The New York Times had a good article this week about two teenagers who are identified as being on the “autism spectrum”: Navigating Love and Autism.
The article was well written and held my interest, but it is really surprising that a case of geek love merits so much discussion. It tells us how they “have trouble reading emotions and gauging social cues that others take for granted.” It makes me think of people who have trouble understanding the mathematical models and control loops in nature that others take for granted.
Consider some basic everyday mathematical abilities that some people lack:
- Estimating distances, weights, and volumes within an order of magnitude
- Distinguishing between open loop systems like a typical stove from close-loop systems like a typical oven
- Taking into account that the coefficient of skidding friction on a slick road is significantly less than the coefficient of static friction
- Ability to evaluate financial products such as mortgages or insurance agreements
- Awareness that the levels of most medicines in the body decays roughly exponentially
- Distinguishing correlation from causation
It’s easy to dismiss the lack of these abilities as idiocy. It would be easy, although I’ve never heard it done in a mainstream article, to dismiss them as a neurological condition and write a cute article about the relationship troubles these foibles cause.
If we’re going to do label all idiosyncratic personality traits as conditions, hard-core salesmakers and politicians need a label just as much as hard-core engineers. Probably everyone who’s hard-core about anything and goes out and changes the world could get a neurological label. We’re supposed to have moved beyond this sort of thing. We need to be skeptical of “neurological conditions” whose only symptom is minor odd behavior.