Thursday, September 28, 2006

Autism and the Geek

A little while ago I read a couple of articles on the similarities between the traits associated with Autism, and the traits that people associate with geeks. As I was reading the article, I started thinking about the perceived relationship between geeks and those that have Autism. Ultimately I decided to write about it in the hope that I can help to increase awareness of what Autism really is and how it affects people.

If you are not familiar with Autism, the Autism Society of America has some good resources that explain what Autism is and what causes it.

In short, Autism is a neurological disorder that affects the way a person perceives the world around them and the way they interact with others. It is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

For simplicity's sake, when I refer to Autism, I am including Asperger Syndrome which is commonly defined as a less severe, or higher functioning, form of Autism.

Some claim that geekiness is simply a hidden form of Autism. Others disagree, and say that there's only an indirect correlation. So which group is right? In my opinion, based on my experience with geeks and people with Autism, while most geeks may seem to have some Autistic traits (such as hyper-focusing on certain topics and/or lack some social skills), as a whole, they do not meet the definition of Autism.

I know some geeks are Autistic, and that many geeks have traits that are superficially similar those of people with Autism. However, the actual "geek with Autism" is a relatively rare phenomenon in my experience.

I'm a database administrator by trade and have a degree in computer engineering. I love computers and playing with new technology. I've written reviews on different operating systems and love trying out new ways of doing things. Not only do I consider myself a geek but my sometimes exasperated wife wholeheartedly agrees that I'm hopelessly geeky. This gives me some authority, though I do not claim to be an expert, to comment on the behaviors and personalities of geeks.

I not only have an inside view on geeks, but my wife and I have been blessed with three wonderful children, two of which have been diagnosed with Autism. This has given me an insider's view on what Autism is, and what it's really like for those diagnosed. Since my oldest is only four, my perspective on Autism is mostly coming from what children with Autism are like and what I've learned interacting with others in the Autism community.

This has taught me that, although some of the traits seen in geeks seem similar to the traits that define Autism, the wholesale labeling of geeks as Autistic is a best an oversimplification and at worst, just plain wrong. While some of the traits of geeks may make them stick out in "regular society," the traits of Autism are severe enough to limit, if not prevent, a person from functioning in society at all.

Autism is a spectrum disorder. In other words, a specific group of traits or symptoms define what Autism is. When a person has six of the 19 identified traits, they are said to be "on the spectrum," or Autistic.

Although 19 specific traits are identified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) that relate to Autism, I'm going to focus on two of the traits and how they relate to stereotypical geek traits.

Hyperfocus

The first trait can be described as hyperfocus, or the tendency that many geeks have to get so focused on their computers that they leave the rest of the world behind. When working on a program or solving a complex problem, this trait can be quite an advantage. However, it also feeds the stereotype that geeks spend all of their time at the computer.

For Autism, the trait of hyperfocus relates to the trait described by the DSM-IV as: "encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus". In other words, being abnormally focused on just one thing.

In children with Autism, this can be seen by them spending hours lining up their toy cars or watching a ceiling fan spin. So is this the same as being able to program for hours and hours at a time? I'd say it's similar but not the same.

The difference is that geeks can shift their focus away from programming without much of an issue, and that programming involves being creative in coming up with new ways to solve problems.

A person with Autism may not be able to shift focus and would sit for hours without stopping. At this point the behavior becomes a disadvantage. When you have a person that cannot independently break away from an activity, interact with coworkers, family, or friends, or even really take care of themselves, then the "ability" is really a hindrance that diminishes quality of life.

When the trait interferes with a person's quality of life, it ceases to be geeky and becomes Autistic. This may sound similar to a workaholic but with Autism, it's not necessarily work-related (it could be something as simple as staring at a ceiling fan) and it's only one of several traits required to be diagnosed with Autism.

Antisocial Behavior

The second trait is a blending of many specific traits into a generalization. Many people think of geeks as antisocial, and some make fun of geeks as the ones who sit in labs all day and program or surf the Web or whatever.

Geeks are mocked as the ones who never get out, don't socialize well, don't know how to interact with "normal" people. However, I've found the antisocial stereotype to be the exception, not the rule.

Yes, many geeks enjoy spending a lot of time programming, Web surfing, and so on. But, they also like to hang out with friends and enjoy social activities, even if it's LAN parties instead of watching football. Sure, a geek may not fit in well at a cocktail party but how well would the so-called socialite fit in at a Linux Users Group event?

How does this differ from Autism? Well, geeks have their own social order and tend to be quite active in it. People with Autism can range from not acknowledging anyone around them to being overwhelmed to the point of a panic-attack type of reaction by groups as small as one or two of people.

One of the classic symptoms of Autism is a lack of eye-contact, coupled with a lack of social interaction. Many people with Autism will not even acknowledge somebody else, even a parent, in the same room with them. They simply have no ability to interact with people. In fact, there are people with very severe Autism who go through their whole life and never even learn to speak. This goes beyond antisocial to non-social, or even to fear of socialization.

Although geeks may not always socialize the same way the rest of society does, they do socialize in their own geeky way, which actually makes them very non-Autistic.

Conclusion

Although I've only scratched the surface both on what it means to be a geek and what it means to have Autism, I wanted to give a general understanding that, in my opinion, the vast majority of geeks are not Autistic. Yes, there are some shared traits but they usually are not severe enough to constitute Autism.

Of course, exceptions do exist. Many people with Autism are able to live more or less ordinary lives, but I believe the wholesale stereotyping of geeks as being Autistic is wrong.

If you study Autism and/or spend time around people on the Autism Spectrum as well as spending time around geeks you will definitely start to see similarities in some of the traits and quirks of each of the groups.

You will also notice that everybody has little quirks or eccentric behaviors that are similar to Autistic traits. Most of the traits of Autism are simply severe forms of the many traits that make each of us unique. It's when these eccentricities and quirks are so severe that they impede your ability to live life that the line is crossed from geeky to Autistic.