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Autism and extraordinary ability

by Ivan Seeking
Tags: ability, autism, extraordinary
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Ivan Seeking
Apr17-09, 03:23 PM
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... study published this week by Patricia Howlin of King’s College, London, reinforces this point. It suggests that as many as 30% of autistic people have some sort of savant-like capability in areas such as calculation or music. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that some of the symptoms associated with autism, including poor communication skills and an obsession with detail, are also exhibited by many creative types, particularly in the fields of science, engineering, music, drawing and painting. Indeed, there is now a cottage industry in re-interpreting the lives of geniuses in the context of suggestions that they might belong, or have belonged, on the “autistic spectrum”, as the range of syndromes that include autistic symptoms is now dubbed...
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Apr17-09, 10:09 PM
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Malcolm Gladwell, in a book called “Outliers” which collated research done on outstanding people, suggested that anyone could become an expert in anything by practising for 10,000 hours. It would not be hard for an autistic individual to clock up that level of practice for the sort of skills, such as mathematical puzzles, that many neurotypicals would rapidly give up on.
Indeed, this was born out in an experiment done about 20 years ago involving a mediocre math student who agreed to completely immerse himself in math for some extended period (a month, at least IIRC). At some point he crossed a remarkable threshold and became able to perform calendar calculations and other feats thought only to be possible for autistic savants.

There are, however, examples of people who seem very neurotypical indeed achieving savant-like skills through sheer diligence. Probably the most famous is that of London taxi drivers, who must master the Knowledge—ie, the location of 25,000 streets, and the quickest ways between them—to qualify for a licence.

The expert here is Eleanor Maguire of University College, London, who famously showed a few years ago that the shape of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in long-term learning, changes in London cabbies. Dr Maguire and her team have now turned their attention to how cabbies learn the Knowledge.

The prodigious geographical knowledge of the average cabbie is, indeed, savant-like. But Dr Maguire recently found that it comes at a cost. Cabbies, on average, are worse than random control subjects and—horror—also worse than bus drivers, at memory tests such as word-pairing. Surprisingly, that is also true of their general spatial memory. Nothing comes for nothing, it seems, and genius has its price.
In chapter 13 of Musicophilia Oliver Sacks discusses the unusually heightened musical abilities of blind people. In chapter 14, though, he discusses the unusually heightened musical abilities of people with synesthesia. Then, in chapter 18 he discusses the unusually heightened musical abilities of people with Tourette's Syndrome.

What is clear from all this (from the experiences of the mediocre math student, through the memory skills of London cabbies, and the musical abilities of the blind, synesthetic, and touretters) is that autism is not the touchstone of extraordinary abilities: any condition or circumstance that causes a person to focus in a sustained, deliberate, exclusive way on a particular activity will lead to them becoming more and more skilled at that activity.

The average person can, but simply will not, cut so many other things out of their life that they are able to authentically excel in one thing. (I should probably turn that around: the average person can't cut many basic things out of their life: earning a living, elementary social interactions, ordinary daily maintenance of person and property, preclude single minded, obsessive focus on skills like the mental calculation of calendar dates, instantaneous counting of large numbers of objects, or the recall of every word they've ever read.) But cutting all those other things out is a choice that autistic people never have to begin with: they can't make sense of them, and focus, by default, on things they can grasp, and those things become their world.

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