The genetic basis of … everything (or, Maybe we’re all autistic)

Maybe it’s because I’ve been around autism for so long now, but I can’t understand why anyone would find it so surprising that a possible “cause” of autism is a complex interaction of genes. Several recent stories (such as those documented by Kristina Chew and Mike Stanton) have made this point as if it is some new discovery. Granted, it may have only recently been scientifically validated, but this one seems to me to be common sense.

You might as well ask questions like, “What is the cause of introversion? Extroversion? Natural athletic ability?”

I can hear many people saying something along the lines of, “But those ‘conditions’ are normal.” Are they? I mean, in a statistical sense, are they really ‘normal’? I would say no.

If you look at the introvert/extrovert question, I would guess (yes, I’m guessing, no science here) the bell curve of this spectrum would have a few at either end and the rest (you guessed it) within two standard deviations of the mean. Same for athletic abilities.

If we look at autism in this way, as a spectrum across all people (and not just those we currently refer to as autistic), I propose that we might see something similar. On the left side of the bell curve, you would have those that are very non-autistic, the incredibly sociable communicative, etc etc. On the right side, you would have those that are very autistic (what we now simply call autistic). And in the middle, within two standard deviations, would be the vast majority of us showing our mix of autistic and non-autistic traits.

2 thoughts on “The genetic basis of … everything (or, Maybe we’re all autistic)

  1. John Elder Robison

    I think you are exactly right about this:

    If we look at autism in this way, as a spectrum across all people (and not just those we currently refer to as autistic), I propose that we might see something similar. On the left side of the bell curve, you would have those that are very non-autistic, the incredibly sociable communicative, etc etc. On the right side, you would have those that are very autistic (what we now simply call autistic). And in the middle, within two standard deviations, would be the vast majority of us showing our mix of autistic and non-autistic traits.

    I refer to those people who exhibit “some” traits of autism as proto-Aspergians. In my experience, many, many engineers adn scientists fall into that category

    Reply
  2. Brett Post author

    John,

    As an engineer myself, I can confirm your observation. (I once commented in response to the question “where are all the autistic adults?” – “Just come to work with me, I’ll show you quite a few of them.”)

    Interestingly, I came across this story, comparing video game addiction and Asperger’s, in which one of the study authors has the following to say:

    “The thinking in the field is that there is a scale along which people, even those considered to be ‘normal,’ can be placed upon,” said Charlton in a statement. “And that people such as engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists are nearer to the non-empathizing, systemizing, end of the spectrum, with people with Aspergers syndrome even further along again.”

    I’ll reserve judgment on the paper itself until I’ve had a chance to read it, but I’m not overly optimistic based on the referenced story. (Of course, I may be a bit biased because of my past experiences with video games and gamers.)

    Thanks to Kristina Chew for pointing out the study.

    Reply

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