Autism, or early isolation?

I’ve of­ten heard LWers de­scribe them­selves as hav­ing autism, or Asperger’s Syn­drome (which is no longer con­sid­ered a valid con­struct, and was re­moved from the Di­ag­nos­tic and Statis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Di­sor­ders two years ago.) This is given as an ex­pla­na­tion for var­i­ous forms of so­cial dys­func­tion. The sug­ges­tion is that such peo­ple have a ge­netic di­s­or­der.

I’ve come to think that the is­sues are sel­dom ge­netic in ori­gin. There’s a sim­pler ex­pla­na­tion. LWers are of­ten in­tel­lec­tu­ally gifted. This is con­ducive to early iso­la­tion. In The Out­siders Grady Tow­ers writes:

The sin­gle great­est ad­just­ment prob­lem faced by the in­tel­lec­tu­ally gifted, how­ever, is their ten­dency to be­come iso­lated from the rest of hu­man­ity. Hol­ling­worth points out that the ex­cep­tion­ally gifted do not de­liber­ately choose iso­la­tion, but are forced into it against their wills. Th­ese chil­dren are not un­friendly or un­gre­gar­i­ous by na­ture. Typ­i­cally they strive to play with oth­ers but their efforts are defeated by the difficul­ties of the case… Other chil­dren do not share their in­ter­ests, their vo­cab­u­lary, or their de­sire to or­ga­nize ac­tivi­ties. [...] Forms of soli­tary play de­velop, and these, be­com­ing fixed as habits, may ex­plain the fact that many highly in­tel­lec­tual adults are shy, un­gre­gar­i­ous, and un­mind­ful of hu­man re­la­tion­ships, or even mis­an­thropic and un­com­fortable in or­di­nary so­cial in­ter­course.

Most peo­ple pick up a huge amount of tacit so­cial knowl­edge as chil­dren and ado­les­cents, through very fre­quent in­ter­ac­tion with many peers. This is of­ten not true of in­tel­lec­tu­ally gifted peo­ple, who usu­ally grew up in rel­a­tive iso­la­tion on ac­count of lack of peers who shared their in­ter­ests.

They of­ten have the chance to meet oth­ers similar to them­selves later on in life. One might think that this would re­solve the is­sue. But in many cases in­tel­lec­tu­ally gifted peo­ple sim­ply never learn how benefi­cial it can be to in­ter­act with oth­ers. For ex­am­ple, the great math­e­mat­i­cian Robert Langlands wrote:

Bochner pointed out my ex­is­tence to Selberg and he in­vited me over to speak with him at the In­sti­tute. I have known Selberg for more than 40 years. We are on cor­dial terms and our offices have been es­sen­tially ad­ja­cent for more than 20 years.This is nev­er­the­less the only math­e­mat­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion I ever had with him. It was a rev­e­la­tion.

At first blush, this seems very strange: much of Langlands’ work in­volves gen­er­al­iza­tions of Selberg’s trace for­mula. It seems ob­vi­ous that it would be fruit­ful for Langlands to have spo­ken with Selberg about math more than once, es­pe­cially given that the one con­ver­sa­tion that he had was very fruit­ful! But if one thinks about what their early life ex­pe­riences must have been like, as a cou­ple of the most brilli­ant peo­ple in the world, it sort of makes sense: they plau­si­bly had es­sen­tially no­body to talk to about their in­ter­ests for many years, and if you go for many years with­out hav­ing sub­stan­tive con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple, you might never get into the habit.

When in­tel­lec­tu­ally gifted peo­ple do in­ter­act, one of­ten sees cul­tural clashes, be­cause such peo­ple cre­ated their own cul­tures as a sub­sti­tute for usual cul­tural ac­cli­ma­tion, and share no com­mon back­ground cul­ture. From the in­side, one sees other in­tel­lec­tu­ally gifted peo­ple, rec­og­nizes that they’re very odd by main­stream stan­dards, and thinks “these peo­ple are freaks!” But at the same time, the peo­ple who one sees as freaks see one in the same light, and one is of­ten blind to how un­usual one’s own be­hav­ior is, only in differ­ent ways. Thus, one gets train­wreck sce­nar­ios, as when I in­ad­ver­tently offended dozens of peo­ple when I made strong crit­i­cisms of MIRI and Eliezer back in 2010, just af­ter I joined the LW com­mu­nity.

Grady Tow­ers con­cludes the es­say by writ­ing:

The tragedy is that none of the su­per high IQ so­cieties cre­ated thus far have been able to meet those needs, and the rea­son for this is sim­ple. None of these groups is will­ing to ac­knowl­edge or come to terms with the fact that much of their mem­ber­ship be­long to the psy­cholog­i­cal walk­ing wounded. This alone is enough to ex­plain the con­stant schisms that de­velop, the fre­quent vendet­tas, and the mediocre level of their pub­li­ca­tions. But those are not im­mutable facts; they can be changed. And the first step in do­ing so is to see our­selves as we are.