Sunday, September 13, 2009

Aspie Assessment

In a new movie, "Adam," the title character, a quirky loner played by the reliably adorable actor Hugh Dancy, turns his living room into an impromptu planetarium to entertain his attractive but romantically wary neighbor, Beth. Soon he is taking her to Central Park to witness raccoons frolicking in the moonlight, and we are comfortably launched on that predictable cinematic journey wherein the charming oddball woos the beautiful girl.
Predictable, that is, until a few scenes later, when Adam inappropriately announces his own sexual arousal and then confesses to Beth that he suffers from Asperger's Syndrome. Very quickly, our geek ceases to be the typical hero-in-hiding and instead becomes the embodiment of a syndrome only recently recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.

Asperger's is characterized, among other things, by awkwardness in social situations and an inability to read others' body language and social cues. And yet, in "Adam," much of the leading man's appeal comes from his refreshing, albeit sometimes brutal, honesty. For Beth, whose experience with men has thus far been negative, the contrast between the awkward, earnest Adam and her suave but dishonest ex-boyfriend turns Adam's supposed deficiencies into strengths, at least for a time. Despite a compellingly sympathetic portrayal by Mr. Dancy, the movie eventually adopts a heavily didactic tone, launching Adam into the more banal role of the misfit who teaches "normal" people something about life.

Whatever the deficiencies of the film, its release cements a new awareness of Asperger's Syndrome in popular culture. This year the Sundance Film Festival featured an animated movie, "Mary and Max," about an Australian girl and her New York pen pal, who happens to have Asperger's, and HBO is scheduled to release a film next year about Temple Grandin, the animal behaviorist who has written about her experience of Asperger's. In recent years, several memoirs, such as John Robison's "Look Me in the Eye" and Tim Page's "Parallel Play," have explored life with Asperger's. "My pervasive childhood memory is an excruciating awareness of my own strangeness," Mr. Page wrote in an essay in The New Yorker. His is an emotionally poignant assessment of the condition: "After fifty-two years, I am left with the melancholy sensation that my life has been spent in a perpetual state of parallel play alongside, but distinctly apart from, the rest of humanity."

Although the CBS television show "Big Bang Theory," a situation comedy that follows the travails of four brilliant, geeky young scientists, isn't explicitly about Asperger's Syndrome, several of its characters act like "Aspies," as those diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome often refer to themselves. Sheldon, a germaphobe who spends his leisure time playing Klingon Boggle and who maintains a strict daily routine, is the most likely (Aspie and not unlike his hero, Spock, from "Star Trek"). The show follows the men's efforts to navigate the treacherous world of normal social interaction, pertly embodied by Penny, the bottle-blond waitress who lives across the hall. She finds this passel of uber-nerds alternatively charming and exasperating. The conceit of the show is that neither Sheldon nor his friends see themselves as especially strange. On the contrary, in a geek-heavy community of physicists, the show suggests, many brilliant people hover on this end of the social spectrum. The comedy comes not from their realization of this fact, but from their strenuous refusal to recognize it and become "normal."
This approach is less forgiving for women. Simon Baron-Cohen, who directs the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, argues that autism-spectrum disorders such as Asperger's are expressions of the "extreme male brain." Indeed, four times as many men as woman are diagnosed with the condition.

The mother of one of the characters on "Big Bang Theory," a brilliant neuroscientist and Aspie-like woman played by Christine Baranski, is, like the empathy-challenged men, the source of many jokes. But whereas their foibles are also ostensibly part of their charms, her lack of maternal feeling casts her as unfeminine and thus far more freakish, like scientist Harry Harlow's classic wire monkey experiment come to life.

Why are we seeing more portrayals of Asperger's Syndrome in popular culture? Increased awareness and diagnosis of conditions along the autism spectrum is one reason. But we are also in the early stages of a debate about whether autism-spectrum conditions are disorders to be medicalized (and, presumably, cured) or merely more extreme expressions of normal behavior that we should treat with greater tolerance. Economist Tyler Cowen argues that this awareness is also because our culture needs people with Aspie-like talents, such as better memorization and calculation skills and a keen desire to assemble and order information, even as it continues to stereotype them for their social deficiencies. In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mr. Cowen chastised his academic colleagues for promoting negative views of people with autism-spectrum conditions, particularly the notion that these conditions should be treated as a disease that exacts high social costs.

On the contrary, Mr. Cowen calls people along the autism spectrum the "'infovores' of modern society" and argues, "along many dimensions we as a society are working hard to mimic their abilities at ordering and processing information." In a world awash in distracted people desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to multitask, Mr. Cowen says, Aspies' ability to focus on detail is a profound advantage. This is particularly true in academia, he argues, where "autism is often a competitive advantage rather than a problem to be solved." 
Mr. Cowen's relentlessly optimistic view glosses over some of the serious personal and professional challenges that people who have autism-spectrum conditions face. Still, like the films and books that have emerged in recent years, Mr. Cowen's call for us to embrace a more liberal notion of achievement by recognizing in conditions like Asperger's a kind of "neurodiversity" rather than merely a disorder is compelling.
Our interest in Asperger's and the challenges it poses to our notions of normal behavior comes at a peculiar cultural moment. As traditional social norms and old-fashioned rules of etiquette erode, we are all more likely to face the challenge that regularly confronts people with Asperger's: What rules apply in this social situation? In a world where people routinely post in excruciating detail their sexual preferences on their Facebook pages, is it really so shocking to have someone note his own sexual arousal in idle conversation? Unlike Facebook oversharers, Aspies are not intentionally flouting social conventions. Quite the opposite. In "Adam," Mr. Dancy's character must relentlessly practice in order to master the mundane social interactions of a standard job interview. Tim Page notes that it was his chance discovery of Emily Post's etiquette book that revealed the rudiments of social behavior that had previously eluded him.
Also, our interest in Asperger's comes at a time when we are enthusiastically hunting for the genetic basis of what makes us biologically different from each other—why some of us are more prone to certain physical ailments and others are gifted in music, for example. And yet, our search for the source of difference will, in many cases, end in an effort to eradicate that very difference, particularly if it causes obesity, depression or violent tendencies. Will a society that accepts Asperger's now be as tolerant of it in a future where we might have the power to eliminate it? Let's hope so. As these movies and books suggest, we are all searching for the same ineffable thing: connection to another human being who accepts our quirks, diagnosed or not, and loves us all the more for them.
—Ms. Rosen is senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.
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