Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In Praise of Autism

Today’s idea: Autistics deserve better appreciation for their contributions to higher learning, one article says. And they should be recruited in information technology because they have “a preternatural capacity for concentration and near-total recall,” another says.

Two recent articles suggest a sea change in attitudes toward those with the brain development condition. The most recent, in Wired magazine, highlights the hiring of autistics in information technology as one of the “12 shocking ideas that could change the world.” The focus of Drake Bennett’s brief article is a Danish entrepreneur who formed an I.T. consultancy made up mostly of people with autism-spectrum disorders, who troubleshoot software for companies like Microsoft and Cisco Systems.

Before that, Tyler Cowen, an economics professor who contributes to The Times, used the platform of the Chronicle of Higher Education to
fault fellow academics for bigoted-sounding research dehumanizing autistics, and didn’t stop there:
The more complex reality is that there is a lot more autism in higher education than most of us realize. It’s not just “special needs” students but also our valedictorians, our faculty members, and yes —sometimes —our administrators.

That last sentence is not some kind of cheap laugh line about the many dysfunctional features of higher education. Autism is often described as a disease or a plague, but when it comes to the American college or university, autism is often a competitive advantage rather than a problem to be solved. One reason American academe is so strong is because it mobilizes the strengths and talents of people on the autistic spectrum so effectively. In spite of some of the harmful rhetoric, the on-the-ground reality is that autistics have been very good for colleges, and colleges have been very good for autistics.

Cowen offers a case in point: Cato Institute Vernon L. Smith, Nobel economics laureate with Asperger’s syndrome. [Wired, Chronicle of Higher Education]

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