The Challenges and Myths of High-Functioning Autistics

The following blog is written by Yuval Levental, a reader and contributor to our blog site. At present Yuval, who is on the autism spectrum, completed a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering and is interested in doing research on Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). He started a job in Information Technology where he answers questions and repairs computer hardware and software. Yuval has previously written an essay at corticalchauvinism.com where he discussed his life, views on neurodiversity, and a couple of autism symptoms (https://corticalchauvinism.com/2015/01/14/visualizing-neurodiversity-breathing-for-treatment/).

I asked Yuval to describe himself so that the reader would get to know him better. This is what he said: I am a person on the autism spectrum who advocates for treatment or a cure, because the evidence for autism as being positive is meaningless in most cases. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Michigan State University and a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from ESIEE Paris. Through researching the cause of my autism, I have developed interests in physiology, cellular biology, and neuroscience. In the quest for a cure, I have successfully progressed by attempting to introduce more potassium and less sodium in my diet, and have recently undergone Botox which mitigated my symptoms. Additionally, I like to spread awareness of arguments against Neurodiversity through social media and Wikipedia. Other hobbies of mine include recreationally solving complex math puzzles, traveling, eating new foods, and learning about different cultures.

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In the past few years, several autism advocates have criticized neurodiversity, but usually only with respect to low-functioning autism.  For instance, although Ashlyn Washington, a Huffington Post contributor, pointed out the challenges of low-functioning autism, she described high-functioning autistics by writing that “A small sliver of the autism spectrum works happily in Silicon Valley, comfortable in their own skin, able to overcome their challenges and function successfully in the world.”  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/lets-start-honoring-people-with-autism-by-stopping_us_58dbf66ee4b0487a198a5686?).  Amy S.F. Lutz criticized the relative lack of low-functioning autistic individuals in Neurotribes, but also agreed with his positive portrayal of high-functioning autism that “No one is contesting the achievements of the “scruffy geniuses” Silberman profiles in his book, or denying that they should be celebrated.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/inspectrum/201509/please-stop-whitewashing-autism).  In a Different Key questioned the idea that low-functioning autism was a positive identity, but portrayed high-functioning autistic activists as well-meaning (https://corticalchauvinism.com/2017/01/02/neurodiversity-as-seen-in-the-book-in-a-different-key/).  Even Autism Speaks criticized neurodiversity by discussing the difficulties associated with low-functioning autism, but said that for high-functioning autistics, “Those who are least severely affected may just need an openness and understanding of the character traits that make them unique” (https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2015/08/25/call-unity).

While pointing out the difficulties that low-functioning autistics face is commendable, unfortunately, those individuals also spread questionable ideas about high-functioning autistics.  To ensure that autism is realistically portrayed across the entire spectrum, we also need a realistic focus on the challenges that high-functioning autistics face.

Many often refer to famous figures in science and technology such as Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg to justify the alleged benefits of high-functioning autism (http://nymag.com/news/features/autism-spectrum-2012-11/).  However, Professor Fred Volkmar of Yale says “there is unfortunately a sort of cottage industry of finding that everyone has Asperger’s”, and that ”the trouble for many of our folks is they just engage in an endless acquisition of facts, without doing anything productive” (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/09/health/cases-a-disorder-far-beyond-eccentricity.html).  Professor Darin Hayton, a historian of science, says “Retrodiagnosing any condition or disease or illness is fraught with difficulty… The impediments seem even more significant when trying to interpret a mental condition that requires intensive and sustained clinical observation, especially when the evidence is drawn from biographical information” (http://dhayton.haverford.edu/blog/2015/12/31/isaac-newton-was-autistic-or-not/).

Even Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, who at first seemed to promote the idea that Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton were autistic, only claimed that they had “signs of autism”, and in fact, said that his main reason was for Asperger syndrome, “This condition can make people depressed or suicidal, so if we can find out how to make things easier for them, that’s worthwhile.”  This implies that his purpose was to make autism look better through describing various traits, as opposed to doing a serious analysis of their cognitive abilities (https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn3676-einstein-and-newton-showed-signs-of-autism/).

