Psychologist Enrico Gnaulati suggests that contemporary psychologists and educators are caught in too tight a prior, and that prior leads to the misdiagnosis of ordinary behavior by brainy children as some sort of disorder. In his Salon essay, an excerpt from his recent Back to Normal, he suggests that the erroneous prior is in viewing differences in the play of boys and girls as a social construct, rather than an evolutionarily stable strategy.
It’s this public discomfort with discussing children’s gendered behavior that gets many traditionally masculine boys inappropriately labeled as high-functioning autistic. Poor eye contact, long-winded monologues about one’s new favorite topic, being overly serious and businesslike, appearing uninterested in other’s facial expressions, and restricting friendships to those who share one’s interests, may all be signs of Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism. However, these same traits typify boys who are traditionally masculine in their behavior.There's a lot of content in the essay, and I may have to add the book to the next library requisition. For now, concentrate on three paragraphs toward the end.
Highly intelligent boys who happen to be introverted by temperament are probably the subpopulation of kids who are most likely to be erroneously labeled autistic. In her provocatively titled Psychology Today article “Revenge of the Introvert,” Laurie Helgoe, a self-described card-carrying introvert, captures a key personality characteristic of introverts: “[They] like to think before responding—many prefer to think out what they want to say in advance—and seek facts before expressing opinions.” Introverted, highly intelligent boys may appear vacant and nonresponsive when asked a question like “What is your favorite animal?” Yet in their minds, they may be deeply and actively processing copious amounts of information on types and defining features of animals and zeroing in on precise words to use to articulate their complex thoughts. Thirty seconds, a minute, or even more time may pass before an answer is supplied. In the meantime, the listener might wonder if the boy is deaf or completely self-absorbed.The generalization to pursuing an academic vocation or designing a model railroad is left to the reader as an exercise.
According to Laurie Helgoe: “Introverts seek time alone because they want time alone.” Brainy, introverted boys may cherish and look forward to alone time, which allows them the opportunity to indulge their intellectual appetites full throttle, amassing knowledge through reading or Internet searches. Solitude creates the time and space they need to totally immerse themselves in their preferred interests. They may get more turned on by studying ideas, pursuing science projects, or by solving math problems than by conversing with people.
In our extroverted culture, where being a “team player” and a “people person” are seen as linchpins of normalcy, the notion that a brainy, introverted boy might legitimately prefer the world of ideas over the world of people is hard for most people to accept. Parents of such boys may feel terribly uneasy about their tendency to want to be alone and try to push their sons to be sociable and to make more friends. But if you get to know such boys, they would much rather be alone reading, writing, or pursuing projects that stimulate their intellect than be socializing with peers who are not their intellectual equals. However, once they come into contact with a kindred spirit, someone who is a true intellectual equal with whom they can share the fullness of their ideas, that person just might become a lifelong friend. Around such kindred spirits, brainy, introverted boys can perk up and appear more extroverted and outgoing, wanting to talk as well as to listen. With people who share their interests, especially people who possess equal or greater knowledge in these areas, brainy, introverted boys can display quite normal social skills.
Reflect, though, dear reader, on those areas of society where the extroverts dominate the culture. Greek-letter organizations. Business. Politics. How well have those areas been performing lately?
When we mistake a brainy, introverted boy for an autism spectrum disordered one, we devalue his mental gifts. We view his ability to become wholeheartedly engrossed in a topic as a symptom that needs to be stamped out, rather than a form of intellectualism that needs to be cultivated.Indeed.