Thursday, October 19, 2017

Chris Packham: coming out as an Aspie

Chris Packham

The BBC recently showed Chris Packham's hour-long documentary where he discusses his Asperger's syndrome (iPlayer till 27th October).

Strictly speaking you don't have Asperger's, you are Asperger's. This makes treatment problematic - are you signing up to erase, or profoundly modify, your personality?

Packham wasn't a fan, particularly as this seemed to be the dominant objective of the American 'therapies' he was taken to see.

His partner, Charlotte, who was on camera seemed to be a Myers-Briggs NT, maybe INTJ. She came across as cool, composed and eminently cerebral: a meeting of minds.

There's another kind of partner an 'Asperger's sufferer' can have: here's Paul Dirac's wife:
"Given his lack of interest in his fellow humans, most colleagues assumed Dirac was shut off sexually, or perhaps gay and repressed. So they got a bit of a shock when, in 1934, he met a chatty Hungarian divorcee called Manci Balazs and three years later married her.

Manci was his opposite: where Dirac hardly spoke, she never stopped; he found empathy difficult, she had friends coming out of her ears; he was very literal-minded, she was subjective and passionate.

Needless to say, it was she who was forced to woo him, but somehow it worked. As a friend once put it: 'He gave her status and she gave him a life.' They were married for 50 years and had two children.

A year after their marriage, he wrote Manci a lovely letter saying: 'You have made me human. I shall be able to live happily with you even if I have no more success in my work.'

I was surprised to hear Packham pronounce his condition 'Asperjers'; surely he, more than anyone, would know that Hans Asperger was Austrian, and as a consequence the 'g' is hard.


Asperger's (and Autism in general) is highly heritable, although Packham's documentary - more impressionistic and personal - made no mention of it. This means that most population variation along the autism spectrum, from normal (non-autistic) to extreme, is a consequence of individual genomic variation, rather than differential input from the environment.

So although your parents made you autistic, it was through their genes, not their parenting.


Autism and IQ

From Time:
"When Asperger’s was first described in 1944 by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, he referred to children with the syndrome as “little professors” because of their prodigious vocabularies and precocious expertise, and because they tended to lecture others endlessly without being aware of their own tediousness. Poor social skills and obsessive interests characterize the condition.

Yet, despite the obvious similarities, very little research has been done on the connection between autism and extreme talent. One previous study, published in 2007, did find that close relatives of prodigies — like close relatives of people with autism — tended to score higher on autistic traits, particularly in problems with social skills, difficulty switching attention and intense attention to detail. Other than that, however, the issue hasn’t been studied systematically, beyond the observation that autism is often seen in savants, or people with exceptional abilities who have other simultaneous impairments. ..."

"... the intense world theory of autism, which posits how the disorder may arise. The theory holds that certain patterns of brain circuitry cause autistic symptoms, including excessive connectivity in local brain regions, which can heighten attention and perception, and diminished wiring between distant regions, which can lead to a sort of system overload. In both animal and human studies, this type of brain wiring has been associated with enhanced memory and also with amplified fear and sensory overstimulation. The former is usually a good thing; the latter may cause disability.

The intense world theory propounds that all autism carries the potential for exceptional talent and social deficits. The social problems, the theory suggests, may ensue from the autistic person’s dysfunctional attempts — social withdrawal and repetitive behaviors, for instance — to deal with his heightened senses and memory.

It’s possible, then, that the wiring in prodigies’ brains resembles that of an autistic person’s, with tight local connections, except without the reduction in long-distance links. Or, their brains may function just like those with autism, but their high intelligence allows them to develop socially acceptable ways of coping with the sensory overload."
I was struck by a TV programme some years ago about the Maths Olympiad. This is usually won by East Asians; Ashkenazim are also well-represented in winning teams. The British team was composed of pleasant, well-adjusted and extremely smart Ashkenazim .. and Anglo-Saxons who all seemed to be Aspies.

In the Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending paper it was suggested that the Ashkenazim had undergone extreme selection for high IQ over the last millennium due to the social niche of finance into which they were forced for so many centuries by the Christian proscription of usury. This, they argued, had also increased the frequency of specific mutations which increased brain efficiency at the cost of new debilitating genetic diseases (in the homozygous cases).

I suspect Asperger's may be somewhat similar, although with a more diffuse and sprawling etiology. As the causation is polygenic (+ CNV?) we are still some way from a definitive account.

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