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IEET > Rights > Disability > Life > Access > Enablement > Innovation > Implants > Health > Vision > Contributors > Travis James Leland

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Autism: Disease or the New Normal?


Travis James Leland
By Travis James Leland
TJL-2080

Posted: Feb 7, 2013

The rise in reported cases of people being born with conditions on the Autism Spectrum indicate a possible evolutionary trait: a mutation that enhances the ability of the most powerful tool the human animal has – its mind. Instead of working toward a cure for ASD, we should be harnessing the collective power of these genius minds to fundamentally change our society. We need to evolve or die.

In an article I wrote for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, I asked a very important question. Perhaps the most important question for anybody who proclaims themselves to be a transhumanist. It is also perhaps the oldest question posed in philosophy, art, science and religion. This question has only four words. “What makes us human?”

In that article, I explained how I looked around for a definition of the word “human.” Here is what the dictionary says…

hu·man/ˈ(h)yo͞omən/
Adjective:
Of, relating to, or characteristic of people or human beings.
Noun:
A human being, esp. a person as distinguished from an animal or (in science fiction) an alien.
Synonyms:
adjective. Humane
noun. man - person - human being - individual - soul – mortal

Do you see a problem here? If you remember all the way back to grade school, you may remember the rule about defining a word. You can NOT use a word to define itself. In other words, you can’t say “a tree is a treelike object.” You can’t say “A book is shaped like a book.” You can say “a tree is a plant that ranges in size with a wooden trunk and branches and leaves that vary depending on the species.” You can say that “a book is a small, rectangular object that contains words printed on paper pages and bound by either a soft or hard cover.” So WHY is the agreed-upon definition of “human,” “a human being?”

So I had to do some reading and some out-of-the-box thinking. I came across a great article by Eliezer Yudkowski titled “The Power of Intelligence” which plainly explains something in a way I hadn’t thought of before. Let’s go back about five million years.

Out on the dry, desert plains of Africa a new species began to develop. It didn’t have razor-sharp fangs or claws to catch prey. It didn’t have a hard shell or exoskeleton to protect it from predators or the environment. It wasn’t able to change colors like a chameleon to blend in with its environment and hide from any threats. It was small. It was naked. It was defenseless. It was really yummy! Anybody with a passing understanding of natural selection, hell, anybody who has even heard the name of Charles Darwin, understands that this species absolutely could NOT survive more than a few generations against the leopards, hyenas, sabretoothed cats, or any other carnivorous beast out there. Looking objectively at this situation, I defy anybody to expect that that weak, unprepared, unequipped, hairless ape species would make it out of this. And not just survive, but flourish. And not just flourish, but grow to become the dominant creature on the planet.

In a world that is dominated by natural selection, this species had to have something that set it apart from other animals. It had to have developed something that could make it uniquely suited to survival. In this case, the species developed a brain capable of higher levels of thought and awareness and problem solving. Logic. Our brains - our cognitive ability – is what set the human animal on the path to becoming such a dominant force. Our brains gave us the ability to make tools, weapons, art, technology, things to make our world better for us.

Or worse. In its infinite wisdom, the universe sought to give us this powerful, 3-pound lump of flesh to use for making great things. Great buildings, powerful works of art, literature, music and film. But the universe likes things to be balanced. And every great work of humankind has been balanced by our cunning ability to create powerful evil. This is not some great new insight that I am wowing you all with. This is pretty elementary stuff here, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that E=MC2, while changing science and physics as we knew it also gave us what we needed to create the most powerful form of destruction ever known in the atomic bomb.

So it is our brain, as well as our opposable thumb, that made us who we are. We have conquered the Earth. We are taking our first steps into space and other planets. We are unlocking the mysteries of science, life, and the universe. We are the pinnacle of evolution, right?

Well I don’t think anybody told the universe that.

The big fallacy that I come across, more often than I care to admit, is that humans as we are now, are the result of millions of years of evolution, that we are the top dog, that we are the endgame. And I always look at the people that say this and I ask them “How do you know?”

How do we know? Evolution is a long process. The Earth has been spinning here for 4 and a half BILLION years. Homo sapiens has only been on it for about 100,000 years. And we’ve only reached civilization for about 10,000 years. And we’ve only lived in an industrialized society for what, 150-200 years? We only dropped out of the trees about ten minutes ago, and we have the nerve to say that we are done evolving?

Anybody that uses even a tenth of the power of this amazing 3-pound tool in our heads can see that this is an absolutely stupid thought. It’s ridiculous that we are the most evolved thing here, and more so that we are DONE evolving.

