Thursday, May 28, 2009

Book Review: Can the World Afford Autistic Spectrum Disorder?

In discussing nonverbal communication as it pertains to autism, Digby Tantam, who is a professor at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, postulates that the high level of social connectedness in the modern world has made differences in nonverbal communication both more visible and more disabling. Although the book's title seems rather off-putting in light of the historical use of cost arguments to support eugenics, Tantam promptly explains that he is not referring to monetary costs but instead is giving the word 'afford' its secondary meaning of accommodation. He points out that "many adults with Asperger Syndrome are blocked from being economically productive. Often this is not because they are unwilling, or even unable, to work but because society does not create—'afford'—the opportunity for them to do so."

Tantam discusses characteristics of autism that affect nonverbal communication, such as gaze avoidance and differences of voice and gesture, and how they lead to difficulties in perceiving and interpreting social signals. He points out that communication is a two-way process and that an Autistic person not only misunderstands others as a result of these nonverbal communication issues, but also is misunderstood by others.

Drawing an analogy between our society's complex interactions and the Internet, Tantam speculates that modern humans are linked together in an ongoing web of nonverbal communication, which he calls the 'interbrain,' and that it governs social activity on a subconscious level. In his view, an Autistic person has less connections to the 'interbrain' and thus acquires less of the social information that others seem to pick up through a subliminal process, but also is likely to have more potential for independent and original thought. Because of society's strong emphasis on conformity, the potential contributions of Autistics often have been overlooked.

Much of the disability associated with autism, Tantam opines, is the result of anxiety caused by bullying and excessive social pressure to conform, rather than being an intrinsic part of autism. Observing that "the neurotypical brain is not normal in any but the statistical sense," he suggests that our society needs more "effort and thoughtfulness" in finding effective ways to include and empower its Autistic citizens.

He specifically argues against eugenic attempts to dissuade Autistics from having children, stating that "we should not want to reduce human genetic diversity in this way because society gains, rather than loses, by the neurodiversity that results."

The cover art illustrates this message by arranging blue puzzle pieces to form a plus sign, with one orange piece occupying the central position and fitting there perfectly. There's no mistaking the nonverbal meaning in that image: Autistics should not be seen as puzzling oddities or tragic missing pieces, but as valued members of society. This is a much-needed message in a world that so often struggles to accept diversity.


Catana said...

Thanks for the review. It sounds like a thought-provoking book, despite one Amazon reviewer saying "nothing new."
I may go back and leave him a note to the effect that the facts may be nothing new, but the insights seem to be. It's now on my Amazon shopping list.

Riel said...

Seems kind of odd to me that he doesn't seem to mention anything about how the actual (not metaphorical) Internet has enabled so much growth in social connections between autistic people. Yes, there are ways in which people are more connected than ever before, but a lot of that connection is now through computers, and computers have become my primary method of communication overall. And for all that I miss in the way of cues and body language when I'm being forced to imitate "normal" social gestures, I do seem to pick up a lot of things like undertones to people's writing, on the Internet, including things like attitudes that they're trying to hide or cover up with social "nice" words and cues.

Catana said...

Riel, the importance of the internet may be mentioned in the book, but unless Tantam is autistic himself, I doubt that he would realize how much some of us pick up from what people write. As you said, they reveal themselves even when they're not aware of it. In fact, I wonder if we don't get deeper into what the person is really like than those who depend on the usual social cues. Of course, from what I've observed, this may be a comparatively rare talent. I see a lot of the same obliviousness to others' intent on autism forums that I see elsewhere.

You've give me something to think about more thoroughly.

laurentius rex said...

I have just been asked to review this book and it is interesting in reading it to see that in his stumbling way, Digby has made an unwitting discovery, one that the disability movement made long ago, that it is essentially the structure of society that is disabling, not anything in the individual. Essentially it is the changing demands of an increasingly urban and industrialised society that has created the rift between human diversity and what is necessary for the economic production in these conditions.

Digby is not noted in the past for his overly positive portrayals of autistic people, however toward the end of the book he does seem to grasp the point that "group think" is not always a good thing and perhaps that independance of the autistic mind is what has driven much scientific progress (and interestingly he quotes me on page 109 where I state something of this sort)

Don't be misled by mention of the internet in the book, this is not a scholarly book, and Digby is only using that as an analogy for something else.