Employment studies are also very discouraging.  According to two large longitudinal studies, twenty-somethings with autism were less likely to be employed than their peers with other disabilities, with 58 percent employed.  Those who worked tended to work part-time in low-wage jobs.  Additionally, only 36% of young adults with autism received additional education after high school.  Only one-quarter attended a two-year college at some point. Fewer attended a vocational/technical school, a four-year college, or both two-year and four-year colleges (http://drexel.edu/autisminstitute/research-projects/research/ResearchPrograminLifeCourseOutcomes/indicatorsreport/#sthash.31XId4lN.e3gJoWCB.dpbs, p. 42 and p. 47).  So, while a significant portion becomes employable, they still have significant difficulties.

Unfortunately, because of the vague claims that most high-functioning autistics are successful, even by many critics of neurodiversity, many don’t realize the challenges that high-functioning autistics face.  When people learn about the unemployment rates, many are often shocked as the reality is opposite to the unrealistically positive portrayal that often exists in the media.  There are high-functioning autistic individuals that display significant abilities or have made significant achievements in spite of or even because of their autism, but they are the exception, and not the rule.  (https://www.reddit.com/r/aspergers/comments/57ioqt/is_the_unemployment_rate_really_so_high/) and (https://www.reddit.com/r/aspergers/comments/5rizhe/is_the_unemployment_rate_really_that_high/).

14 responses to “The Challenges and Myths of High-Functioning Autistics

  1. Unfortunately the words and actions of neurodiversity advocates have created have created a great deal of mistrust and animosity towards those who are on the higher functioning end of the spectrum.Especially among those with family members at the more severe end of the spectrum,or among those who work providing services to more severely disabled autistics.For many,neurodiversity has had the opposite of its intended effect.Rather than creating it unity and greater understanding,it has only shown that the differences across the spectrum are too great to ever be bridged.

    I do believe it was a grave error to include Asperger’s in the DSM-IV as a form of autism,rather than its own distinct disorder.I wonder how many who decided to do this,later regreted their actions.My greatest wish is that I might live to see this horrific mistake undone,that high functioning autism/Asperger’s,regressive autism,and autism with intellectual disability be broken apart into three distinct and unrelated conditions.I had hoped when the DSM-V was published they had included a list of comorbid conditions,that would exclude a patient from getting an autism diagnosis.Unfortunately,the consolidation under the DSM-V only made things worse.

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    • Roger, your comment starts off well then disappointingly
      gets into a serious muddle in its second paragraph.

      I must first mention that there is no evidence that autism is a “disorder” and abundant evidence that it is not. You can see my presentation on this matter in Chapter 2 downloadable at http://www.pseudoexpertise.com (though I want to revise it a bit in the section about the increase, to remove some needlessly harsh bits). No one has rebutted any of what I’ve written there.

      There is equally not the slightest evidence that Asp is a categorically different condition than Kanner’s autism, but rather is a different area of the common syndrome-space of autism. No-one has even shown it to be a clearly distinguishable sub-syndrome within the wider autism syndrome.

      The correct way for the DSM people to proceed…. Well, again I have discussed that in Chapter 2 aforesaid. Properly none of autism/ASD should be classed as a “disorder”. And instead of making boundaries of a “diagnosis” they should be defining it all in terms of one or more scores.. Just like you don’t diagnose with “biggism” but instead state a person’s height and shoe size. It needs to be recognised that autism not only spans a huge range over one continuum, but rather over multiple continuums (/continua?!).

      Unfortunatly the whole area is humungously complicated by political and commercial and fanatically ideological hobbyhorses and distortions. The (sometimes) tragedy of autism is burdened further by a further tragedy of its own prime symptom (mind-blindness) being applied even to perceptions of its own victims by some of its other own victims. I wonder where this will ever end!