Since we do not have to fight for our food, or our lives, or our mates anymore, people think that we don’t have any further to evolve. But they don’t understand that we ARE still evolving, just not in an outwardly physical way. Our brains, the very thing that evolved to make our species survive, flourish and dominate, don’t want to just stop where they are. They are not happy just sitting there, collecting their retirement and watching the ballgame. Our brains are not stagnant. They are not sitting still. We are not stuck in a cognitive swamp with no new thoughts or ideas coming in…

My point is that evolution is not stopping for anything. It is a process that is always looking for ways to improve things. It’s looking at us and saying, well, they don’t need claws. They don’t need hard shells. They don’t need to change colors. They don’t need to be able to run at 50 miles per hour. But HEY! They’ve got this neat little thing in their heads that they’ve put to good use. Let’s see if we can improve on that a little.

I believe that our brains are STILL evolving. There is a lot we don’t know about them. Brains are pretty difficult to understand. I’m sure Ben Goertzel can tell you how hard it is to figure out and replicate the way a brain works.

But not all brains work the same.

Thomas Jefferson, Leonardo da Vinci, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Albert Einstein, and a whole host of other people I don’t have the room to mention all shared something. Although they all specialized in different fields and lived at different times, they were all seen as being somehow different than their peers. It is said they worked on a different level than the top minds of their times. They revolutionized politics, art, technology, music, science and so much more.
And they were all autistic. We think. Of course, we can’t confirm it, and they aren’t here now to confirm or deny it, but the writings of the people who knew them and described them in detail show certain characteristics that, if they lived today, would result in their being diagnosed with conditions on the Autism Spectrum. For those of you who are still uncertain or need a refresher, here is a quick rundown of what autism is, and what it is not…

Autism is a neurological disorder, most likely spread genetically through the father’s lineage, which manifests in different ways. The common bond is that the wires are figuratively crossed in the mind, and sensory input is processed in different ways. For instance, while most people would find the feel of velvet to be soft and pleasant, an autistic person may find that touching it causes extreme discomfort or even pain. The faint buzzing sound of a fluorescent light is easily dismissed by a neurotypical person, but an autistic person may find the sound excruciating. And there are various conditions and symptoms, all related and placed under the umbrella term of “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Outward signs include self-stimulating behaviors, such as spinning in circles, humming, repetitive speech patterns and so on. Extremely underdeveloped social skills are a key factor in the diagnosis of autism. Autism is NOT spread through immunizations, nor can it be cured by a special diet or medication. I’ve met parents who claim their autistic child’s behaviors improved for a while after an oxygen deprivation treatment. I think anybody would act different after one of those. As of now, there is no cure, although a great deal of research is being put into discovering the causes and cure of autism spectrum disorders. And that should bring you up to speed on that.
But I have a different idea, one that I’ve only spoken of briefly to a few people, and never written about or posed publicly before today. Autism is not a disease. Autism is not a disorder. It does not need to be cured, and it does not have to be looked upon as a handicap.

Disclaimer!
For the purposes of this article, I have to be clear that I am talking about high-functioning people with autism. Savants and people with Asperger’s Syndrome. There are a great many people with autism who are entirely non-verbal or unable to communicate in any way. They are often misdiagnosed as severely retarded and go to special schools or homes. For people with this magnitude of autism, life is extremely difficult, as it is for their caregivers. I do think research must continue into treatment for severe autism. Again, my talk today regards those of the higher-functioning status. So with that out of the way, let’s move on…

High-functioning people with ASD often have specialized interests, which can be all-consuming. It is difficult to get them to discuss any subject outside of their narrow range of interest. They remember minor details and can spout off the minutiae of the subject in extreme detail. For instance, let’s talk about a child who we will call Jerry. Jerry is a student in a school district I used to teach in. This district had a revolutionary policy of incorporating high-functioning students with autism into their regular classes. There are a lot of flaws with this policy, which I will get into a little later. Jerry was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and his all-consuming interest was dinosaurs. If you asked him a question about the weather, he would start by answering your question, then get into details about how the weather has changed since the Cretaceous Period, and then talk about which dinosaurs were dominant in this area at the time and so forth. The downside to the arrangement with the school district was that the child was placed in a general education class, where the teacher was unable to give Jerry the one-on-one attention he needed. So he was placed in a desk at the back of the room and left to his own devices, while rest of the class went along with the curriculum.

