I woke up one morning and noticed something strangely amusing. On the kitchen table, I found multiple banana peels lined up in perfect parallel form. I immediately knew who did it: Ico. Living with someone with autism for many years familiarized me with methodical behaviors.
Ico, who has autism, gets household chores done perfectly, thanks to his methodical behavior and keen attention to details. The table gets cleared, the dishes get done. No spot left behind.
While Ico doesn’t like to talk much at all, he’s very aware of his surroundings. He is fully employed and sells his artwork.
While attending the Autism Awareness Fair at Agana Shopping Center in April, I had an epiphany. I saw the talents of the children and adults for whom the fair was organized. It made me realize that we may be vastly underestimating people’s potential.
The medical term for the condition is actually autism spectrum disorder or ASD, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Since ASD is easier to type, let’s go with that. Plus, acronyms always make me feel smarter, especially when you actually remember what they stand for. Asperger’s syndrome is now folded into ASD. So, it’s sort of like Prince, “the syndrome formerly known as Asperger’s.” And just like the artist Prince, many with ASD have contributed greatly to our society.
We wouldn’t have our modern technology or industrial society without the contributions of people with ASD. I mean, we might have figured out some of these things, but it might have taken much longer.
It’s important not to miss the fact that autism is a form of development disorder. It comes with all the challenges and idiosyncrasies, such as compulsive and destructive behavior that can put a mental toll on caretakers and loved ones. It’s never easy. But for those with ASD, lining up banana peels or spotless cleaning of dishes is more than what they seem to us. These repetitive and detail-oriented tasks are not meaningless or just some rote skills. They reveal engineering, geometry, math, science and design. And that of course leads to our amazing technological breakthroughs.
Before ASD was even identified, history is filled with great discoveries and inventions created by great men who had characteristics similar to those with ASD. Isaac Newton was a great example. He discovered the laws of classical physics, which was aptly labeled “Newtonian Physics.” No one before him had made such a profound impact on our understanding of the world we live in. He invented calculus to help describe his laws of physics.
I’m sure there are college students dreading finals, thinking, “I wish he didn’t invent calculus.” Pretty dry stuff that calculus, right? But not to some with ASD. Do you think a neuro-typical person is capable of creating calculus? I think I am only capable of getting a C+ just trying to learn it!
Of course we had Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison and all of the things they accomplished with electricity.
In the contemporary time, we have Temple Grandin, the famous author and animal scientist with ASD, who designed inventions that use behavioral principles rather than excess force to control animals.
Silicon Valley is populated with tech-geeks, who are either diagnosed with Asperger’s or casually self-identify as having the symptoms. They are responsible for many of the breakthroughs we enjoy today— maybe including those goofy filters for our smartphones.
Now I’ll speculate further. Could it be possible that ASD is a survival adaption? Or could it be the onset of human’s evolutionary step as we use our brains more and more? In fact, while the root cause of autism is still unknown, there is a consensus that genetics plays a key role in ASD.
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Doctors and researchers still don’t understand how the brain truly works, and they still haven’t identified every function of every gene. So it’s possible that this phenomenon is an indication of our DNA evolving because of environmental stressors. Think of it like the X-men, but without the cinematic costumes and fancy hero-names.
We are, of course, aware that not everyone with ASD is high functioning, but we don’t want to undermine their and their families’ struggle. It might take a very unique and talented person to figure this all out one day. And when they do, we might find that they themselves are part of this community now labeled ASD. Until then we’ll have to be free to speculate and be thankful for the real superheroes of our past and present that make our life so much better than it would be without them.
Joseph Meyers, a self-confessed news junkie, is a resident of Tamuning. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org