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The Gift of Autism

I use that subject line with trepidation. Having lived with, and suffered alongside, a child with Asperger’s (= high-functioning autism) for 12 years, I would trade in his particular gifts for neurotypicality in a heartbeat — this, even though he has only a mild case of Asperger’s. It’s a gift this parent would gladly return, to make life easier for his son. Nevertheless, this rings true:

According to the scientists, autism confers a perceptual edge, allowing people with the disorder to process more information in a short amount of time. While scientists have long assumed that autistics are more vulnerable to distraction—an errant sound or conversation can steal their attention—that’s not the case. As Prof. Lavie notes, “Our research suggests autism does not involve a distractibility deficit but rather an information-processing advantage.”

These perceptual perks have real-world benefits. The scientists argue, for instance, that the ability to process vast amounts of data helps to explain the prevalence of savant-like talents among autistic subjects. Some savants perform difficult mathematical calculations in their head, others draw exquisitely detailed pictures at a young age. These skills have long remained a mystery, but they appear to be rooted in a distinct cognitive style shared by all autistics. Because they can process details that elude the rest of us, they can perform tasks that seem impossible, at least for the normal mind.

The same logic applies to many supposed mental disabilities. In recent years, scientists have demonstrated that people with attention-deficit disorders typically demonstrate higher levels of creative achievement in the real world, such as publishing fiction or winning prizes at science fairs.

For myself, I cannot disentangle whatever creativity I have from my maddening, unconquerable disorganization. I am blessed beyond all telling to have a wife who facilitates my writing by taking care of the details of daily life. Anyway, my son Matthew reads faster than anybody I know. When he was seven, you’d hand him a Harry Potter book, and he’d read the whole thing in a few hours. When the final HP book came out, I brought it home from the bookstore for him. He was eight years old. He had the whole thing read — all 760 pages — in five hours, and retained it. His brain processes information at lightning speed. Yet he gets so lost in the things he thinks about that he often forgets to  take care of ordinary things, like eating lunch. The brain is mysterious.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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