GENIUS MAY BE AN ABNORMALITY
Educating students with Asperger's Syndrome or High Functioning
Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA
I am becoming increasingly concerned that intellectually
gifted children are being denied opportunities because they are
being labeled either Asperger's or high functioning autism. Within
the last year I have talked to several parents, and I was disturbed
by what they said. One mother called me and was very upset that
her six-year-old son had Asperger's. She then went on to tell me
that his IQ was 150. I replied that before people knew about Asperger's
Syndrome, their child would have received a very positive label
of intellectually gifted.
In another case the parents of an Asperger teenager
called and told me that they were so concerned about their son's
poor social skills that they would not allow him to take computer
programming. I told her that depriving him of a challenging career
in computers would make his life miserable. He will get social interaction
by shared interests with other computer people. In a third case,
a super smart child was not allowed in the talented and gifted program
in his school because he had an autism label. Educators need to
become aware that intellectually satisfying work makes life meaningful.
It is essential that talented children labeled
either high functioning autism or Asperger's be trained in fields
such as computer programming, where they can do intellectually satisfying
work. For many people with Asperger's, and for me, my life is my
work. Life would not be worth living if I did not have intellectually
satisfying work. I did not fully realize this until a flood destroyed
our university library. I was attending the American Society of
Animal Science meetings when the flood occurred. I first learned
about it when I read about it on the front page of USA Today, a
I grieved for the "dead" books, the
same way most people grieve for a dead relative. The destruction
of books upset me because "thoughts died." Even though
most of the books are still in other libraries, there are many people
at the university who will never read them. To me, Shakespeare lives
if we keep performing his plays. He dies, when we stop performing
them. I am my work. If the livestock industry continues to use equipment
I have designed, then my "thoughts live" and my life has
meaning. If my efforts to improve the treatment of cattle and pigs
make real improvements in the world, then life is meaningful.
I have been reading, with great satisfaction,
the many articles in magazines about Linux free software. People
in the business world are not able to comprehend why the computer
people give their work away. I am unable to think about this without
becoming emotional. It is no mystery to me why they download their
intellectual ideas into the vast, evolving and continually improving
computer operating system. It is because their thoughts will live
forever as part of the "genetic code" of the computer
They are putting themselves into the program and
their “intellectual DNA" will live forever in cyber-space.
As the program evolves and changes, the code they wrote will probably
remain hidden deep within it. It is almost like a living thing that
is continually evolving and improving. For both me and for the programmers
that contribute to Linux, we do it because it makes our lives more
Continuum of Traits
There is a continuum of personality and intellectual
traits from normal to abnormal. At what point does a brilliant computer
programmer or engineer get labeled with Asperger's. There is no
black and white dividing line. Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism researcher
at the University of Cambridge, found that there were 2 ½ times
as many engineers in the family history of people with autism. I
certainly fit this pattern. My grandfather was an engineer who was
co-inventor of the automatic pilot for an airplane. I have second
and third cousins who are engineers and mathematicians.
At a recent lecture, Dr. Baron-Cohen described
three brilliant cases of Asperger's Syndrome. There was a brilliant
physics student, a computer scientist, and a mathematics professor.
It is also likely that Bill Gates has many Asperger's traits. An
article in Time Magazine compared me to Mr. Gates. For example,
we both rock. I have seen video tapes of Bill Gates rocking on television.
Articles in business magazines describe his incredible memory as
a young child.
There is evidence that high functioning autism
and Asperger's Syndrome have a strong genetic basis. G. R. DeLong
and J. T. Dyer found that two thirds of families with a high functioning
autistic had either a first or second degree relative with Asperger's
Syndrome. Sukhelev Naragan and his co-workers wrote, in the Journal
of Autism and Developmental Disorders, that educational achievement
of the parents of an autistic child with good language skills were
often greater than those of similar parents with normal children.
Dr. Robert Plomin at Pennsylvania State University states that autism
is highly heritable.
In my book, Thinking in Pictures, I devote
an entire chapter to the link between intellectual giftedness and
creativity to abnormality. Albert
Einstein himself had many autistic traits. He did not learn
to speak until he was three, and he had a lack of concern about
his appearance. His uncut hair did not match the men's hairstyles
of his time.
Genius is an Abnormality?
It is likely that genius in any field is an abnormality.
Children and adults who excel in one area, such as math, are often
very poor in other areas. The abilities are very uneven. Einstein
was a poor speller and did poorly in foreign language. The brilliant
physicist, Richard Feynman, did poorly in some subjects.
A review of the literature indicates that being
truly outstanding in any field may be associated with some type
of abnormality. Kay Redfield Jamison, from Johns Hopkins School
of Medicine, has reviewed many studies that show the link with manic
depressive illness and creativity. N.C. Andreason at the University
of Iowa found that 80 percent of creative writers had mood disorders
sometime during their life. A study of mathematical giftedness,
conducted at Iowa State University by Camilla Persson, found that
mathematical giftedness was correlated with being near-sighted and
having an increased incidence of allergies.
I recently attended a lecture by Robert Fisher
at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. He stated
that many great people had epilepsy,
people such as Julius Ceasar, Napoleon, Socrates, Pythagoras, Handel,
Tchaikovsky, and Alfred Nobel. An article in the December 2001 issue
of Wired magazine discussed the link between autism and Asperger’s,
and engineer and computer programming. The incidence of autism and
Asperger’s has increased in the children of technology company employees.
