The power of autism… and the danger of selecting against it

maths calculationsNew Scientist has a fascinating interview with record-breaking autist savant Daniel Tammet, where – among other stuff – he discusses the way in which he’s able to perform what seems to us like mathematical magic:

You wouldn’t use a word like “giraffe” without understanding what the words “neck” or “tall” or “animal” mean. Words only make sense when they are in this web of interconnected meaning and I have the same thing with numbers. Numbers belong to a web. When somebody gives me a number, I immediately visualise it and how it relates to other numbers. I also see the patterns those relationships produce and manipulate them in my head to arrive at a solution, if it’s a sum, or to identify if there is a prime.

Somehow I suspect that when Tammet talks of visualising numbers, he doesn’t see little piles and stacks of units like I do! Strange to think that what seems to us to be the only way to do something is not only one of many ways, but a horribly inefficient one as well. [image by Robert Scarth]

Meanwhile, a British autism expert warns that screening for autism in utero could deprive us of geniuses like physicist Paul Dirac:

… if this test led to some kind of prenatal treatment, such as the use of drugs to block the effect of testosterone which is already medically possible, would this be desirable? Caution is needed before scientists embrace prenatal testing so that we do not inadvertently repeat the history of eugenics or inadvertently ‘cure’ not just autism but the associated talents that are not in need of treatment.

Then again, maybe we’ll just be able to use drugs to induce autism as necessary in the near future, whether for personal gain or for society at large…

Has anyone here read David Zindell’s Requiem for Homo Sapiens series, by the way? It features a sort of art cult that voluntarily lives in a pseudo-autistic state, among many other weird ideas. Superb set of books, but a real head-f*ck.

2 thoughts on “The power of autism… and the danger of selecting against it”

  1. I really liked the A Requiem for Homo Sapiens series, although I can’t recall the cult with the pseudo-autistic state (it’s been ten years since I read them, and there were quite a few cults in the whole series). From memory, I liked Neverness best, then The Wild. I found that The Broken God took a bit too long to really get going, and was somewhat disappointed by the big reveal in War in Heaven (i.e.: what had really happened to Danlo’s father).

    I do recall that — in Greg Egan’s Distress — there were autists that refused to be ‘cured’ (there was a cure possible in the novel) because they wished to keep their special talents.

  2. I think the Neverness autists were just called Autists, but it was largely a voluntary state. That said, autism spectrum disorders do quite well in sf characters: quite a few Aspergers types in Gibson’s material (explicitly so in the Bridge Trilogy), and didn’t Baxter have an Aspergers scientist in one of his more recent ones?

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