Intelligence, Autism, and Genius

Albert Einstein

Image via Wikipedia

Intelligence is a tricky thing to measure, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest my husband and I do pretty well – we both have postgraduate degrees, have both been lecturers, my IQ is around the mid 130’s and my husband is about 145. So we had an expectation that our children would fare well in this area too. After we found out our eldest son was autistic, we’d joke with each other that we’d overshot the mark, since autism is often conflated with genius. But what was a passing joke between us as parents, is taken quite seriously by others, as a reason to see autism as a wonderful condition to be celebrated rather than “fought”.

In fact some people appear to view autism as a requisite for genius, because it tends to mean the affected brain will focus (overly) intently on a particular subject, and will view the world in a different light than us “normal” people do. It’s common to attempt to characterise past and current geniuses as autistic (Einstein, Bill Gates). In turn, people who believe this often think we shouldn’t try to fix or change autistic people, in part because doing so would deprive the world of their genius, and perhaps of genius in general.

While it’s true that being autistic doesn’t automatically make you below average intelligence, neither does it make you a genius. Autistic people sit across the whole range of intelligence, and intelligence is a reliable marker for how well an autistic person will fare in their life. But neither is autism a requisite for being a genius – people who aren’t afflicted can also have off-the-chart levels of intelligence, and create inventions and discover knowledge that makes the world a better place to live.

The attempt that some people make to characterise all genius as containing some level of autism have made the error of thinking that intense focus is an exclusively autistic trait; that the lack of social skills and personal hygiene that often go along with dedication to a topic, are evidence of autism rather than just a supremely focused person who has chosen priorities for their life. Otherwise you might as well call every slob who would rather play computer games in their pyjamas all day, than go to work or school, autistic.

These errors in reasoning about the link between autism and genius, in part comes about because of thinking about autism in terms of “autistic traits”, rather than as a clearly defined condition that some people have, and other people do not have. Tests like the Autism Quotient test lend people to think of autism as something totally normal people carry around to some extent – so blurring the boundaries of the condition that saying someone is diagnosed as being autistic gets treated as just an extreme type of personality rather than a seriously disabling condition. These errors are assisted by the fact that the typical autistic person looks just like anyone else – they don’t have distinct facial or physical features such as children with Downs Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

It is not harmless musings when people are posthumously diagnosed as autistic due to their genius. It has the effect I’ve referred to above of blurring the boundaries of a very serious condition, but it also can seriously offend the surviving family members who aren’t exactly keen on their relative being used for other people’s agendas. These posthumous diagnoses classically rely on choosing the traits that fit an autistic person, and totally ignoring those that don’t, and are usually gleaned from biographies, which again are written second-hand  and with a particular lean in mind: Biographers are more likely to include and group together outrageous behaviours of their subjects, than use and refer to the mundane things we all do and achieve everyday – the things that mark us out as less likely to be autistic. This can equally be true of autobiographies.

While I understand the desire to make autistic people feel appreciated and wanted in society at large, I do not think this is best done by the means and poor reasoning used by people who run autism and genius together in the ways I’ve spoken about in this post. Autism is a hugely varied condition – it is after all, called a spectrum disorder. To do all autistic people justice – to get each one the help they need to live as fulfilling lives as possible – we need to deal with the truths and realities of autism, which is often a seriously disabling condition.

Autism is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for genius.

***

Some excellent posts by other people touching on topics raised here:

Undiagnosing Gates, Jefferson and Einstein” by Jonathan Mitchell (Autism’s Gadfly)

Diagnosing Historical Figures: Biblical Autism” and a good piece about the Autism Quotient test, by Autism Jabberwocky

And a more recent example of posthumous diagnosis being controversial, disputed and harmful, here re Janet Frame.

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