A little bit of autism genes may provide an intellectual advantage
and too much of the genetic may cause a severe case of autism.
Types of Thinking
There appear to be two basic types of thinking
in intellectually gifted people who have Asperger's or high functioning
autism. The highly social, verbal thinkers who are in the educational
system need to understand that their thought processes are different.
The two types are totally visual thinkers like me; and the music,
math and memory thinkers which are described in Thomas Sowell's
book, Late Talking Children. I have interviewed several of these
people, and their thoughts work in patterns in which there are no
pictures. Sowell reports that in the family histories of late talking,
music math and memory children, 74 percent of the families will
have an engineer or a relative in a highly technical field such
as physics, accounting, or mathematics. Most of these children also
had a relative that played a musical instrument.
Every thought I have is represented by a picture.
When I think about a dog, I see a series of pictures of specific
dogs, such as my student's dog or the dog next door. There is no
generalized verbal 'dog' concept in my mind. I form my dog concept
by looking for common features that all dogs have, and no cats have.
For example, all of the different breeds of dogs have the same kind
of nose. My thought process goes from specific pictures to general
concepts, where as most people think from general to specific. I
have no vague, abstract, language-based concepts in my head, only
When I do design work, I can run three-dimensional,
full motion "video" images of the cattle handling equipment
in my head. I can "test run" the equipment on the "virtual
reality" computer that is in my imagination. Visual thinkers
who are expert computer programmers have told me that they can see
the entire program "tree," and then they write the code
on each branch.
It is almost as if I have two consciences. Pictures
are my real thoughts, and language acts as a narrator. I narrate
from the "videos" and "slides" I see in my imagination.
For example, my language narrator might say, "I can design
that." I then see a video of the equipment I am designing in
my imagination. When the correct answer pops into my head, it is
a video of the successful piece of equipment working. At this point,
my language narrator says, "I figured out how to do it."
In my mind there is no subconscious. Images are constantly passing
through the computer screen of my imagination. I can see thought
processes that others have covered up with language. I do not require
language for either consciousness or for thinking.
When I learned drafting for doing my design work,
it took time to train my visual mind to make the connection between
the symbolic lines on a layout drawing and an actual building. To
learn this I had to take the set of blueprints and walk around in
the building, looking at the square concrete support columns, seeing
how the little squares on the drawing related to the actual columns.
After I had "programmed" my brain to read drawings, the
ability to draw blueprints appeared almost by magic. It took time
to get information in, but after I was "programmed," the
skill appeared rather suddenly.
Researchers who have studied chess players state
that the really good chess players have to spend time inputting
chess patterns into their brains. I can really relate to this. When
I design equipment I take bits of pictures and pieces of equipment
I have seen in the past and re-assemble them into new designs. It
is like taking things out of the memory of a CAD computer drafting
system, except I can re-assemble the pieces into three-dimensional,
moving videos. Constance Mibrath and Bryan Siegal at the University
of California found that talented, autistic artists assemble the
whole from the parts. It is "bottom up thinking," instead
of "top down thinking.”
Teachers and Mentors
Children and teenagers with autism or Asperger's
need teachers who can help them develop their talents. I cannot
emphasize enough the importance of developing a talent into an employable
skill. The visual thinkers like me can become experts in fields
such as computer graphics, drafting, computer programming, automotive
repair, commercial art, industrial equipment design, or working
with animals. The music, math, and memory type children can excel
in mathematics, accounting, engineering, physics, music, translating
engineering and legal documents, and other technical skills. Unless
the student's mathematical skills are truly brilliant, I would recommend
taking courses in library science, accounting, engineering, or computers.
Learning a technical skill will make the person highly employable.
There are few jobs for mediocre mathematicians or physicists.
Since social skills are weak, the person can make
up for them by making themselves so good at something that people
will hire them. Teachers need to council individuals to go into
fields where they can easily gain employment. Majoring in history
is not a good choice because obtaining a job will be difficult.
History could be the person's hobby instead of the main area of
study in school.
Many high functioning autistic and Asperger teenagers
get bored with school and misbehave. They need mentors who can teach
them a field that will be beneficial to their future. I had a wonderful
high school science teacher who taught me to use the scientific
research library. Computers are a great field because being weird
or a "computer geek" is okay. A good programmer is recognized
for his/her skills. I know several very successful autistic computer
programmers. A bored high school student could enroll in programming
or computer-aided drafting courses in a local community college.
To make up for social deficits, autistic individuals
need to make themselves so good that they are recognized for brilliant
work. People respect talent. They need mentors who are computer
programmers, artists, draftsmen, etc., to teach them career skills.
I often get asked, "How does one find mentors?" You never
know where a mentor teacher may be found. He may be standing in
the checkout line in a supermarket.
I found one of my first meat industry mentors
when I met the wife of his insurance agent at a party. She struck
up a conversation with me because she saw my hand embroidered western
shirt. I had spent hours embroidering a steer head on the shirt.
Post a notice on the bulletin board at the local college in the
computer science department. If you see a person with a computer
company name badge, approach him and show him work that the person
with autism has done.
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