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  2. Kanner and Asperger both agreed they were talking about separate conditions. In spite of this fact, Lorna Wing coined the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” and it was mistakingly consolidated into part of the autism spectrum. Most ND’s have been diagnosed with Asperger’s and not autism per se.

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  3. This is a strange question Manuel, but what would happen if the genesis of autism in a particular person favored mostly one half of their brain? Like the neural migration error effects landed mostly on one side?
    Or in an extreme case, like two identical twin embryos that merge (chimeraism?) but one was autistic and the other not?

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    • The neuropathology seems to be irregular in the sense that findings vary from one area of the brain to the next and from one patient to another. So, I do suspect that occasionally one hemisphere may be involved more than another. This may, in part, explain the heterogeneity of autism with clinical symptoms that vary in time of onset, severity and type from patient to patient.

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      • If there was a form that really did favor one half of the brain, would there be a way to get the other half to take over?

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      • Maybe. I can imagine using TMS to stimulate the hemisphere you would like to activate. The technique is already being used in stroke. When one are of a hemisphere becomes disabled, you can stimulate the homologous one in the other hemisphere to take over the functions of the injured site.

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      • I did read that with Asperger syndrome, the found differences from HFA. The problems favors the right side of the brain mostly. classic HFA favors the left, or is it the other way around? I forgot. I guess with LFA it affects both strongly enough to cause very severe problems, that and gross abnormalities not present in high functioning autism. (I even looked at Adam Lanza’s autopsy, they found his brain was normal sized and everything was where it should be, no lesions or tumors, no damage, no missing parts. To find the differences they should have looked at how the brain is, the software, not just the hardware. There are people with even more lesions, damage, and tumors in their brain who aren’t autistic. Migrational errors have been shown to sometimes do their job fine, they repurpose themselves or result in a non-autistic disorder. Looking at the hardware only is naive, the software is a new frontier for scientists.)

        I also believe now some of the heterogenity of ASD is not just due to timing or factors, twin studies of non-autistic mendellian disorders on identical twins still show differences. Something to do with mitosis or natural random differences never being the same every time, even in the exact same womb, hence why identical twins with no disorder are individuals.

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      • Hans – If there were any real validity in the distinction between Asperger’s and Kanner’s autism, one would expect that 70 years after A and K the DSM would have clarified that distinction rather than dropped it altogether.

        That study you mentioned would have better used as variable the level of language functioning. And then well, “what a surprise!” that there is found a hemispheric association, exactly as in neurotypical anyway!

        Heterogeneity in autism? I long ago explained it in terms of the randomish processes you can read of in Chapter 7 at http://www.pseudoexpertise.com . But meanwhile, I hate to state something that should be obvious, but there is huge heterogeniety in……..
        ……(wait for it!)……..
        huge heterogeneity in neurotypicality too.

        Some are extraverts, some introverts, some are criminals, some are saints, some wise, some a-holes, some paraiod, some sane, some confident, some nervous, etc, some are neurotics, some are inflexible (“mentally stable”) woodblock pigheads. There’s no reason why all these cannot overlay the separate variation in level of antiinnatia that causes the level of autisticness. And the autistic syndrome manifests always as an adjective (autistic) and never a noun, as notable others have agreed with me.

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  4. Roger, as someone on the spectrum who graduated with Nuclear Engineering with a lot of difficulties and with difficulties at a job that I have managed to keep for sometime, I have to ask you this question: Do you feel like you graduated despite your autism or thanks to your autism?
    In my case I graduated from college despite my autism and I almost got fired because of it. For a long time the thought that being able on the spectrum would make me a genius like aEinstein, Newton etc made me feel better about my social problems and inability to fit in. However, struggling through college and almost losing a job and rarely getting any promotions, gave me a very rude awakening. It made me feel scammed by ND. Do you or anyone else feel the same way? Thanks and all the best.

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  5. Pingback: Yuval Levental: Plastic Surgery and Autism – The Final Treatment? | Cortical Chauvinism·

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