anyone interested in education should be reading and thinking about.

It turns out that the American university is an environment especially conducive to autistics. Many autistics are disadvantaged or overwhelmed by processing particular stimuli from the outside world and thus are subject to perceptual overload as a result. For some autistics, that is debilitating, but for many others it is either manageable or a problem they can work around. The result is that many autistics prefer stable environments, the ability to choose their own hours and work at home, and the ability to work on focused projects for long periods of time.

Does that sound familiar? The modern college or university is often ideal or at least relatively good at providing those kinds of environments. While there is plenty of discrimination against autistics, most people in American universities are so blind to the notion of high-achieving autistics that one prejudice cancels out the other, to the benefit of many of the autistics in universities.

Autistics also tend to be extremely good at a subset of cognitive tasks and markedly poor or impaired at others; they are the ultimate beneficiaries from Adam Smith's notion of the division of labor. Academic specialization makes it easier for such people to win fame.

I don't want to push you too much in the direction of stereotypes such as "the absent-minded professor." Some people fitting that profile may well be on the autism spectrum, but the spectrum also includes beautiful women with charming smiles, enthusiastic extroverts, people who cannot produce meaningful speech, and people who make very clear and effective public speeches from memory alone. Tony Attwood, an Australian psychologist with extensive diagnostic experience, believes that acting is a profession well-represented on the autistic spectrum. The point is not to convince you of any single profile of autistics or to replace your old stereotypes with new ones. Rather, we keep on learning that the diversity of autistics is greater than we used to think.

There is no doubt that many autistic people have very troubled lives and are unable to move into positions of high achievement or even contend for them. Problems, such as very obvious social atypicalities, acquired social anxiety, or various perceptual hypersensitivities —found among many but by no means all autistics —may hamper their ability to obtain ordinary jobs or rise in social status.

Current prejudices are based on at least two mistakes. First, too often autism is defined as a series of impairments or life failures, thereby ruling out high achievers. It is more scientific and also more ethical to have a broader definition of autism, based on differing and atypical methods for processing information and other cognitive and biologically defined markers. That way we do not label autistics as necessary failures, but rather we recognize a great diversity of outcomes including successes.

Second, diagnosed autistics are very often those people who encounter major problems in life. Most higher-status autistics don't ever show up for diagnosis or intervention, and many of them have no great need for it or no real awareness of it, or, even if they are having difficulties, they fear the stigma of a diagnosis. Common samples of autistics, as you find studied in a typical research paper, show many more problems, and many fewer successes, than is most likely the case in a true population sample of autistics. In other words, there is enormous selection bias. Research on autism is only starting to confront that problem.

We're also learning that a lot of the stereotypes about autistics are false or at least misleading. It's been suggested, for instance, that autistics don't care much about other people, or that autistics lack genuine emotions or are incapable of empathy. The more likely truth is that autistics and nonautistics do not always understand each other very well. It's odd that the people who make this charge so often, in the very act of doing so, fail to show much empathy for autistics or to recognize their rich emotional lives. Even when the cognitive capabilities of autistics are recognized —most commonly in the cases of savants —it is too often accompanied by a clichéd and inaccurate picture of a cold, robotic, or less than human personality.

The relevance of the autism spectrum for higher education isn't just about particular individuals on the autistic spectrum. The very nature of higher education shows how much we, often without knowing it, hold up autistic cognitive profiles as a partial educational ideal. In "special needs" education, there is plenty of effort to teach the skills of the nonautistic to the autistic, but in the regular classroom we are often doing the opposite. I view higher (and lower) education as teaching people to be more autistic in many of their basic cognitive skills. Again, some key cognitive features of autism are the ability, and desire, to process lots of information across widely different scales, from tiny details to overarching structures; focus and the mental ordering of that information; a relatively high degree of scientific objectivity; and the presence of some highly specialized cognitive strengths, even if they are accompanied by some areas of poor performance. To an educator a lot of that list ought to sound pretty good.

Another way of putting it is to note that all students are special-needs students requiring lots of help. The nonautistic students do not represent some ideal point that everyone is striving to attain, but rather both autistic and nonautistic students are trying to learn the specialized skills of the other group, as well as perfecting their own skills.

