An MSNBC interview with Temple Grandin, the animal behaviorist whose experience with autism is the subject of an upcoming biopic, shed light not only on the disorder but on social — and antisocial — life as we know it.
In an interview with MSNBC's Joan Raymond, Grandin offers some possible explanations for the rise in autism. Though the original study linking vaccines to autism has been widely discredited and now officially retracted, Grandin does say "I think there's something going on with some type of environmental contaminant." She adds, "I think we are going to be hearing more about epigenetics and autism [...] How things like toxins and diet and other things turn on the switches that regulate how certain genes are expressed." Grandin also has some surprising recommendations for teaching autistic kids. Like many experts, she says "one-on-one interaction" early in childhood is key, but she also suggests, "teach these kids manners." She explains,
I was raised in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and manners were drilled into me. I see kids [on the spectrum] today that have no manners. That's going to hurt them. You can't punish a child who is acting out because of sensory overload. But it's unacceptable to see kids throwing things and slapping people. I see kids with Asperger's [a mild form of autism] who can't hold a job because they are constantly late. Teach kids to use an alarm clock. This is common sense and sometimes we forget about common sense. Autism is used too much as an excuse for bad behavior.
While "manners" might seem beside the point to parents of kids with the most severe form of autism, it's interesting that Grandin is tough on those with less severe manifestations. In an age when armchair diagnoses of Asperger's have become common, it's refreshing to hear someone who has personal experience with spectrum disorders say that they're not an excuse for hurting others. But while Grandin thinks those who can do so should learn to live in the neurotypical world, she clearly thinks this world has something to learn from them. She says,
I believe there's a point where mild autistic traits are just normal human variation. Mild autism can give you a genius like Einstein. If you have severe autism, you could remain nonverbal. You don't want people to be on the severe end of the spectrum. But if you got rid of all the autism genetics, you wouldn't have science or art. All you would have is a bunch of social ‘yak yaks.'
Others have speculated that autism is an extreme form of a "systemizing" drive that helps produce great science, but the connection Grandin draws with art is less common. Still, many artistic processes are lonely ones, and it's possible that a world full of extroverts would have fewer people willing to closet themselves with a painting, a novel, or a symphony. I don't think Grandin intends to dismiss all neurotypical people as "social 'yak yaks'" — rather, she may be making the point that the genes that cause autism in some may operate to some degree in other people as well, mitigating social impulses and perhaps conferring other skills in their place.
Salon advice columnist Cary Tennis has said that we live in an extrovert's world, and it's true that people are often judged by their ability to relate to others. As much as autism or Asperger's may have become, to some extent, an "excuse," those who don't say the right things or smile at the right times, who don't engage in what Grandin calls "chit-chat," are still stigmatized. "Social skills" sometimes seem elevated almost to the level of morality, and being well-liked can become a proxy for being good. Maybe it's a jaundiced view left over from an awkward adolescence, but it sometimes seems to me that we live under the tyranny of the social.
Humans are gregarious, and it's not odd that we often judge each other based on our behavior in groups. But Grandin's lesson may be that the social self isn't the only self, that the mind — and not just the autistic mind — has power and value not easily expressed in conversation. Grandin is right that humans display enormous variation, and it's not only people on the autism spectrum who sometimes feel, as Grandin once described herself, like "an anthropologist on Mars." Is this feeling of alienation linked to greater gifts, to scientific and artistic prowess? It's hard to say, and as a former weird kid I'm always loath to link outsiderness with superiority. But I do believe that while ease in the social world is a skill, it's not a moral virtue, and those who don't possess it may have plenty of other things to offer. Grandin's right that better treatment for severe autism would be a wonderful boon to sufferers and their families — and she herself benefits from antidepressants for her panic attacks. But she's also right that we seek to scrub out "human variation" at our peril.