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April 30, 2004

More Elsewhere

Dear Friedrich --

* I just learned that this year is the centennial of the birth of the roguish and great Fats Waller (1904-1943). He's certainly one of my favorite American entertainers; I can't think of many artists from any era whose work puts as big a smile on my face. Those who haven't yet treated themselves to Fats' fab and happy music might think of starting with this CD here. If tracks like "Honeysuckle Rose" and "The Joint is Jumpin'" don't raise your spirits, well, then you might as well give up now because you're already dead. Classic Fats line: "One never knows, do one?"

* I found this Amy Harmon piece here for the NYTimes about Asperger's Syndrome fascinating. Asperger's, short version, is high-functioning autism. People with it are often very bright, and tend to develop intense if narrow interests. But they also seem to have a hard time picking up nonverbal signals -- they're emotionally tone-deaf.

It's the syndrome du jour, which makes me a bit wary, but it's a fun syndrome to think about anyway. Might it help explain the work of someone like the brilliant pianist Glenn Gould, for instance? There are lots of talented and eccentric musicians, of course. Even so, Gould -- the man and his piano-playing both -- stood out. He was so ... singular. He was odd and distinctive to the point of seeming like an alien. So perhaps he was an "Aspie," as people with Asperger's call themselves. This isn't just my hunch, by the way -- the possibility that Gould was an Aspie has been much-discussed by Gould fanatics. Music buffs have also speculated that another great one-off, Thelonious Monk, might have had Asperger's too. Who knows? But both guys certainly seem to have rolled along a different set of rails than most of us do.

Reading about the syndrome, I also find myself thinking about one side of my family. (Asperger's tends to run in families.) These relatives, who I'm very fond of, are smart and endlessly interesting. They're also ... Well, talking with them, you sometimes feel like you're talking to Martians. They're sometimes bizarrely blunt. They don't seem to have any instinctive sense of what's expected of them. The usual unconscious back-and-forth -- the swing of a conversation -- tends to grind to a halt. Signals aren't being picked up; things that don't usually need explicit spelling-out have got to be spelled out, or else. Aspies all, perhaps?

Why do I suspect that a lot of ultra-brainy webheads might be a bit Aspie too? And how about all those oddball, pedantic college profs?



posted by Michael at April 30, 2004


A simpler term would be "nerd." My concern about the term "Asperger's syndrome" is that it implies that we are dealing with a single medical problem with a single cause that's related to autism. That may be or it may not be. We're a long ways from knowing. I prefer to think of nerds as simply one end of a bell curve with what I call "big men" on the other end. The President is a good example of a "big man" -- he's not into nerdish details about how things work. He's a people person. He understands and can manipulate interpersonal relationships.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 30, 2004 4:22 PM

There's a lot more to Asperger's than social ineptitude. Some folks are socially inept from lack of experience or innate shyness--they understand what other people are projecting emotionally, but they don't know what to do with it or how to respond. Asperger's people, on the other hand, really Do Not Get other people's emotions, not at the gut level. They can learn, intellectually, to read facial expressions to some extent, but it's not natural the way it is for the rest of us. (My nephew and my godson both have Asperger's--it's no fun.)

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 30, 2004 6:24 PM

One theory regarding Aspberger's (put forward by some British expert) is that it is just an extreme form of 'maleness.' Men tend to think more in terms of systems (or as somebody calls it, folk physics) while women tend to think more in terms of people (folk psychology.) People with Aspberger's syndrome--who are overwhelmingly male--may just have an extreme version of the usual guy focus on 'folk physics.' Incidentally, people with Asperger's are generally very good at technical subjects, and apparently engineers are far more likely to have either borderline or full-blown Aspberger's syndrome than the population as a whole.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 30, 2004 11:24 PM

Like Steve, I'm a little wary of the diagnosis, in my case just because it seems a little vogue-ish these days. On the other hand, there certainly does seem to be a package of symptoms that travels together ... That emotional tone-deafness they have is really something to encounter. Assuming I've encountered true Aspie tone-deafness, of course.

I remember reading, FWIW, a Wired article about Asperger's in Silicon Valley. The gist of it was 1) lots of Silicon Valley engineers and software people are Aspies, 2) they're marrying each other, and 3) they're breeding many more Aspies. According to the article, nurses and doctors and hospitals kinda joke about it, it's become so common ... Like I say, FWIW.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 1, 2004 12:28 AM

Are they saying Aspberger's has a physical or chemical cause. Like their brains are wired differently? Coz that emotional tone deafness is also called a "lack of empathy"---an almost complete inability to register what someone else is feeling, or put yourself in another's shoes. It's an aspect of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, combined with other traits, and most shrinks think that is more "nurture" than "nature." But it sounds like Aspberger's is considered more "hardwired."

You wonder how they get married---how would they know what the other is feeling enough to get together?

Posted by: annette on May 1, 2004 8:45 AM

It does seem to have a lot in common with certain forms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, doesn't it? I wonder what they'll turn up an ddecide as they look further into Asperger's. Funny brain scans? Peculiar wiring? Based in biology? Or biology that gets scrambled by experience? It certainly seems intractable, and it seems that no one can really shake it off. It's just what you are, or are saddled irrevocably with, anyway.