When it comes to public and academic discourse, it's not just our understanding of autism that is up for grabs. Human beings experience a variety of neurodevelopmental paths, with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) as another prominent example. We need to be careful about what we label as a disorder. When it comes to ADHD, for instance, there is growing evidence that ADHD individuals achieve very good outcomes by normal social standards. The popular-culture stereotype is of an ADHD (often "ADD") person superficially clicking from one channel or Web site to the next. An alternative vision is that many ADHD individuals adapt and end up using their cognitive profile to propel themselves from learning one piece of information to the next, and in fact end up better educated and maybe better situated to deal with the social world as well. Similarly, one study found that dyslexic people made better entrepreneurs on average, because they are used to the idea of having to delegate some tasks rather than trying to micromanage everything.

In many areas of human neurodiversity, including autism, we still don't know the answers to many basic questions. There is still not even agreement on the basic definitions of autism, Asperger's, and related concepts. In the meantime we are applying lots of stereotypes and negative descriptions to autistics that we would not dream of using to describe racial or ethnic groups. It's high time that colleges and universities got out in the lead to fight these common prejudices. The rhetoric coming out of higher education needs to match up to the reality of higher education as a common avocation for autistic people.

We are still searching for appropriate metaphors and language to describe and explain human neurodiversity. For instance, we've moved beyond viewing autism as the result of "refrigerator mothers" —cold, distant —as was most visibly suggested by Bruno Bettelheim in the 1960s. We're just starting to move beyond defining it as a "series of impairments." If we call autism a "disorder," is that being humane and offering sympathy and aid, or is it judgmental in a way that stereotypes, lowers expectations, and ignores variation in outcomes?

But if it is not correct to speak of a disorder, what exactly is the sensible language and what are the accompanying conceptual frames? The commonly heard distinction between "high functioning" and "low functioning" ignores extreme variations in the skills of the autistic individual, and it also seems to classify a group of human beings as somehow unfit. When it comes to discourse on the autism spectrum, we should be humane, respect human difference and individuality, respect the need for possible assistance, and recognize the diversity within the spectrum, and all that without assuming that nonautistic ways of viewing the world are always the right ones.

The common public perception is that autism is about sick or diseased children, and it is up to the academic community to help correct that picture. If we look at the data, it seems easy to find lots of autistic children yet relatively hard, at least by the standards of common public perception, to find a commensurate number of autistic adults. For instance a typical figure suggests that the United States has about 500,000 autistic children, for a prevalence in the range of 1 in 150. That would mean that the United States also has 1.5 million autistic adults. (Those numbers are very rough approximations and still being debated.)

My belief is that the United States does in fact have more than one million autistic adults. But if there are so many autistic adults, the obvious question is: Where are they? Who are they? Are they all locked up in institutions? It is sometimes suggested that there must be a very recent "epidemic" of autism. But the epidemiological measurements of autism prevalence —if we acknowledge deliberate changes in diagnostic criteria, awareness, service availability, case-finding methods, and so on over time —do not indicate large unexplained increases. You could argue for a gradual increase in the rate of autism, as existing evidence cannot rule out all changes (I think the rate is more likely constant over time), but still the growth would be so incremental that, again, a sensible estimate would be more than a million autistic adults in the United States.

It's a little tricky to talk or write about the autistics who may work in your institution. If you work at a college or university, there is a good chance you are interacting with people on the autism spectrum on a very regular basis. Maybe the reaction of the reader is to draw up a mental list of people in the workplace and start applying various stereotypes to them. Maybe you'll be on the lookout at the next dean's meeting for people who exhibit "autistic traits" and then gossip about those perceptions to your friends.

That's human nature, but I'm suggesting an alternative tack. Embrace individualism. Question your stereotypes. Maybe even look in the mirror. When you're done, it's likely that you'll see far more talent, in far more unorthodox varieties, than you expected.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University who blogs at and writes for The New York Times, Money, and other publications. This essay is adapted from his new book from Dutton, Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World.