Recently I read Create your own economy by Tyler Cowen (thanks Michelle for the tip-off!). Interesting page-turner discussing autism, autistic(-like) traits in non-autistics, and implications for society.
Cowen points out (what is thankfully becoming more familiar) that although autism is often associated with tragedy, many autistics and not only savants have cognitive strengths, e.g., being infovores for their preferred areas of interest, better perceptual skills than non-autistics, less suspectiblity to false memories. He argues that technological tools available today such as iTunes and Facebook allow non-autistics to have the same abilities. Non-autistics are driven to do the same sort of organisation and searching for information as autistics are, and this is being made possible by technology. He argues that education is even designed to teach non-autistics some of the cognitive strengths of autism.
One side of autism mentioned in the book and not frequently discussed is that autistics are more likely to talk about feelings than make small talk (has this been studied? Is it true? I would like to know more). The emotional experience of autistics is rarely acknowledged. Cowan gives examples of people who despite appearing outwardly aloof are deeply sensitive, caring, and who are shocked when they’re told otherwise.
There are plenty of examples in the book of people, real and fictional, who appear(ed) to have autistic traits. I found this a tad tiresome (there has been a lot of it about elsewhere), especially when suffixed with hedges saying that of course we don’t know whether they were autistic. The key point is that “what-we-call-what-it-is-that-I-am-talking-about” (to quote Cowan) probably ought not be derived from a name for a disorder. So viewed this way, most of the book is not about autism, but about a cognitive and emotional profile which many people in society have. This is not to say that autistics do not have cognitive strengths—and he discusses some examples in the book—but I do not see what is to be gained by conjecturing that people are/were autistic. What does this explain? The details matter, not a one word label. (However this could be because I am deeply suspicious of labels in general!)
Lots of good stuff in the book. In general I think it does a great job of defending the eccentric, and argues successfully that many of the traits eccentrics possess are desirable. Good news for academics!
There are plenty of important points on respecting the individual. I like this of course, and am a big fan of positive individual differences research, e.g., discovering the strengths of people diagnosed with various developmental and psychiatric conditions. But I think my favourite sentence in the book is this (relatively unimportant) one:
“In June 2009, a group of Norwegian astronomers broadbast a Doritos ad to a distant star, forty-two light years away.”
This is genius, and I think it’s a good author indeed who can spot and report such facts. It’s these kinds of things that make society fun.