A recent study by the CDC now indicates that 1 in 88 American children has autism -- a 20% increase in the past two years. Some of this increase is no doubt due to better diagnosis. The CDC study does note that autism seems to be more prevalent in U.S. states with better medical care, and that autism prevalence is also higher in areas where doctors are better at diagnosing autism in kids with relatively high intellectual ability.
But I find myself wondering if there might also be another reason. Is it only coincidence that the apparent rise in autism over the past couple decades parallels the social shift from valuing IQ to stressing EQ -- Emotional Quotient? It's not what you know anymore, it's how well you can function in a group. So -- are high-functioning kids who prefer doing loner projects getting labeled as autistic now, because they do not fit the EQ team-oriented needs of the corporate social environment they are being groomed to fit into?
This is not the first time that changes in society's expectations have affected how we define what is "normal." In a 1975 essay called "Thinking about Thinking," Isaac Asimov wrote: "It used to be Latin that was the mark of intelligence, and now it is science. I am the beneficiary. I know no Latin except for what my flypaper mind has managed to pick up accidentally -- so without changing a single brain cell, I would be dumb in 1775 and terribly smart in 1975." The point being, that “intelligence” is often defined by what a culture values.
Today's culture, it seems, values meaningless chit-chat and boring, drivel-filled texting over in-depth discussions (which you can't even post directly on Facebook or Twitter, you have to blog it somewhere else and then do a link.) This EQ trend could be why the US education system is failing. Last time I looked at a chart, we were 48th in science worldwide. If we no longer value intellectual subjects, then of course our children won't bother studying them.
My own IQ is quite high by current testing standards. I said my first word at nine months of age, could read before I got to kindergarten, and by fifth grade was devouring college-level biology books. (My father was always deeply disappointed that I did not become a scientist.) I can think, analyze, do library research, and comprehend complex theories. By that measure, I'm a genius.
But in recent years, with the rise of the EQ movement's focus on socializing rather than analyzing, I am rapidly losing my niche, because in addition to a high IQ, I also have Asperger's Syndrome. Which means, among other things, that I give poor eye contact, don't socialize very well, prefer to work alone, and really hate team sports. Every EQ self-test I've ever taken, I have flunked royally. So, without changing a single brain cell, the EQ movement has rendered me a complete idiot. Which only goes to prove Asimov's point: intelligence and learning are relative concepts.
This is not to say I had no social problems when I was a kid. Like a lot of Aspies, I was teased and bullied for being an "egghead," which was what people back then called a nerd. But significantly, I had fewer problems related to my (then undiagnosed) autism when I lived on the East Coast than I do now living here in the land of "Minnesota Nice." (I once got reprimanded by a Minnesota boss for banging my fist on the table -- once -- to make a point during a heated conference discussion. Ironically, that same week, President Clinton did the same thing at the podium on national TV -- and nobody saw him as "threatening" for doing it.)
Scientists are looking for genetic and environmental factors like chemicals and pollution as causes for autism, but once again I must ask: What about social expectations? Are autistic behaviors more acceptable in some cultures than others? For example, I function very well in the Orthodox Jewish community, where things are highly structured and ritualized. When I visit a Hasidic home, I know exactly what is expected of me at the Sabbath table, and if, after dinner, I bury my nose in a book instead of chatting, people praise that behavior as "always studying Torah." In addition, eye contact is not as important among Hasidim, and between the sexes it is considered downright rude (as is also true in many Native American Indian communities.)
On the other end of the spectrum, I can remember sitting across the table from a non-Jewish social worker who stared at me constantly, to the point that I began to feel as if we were two dogs squaring off for a fight. I find myself wondering if phrases like "he wouldn't look me in the eye" have contributed to the negative stereotype of Jews as dishonest. It certainly contributes to mis-reading autistic people. If I had a dollar for every time I was asked, "Why do you always look at the ceiling?" I would be a millionaire.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not against giving kids help that they actually need. I certainly could have used some coaching in how to read facial expressions and pick up on subtle nonverbal cues. But what would be the purpose in forcing me to make eye contact when it makes me so uncomfortable? Wouldn't it be better to simply accept that even though I'm not looking you directly in the eye, that doesn't mean I'm not paying attention? If I prefer working alone, why not train me for a job where I can do that successfully, instead of insisting that I learn how to function on a committee? In other words, why not focus on what I can do rather than what I can't?
Before society goes off on a crusade to make everybody fit the EQ mold, perhaps we should consider what Temple Grandin, the best-selling author and animal scientist who is also autistic, wrote in her book, Thinking in Pictures: “After all, the really social people did not invent the first stone spear. It was probably invented by an Aspie who chipped away at rocks while the other people socialized around the campfire. Without autism traits we might still be living in caves.”
We Aspies might not mix very well, but we can often be highly focused innovators. I would have been the guy chipping rocks.