LOL -- it would be great to witness one of those marriages, wouldn't it? Imagine a wedding between two such, and attended by more such. They'd all be wondering whether it's appropriate to be happy or not.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 1, 2004 11:30 AM

The high concentration of Aspergers in Silicon Valley was first noticed in the schools, where there was a very high rate of autism. This is one of the reasons that a hardwired genetic component of Aspergers is now seen as almost certain. Those geeks breeding with each other brought out whatever recessives cause genetic autism (and Aspergers with only one copy of the gene(s) involved).

First time that dense of a population with those disorders (outside Ashkenazi Jews?) had been assembled.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 1, 2004 4:48 PM

I find the Asperger's discussion very intriguing. The description of the syndrome itself does seem to "jibe" with reality - or at least, it seems to describe very well a few individuals I've met. I find the "extreme male brain" theory pretty compelling myself.

The one thing I'd like to know is to what role the American Psychiatric Association (the people who issue the DSM-IV and who get to define what "mental illness" and "mental health" mean) have played in developing and promulgating the concept. I'm very interested in what the Mental Health Establishment (pardon the "scare capitals", but it sort of describes the APA and their allies nicely) says and does. The "MHE" is an intriguing phenomenon for me for both personal and academic reasons - at one point I was even considering psychiatry as a career, but no longer.

The APA, and the "MHE" in a wider sense, is a major player and determinant in shaping our culture these days. It's important to understand how their influence has shaped North American life.

As far as Asperger's and the role of the APA goes, I'm woefully uninformed. It'd be neat to know if they've played a role in getting Asperger's into the public's awareness and if so, what their response (i.e., how they propose to "fix" it) will look like.

And if I may say so, I would love, love, love to see a Blowhards take on the APA (and the rest of the MHE/Mental Health Establishment)and their effect on the world we live in. Their influence (along with the concomitant influence of the pharmaceutical companies) has been, and continues to be - for good and for ill - simply massive.

Posted by: Haystack on May 1, 2004 5:06 PM

Not just the APA has had major impacts on society here in the US. The American Medical Association has done some fairly horribly self-interested things.

Like the entire concept of prescription drugs. The doctor is now the gatekeeper you must go to for most theraputic drugs. Used to be the pharmacist would actually know you (nowadays the computer will), and consult with you even on more powerful OTC drugs. We forget that Over The Counter used to mean just that: you still had to go through the druggist, even if no prescription was needed.

My grandfather used to be a pharmacist, but he got tired of being relegated to watching doctors play semi-pro pharmacologist, and no longer having patients, only orders, and went into sales.

How much would our collective medical costs go down if pharmacists did more than rubber stamp doctors orders, and you didn't need to see the doctor as much? Doctors would I'm sure hate it at first, but might actually come to like having more time per patient, and being able to practice medicine at a slower pace.

Of course we'd need more pharmacists then, but the total costs would be lower, and arguably with better quality and speed of service.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 2, 2004 8:48 PM

Aspie (as you cutely call it) is NOT fun. Have you ever been around a child with this syndrome? They are insistent, whiny and often violent. Insistent beyond the norm, whiny beyond the norm, (I'm talking DAYS of not understanding a simple childhood problem or slight). An ex-relative of mine almost broke my son's nose--with his foot--just because my son(who was 5 years older) was explaining to him that the reason he couldn't play with matches was because he wouldn't be safe. There are NO reasonable or logical explanations to an aspie, they just want it how they see it. They defy authority and can't see the forest for the trees. But, they get caught up in wondering about all the trees and why are they in the way of the forest. (And often end up counting them!)Smarts they may have, but common sense and social niceties they do not.

Posted by: iris on May 3, 2004 11:17 AM

Have you ever been around a child with this syndrome? They are insistent, whiny and often violent.

Petulant, stubborn, insistent, whiny, irrationally violent -- maybe our President has Asperger's after all.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on May 4, 2004 11:53 AM

Petulant, stubborn, insistent, whiny, irrationally violent -- maybe our President has Asperger's after all.

Can't be. If he did, the State of the Union address would be two hours long, and that only at the insistance of staff: "Mr. President, please, the American public doesn't need to know how one makes bioweapons grade anthrax to know that bioterrorism is a threat."

I think that the Silicon Valley breeding of Aspies is due to many SV engineer types having mild social awkwardness--sort of "Aspberger's Lite", except with the ability to appreciate Monty Python. So when they get together, sometimes (mom's genetic components to awkwardness + dad's genetic components to awkwardness) times (horribly geeky environment) equals a diagnosible case of Aspberger's.

Or the pediatricians could be overreacting in some cases. Didn't someone try to claim that Einstein had Aspberger's? What a joke--he had a great sense of humor and he was apparently a ladies' man (relatively :) speaking).

Posted by: Maureen on May 5, 2004 2:45 PM

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