 

I went to that class as a substitute one day, and the teacher left a note saying that I was not to expect any work to come from Jerry, and not even to really assign him anything. Or ask him questions. Or even really acknowledge his existence. At one point the rest of the class was to write a classic five-paragraph essay. The prompt was to imagine that their class was going on a field trip to any time or any place in the past. Jerry sat there, looking bored as the rest of the class worked, or pretended to work, on their essays. After a while, I went up to Jerry and I asked if he would like to participate in the assignment. Some of the students nearby let out little gasps of shock when I did this. Jerry was stunned, and asked me why I wanted him to do it. I told him that I was interested to know where he would take the class if they had a time machine. I told him not to worry about turning the assignment in on time or to worry too much about spelling and grammar, if that stuff was difficult. I just wanted to know what he wanted to write about. I found a pencil and some paper and handed them to him. The rest of the day, while the rest of the class moved on to math, science, history and so forth, Jerry sat at his desk in the back of the room. At the end of the day, he handed in his five-paragraph essay. It was started out as a detailed explanation of the time machine and how it worked, then how it would take them to a specific time. I can’t remember now if it was the Cretaceous, Jurassic or another period, but he began to explain in great detail everything they would see. The plant life, the volcanoes, the dinosaurs, the insects, the weather. Every piece of information stored in this boy’s head about his favorite subject came out into this small book of twenty-odd pages, complete with illustrations and diagrams. And it only took him a few hours. Jerry was very proud of himself, and he even had gained some of the respect of his classmates, who were asking to read it.

A few days later, I was back at that school, working in a different classroom. During my lunch break, Jerry’s teacher approached me, with her hands on her hips. “What did you say to Jerry the other day?”

“Um, nothing, really. Why?” Mind you, I was still new to this job, and I was very concerned with how well I was doing.

“You must have said something to him to get him to do all that work. He never does anything. He is really just a disruption to the rest of the class. How the hell did you get him to do that?”
I took a second, then came back at her with the only response I could think of.

“I asked him to do it.”

The point is that many high-functioning autistic people have an incredible ability to apply their incredible brainpower in amazing ways. If Einstein truly was autistic, and all signs point that he was, then his brain was working on an enhanced level, and, much like Jerry, his knowledge on certain subjects was all-consuming. This is the man who revolutionized physics, who gave us the means to unlock the mysteries of the universe and devised the Theory of Relativity. But did you know that this man could not even count money? He could do amazing calculations regarding gravity and movement and time, but he had difficulty with simple math. Yet, when focused on his area of expertise, he was able to change the world.

Is evolution working to make us more specialized? Are our brains developing to make us all super-geniuses, even if only in one subject? Will our descendants all be savants and prodigies? I think some signs are pointing in that direction.

I recently posted a survey on numerous transhumanist websites. It was based on the GARS-2 test given to people by psychologists to determine if there is enough information to diagnose someone with an autism spectrum disorder. My idea was that, given the amount of science and technology in the field of transhumanist studies, and with the high amount of crossover into science fiction and other geekdoms, would there be a higher rate of H+ people who show two or more symptoms of ASD? Unfortunately, a lot of people were offended by the mere suggestion, and even though the post, which was seen on numerous websites as well as Facebook, was viewed hundreds of times, I only received four completed surveys. Of course that is not enough to even begin to make a real study out of.

The rate of children who are being diagnosed with Autism and ASD has risen exponentially in the last few years. Even taking into account what I feel are erroneous diagnoses of children who are just shy or unpopular or who may have other conditions with similar symptoms, like Schizoid Personality Disorder, I still see the curve here, and it bears no small resemblance to something Kurzweil would like. Either way, what we see is that every year, the percentage of children being diagnosed with Autism is increasing. Instead of one or two people whose brains are working on an entirely different level, we see hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people who have amazing mental abilities. The current estimate is that one out of every 88 children being born today has an autism spectrum disorder. What I see when I look at a graph like this is not a disease or something that needs to be fixed or cured. I see evolution. And I see it when I look at Jerry, or Temple Grandin, or Mozart or da Vinci or Einstein. I see it when I watch my son playing the piano like a trained musician, composing songs and playing difficult melodies at the age of six. And I see it when I look in the mirror. I do not have a disease. I do not have an affliction. I may not act or think exactly like a quote-unquote normal person. But the numbers are growing. And it appears to me that this trend will continue.


So what do we do with all these people who, if my hypothesis is true, are the next step? If they are cognitively different from those who would teach them, what can we do to make them normal, functioning members of society? Perhaps the answer is that we don’t. Instead of forcing them to act like everyone else, maybe we should learn a little from them. Maybe we should harness their amazing brains and use them, together, in teams perhaps. Think tanks of high-functioning autistic people could come up with ideas, strategies for fundamentally changing this world. Instead of putting them to the side, like Jerry was in his class, we should be looking to them for help. To give us the tools we need to step forward ourselves. Perhaps, like Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci, we could look to them as leaders and follow them into a bright new future.


Travis James Leland is a science-fiction writer and poet, currently working on a novel entitled "Singular," about a young man who becomes the world's first true posthuman. He lives in Llano, California with his wife and son. His Twitter is @TJL2080.
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COMMENTS


If we are talking pure mind function, then I think you might be right. I would argue though that as a social species that the ability to be social is vitally important. I think we do need to expand our ideas of who is ‘normal’, but within that expanded range we also need to make efforts to include people from the entire broad range.





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