Autism and Lesswrong

by CuSithBell1 min read7th Apr 201129 comments

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I am turning over in my head an idea for a discussion post. This preliminary post has two main purposes:

  1. Do we have statistics for where lesswrong readers / posters lie on the Autism spectrum? 
  2. What are your thoughts on the relationship (if any) between lesswrong and autism (and, perhaps, between rationality and autism)? 
Can you help me out?

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I would like to take this opportunity to point out that "nerdiness" is not the same as autism, and to voice my opinion that the relationship of autism to interest in rationality has been overemphasized, possibly severely. Autism is only one possible cause of "nerdiness"; if a person (to use a completely hypothetical example) happens to suffer from a combination of high intelligence, OCD, and social anxiety, they may have all the usual "symptoms" -- such as hating small-talk, having trouble getting dates with "normal" people, et cetera -- without being autistic at all.

Do we have statistics for where lesswrong readers / posters lie on the Autism spectrum?

We sure do.

Great, thank you! When I did my initial search I must have skipped over that somehow.

I don't feel qualified to comment on the relationship between LW and autism (I am, however, neurotypical). Rationality qua science of winning at life seems like it might have some tangential relevance, but only insofar as it could formalize certain aspects of living that those on the autistic spectrum might have trouble with in their native form; I don't see a causal arrow pointing the other way. We could probably expect neurotypicals to have an easier time with social rationality relative to, say, financial, but that doesn't seem like too much of a surprise.

On the other hand, if you're looking for an anecdotal and wholly unscientific outside view, a friend of mine once compared reading the "Torture vs. Dust Specks" thread to watching a batch of homunculi try to sort out the finer points of human interaction. Which carries a certain irony given our relationship with machine ethics, now that I think about it.

a friend of mine once compared reading the "Torture vs. Dust Specks" thread to watching a batch of homunculi try to sort out the finer points of human interaction.

This one feels similar. Some excellent comments, but ...

That's an interesting observation. Similarly, I am currently working on formalizing some aspects of social interaction for AI, and there's an obvious connection to explicitly developing social skills in those who don't develop them by traditional means.

We have some stats, which may or may not meet your desired standards of rigor.

(I didn't take the poll back then. I'm diagnosed with Asperger's, but usually say "autism" instead, because the word is prettier and because it's all spectrum-y.)

Excellent. And of course, any poll thread on lesswrong will be 10% poll and 90% arguing about bias and rigor.

Since you volunteered the info, do you have any particular notions about how lesswrong and/or rationality have interacted with your autism? Though I personally suspect this sort of thing is in general difficult to analyze in that manner.

It's a very noisy question. I can speculate wildly, if that's what you want. Hrm...

  • Autism correlates with geekiness correlates with internet use. Internet being the delivery mechanism of LW content (to the point where there's no other way to get into LW - unlike, say, a knitting site, which could attract people who got into knitting through an offline meme source), that's a filter. You have to be somebody who's willing to acquire online hobbies.

  • LW is not a haven for dreaded "small talk". (I don't dread small talk anymore, but I used to.) Jokes and so on happen, but it's not a site where a bunch of people get flung together and Have Social Interactions: instead, there's a topic. This is probably more comfortable for autistic types. The only other online community I've become heavily involved in was one based around play-by-post D&D, which, again, is a topic.

  • The design is good. LW has an inoffensive color scheme. Nothing flashes or animates at me. It doesn't change layout in a visually noticeable way often. It's the website equivalent of a comfy chair in a quiet room.

  • There are several angles from which one can become a competent LWer. This allows people with various niche interests to congregate and pool skills. It's a common autistic trait to pick up special interests like that, so any community with a topic one could approach via (say) math or philosophy might attract a similar crowd. However, once someone's attracted, rationality is sufficiently applicable to miscellaneous topics that it can maintain a hold on someone whose interests change. (This is not personal speculation, since I don't think I really do the "special interest" part of my diagnosis unless you really squint.)

I can speculate wildly, if that's what you want.

This is all that I want in the world.

These are some interesting points. I'll particularly have to consider #2 at greater length.

I think that the association between autism and literalism may relate to reason as a memetic immune disorder. My speculation is that autistic individuals are more likely to notice something wrong with belief as attire and mysterious answers, because they expect beliefs to say something concrete and comprehensible about reality.

The reasons that Alicorn provided probably also have something to do with it.

Interesting. I certainly get the feeling that there is a general perception of some sort of connection here. According to my own vague touchy-feely personal-experience speculation, I expect autistic individuals to be more likely to think of themselves as more rational. As to whether they are, I'm much less sure.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

.

Side comment: Who else thinks "neurotypical" is a really bad term?

It's an ugly term in a lot of ways, but the terminology of psychology is so fraught with drama that using it is more attractive than searching for a new one.

I do, for the same reasons you've given.

What do you dislike about it?

It implies that position on the autism spectrum is the only relevant factor in describing a person's 'neural type'. Further, it implies that someone who is not autistic is 'neurally typical'. I believe that both of these are incorrect.

ADHD folks use the neurotypical phrase as well, as a contrast to themselves. Less so that autistic folks but it still crops up.

I agree that the there is plenty of room for improvement in the terminology there. I'd work on fixing 'neurotypical' just as soon as I was done fixing the 'disorder' label in ADHD.

I agree that the there is plenty of room for improvement in the terminology there. I'd work on fixing 'neurotypical' just as soon as I was done fixing the 'disorder' label in ADHD.

Well, yes, precisely: the problem with "neurotypical" is that it's politics and social status marking more than anything to do with an individual's neurology. More so than every term is, I mean. Its entire purpose seems to be a bit reframing, a bit "take that!"

What does its use usefully predict?

Well, yes, precisely: the problem with "neurotypical" is that it's politics and social status marking more than anything to do with an individual's neurology. More so than every term is, I mean. Its entire purpose seems to be a bit reframing, a bit "take that!"

I see it used far more as a natural descriptor defined by not having a known set of symptoms. We seem to disagree about the state of the universe here.

What does its use usefully predict?

Expected degree of sensitivity to clothing fabrics. What is likely to happen when you look at their eyes. At a young age it predicts that you are more likely to get confused about whether a duck will appear in a photograph if the duck is removed from the scene after the photograph has been taken. It predicts that you are more likely to accurately deduce what another child believes about the contents of a smarties packet when you have more information than them.

Expected degree of sensitivity to clothing fabrics.

Note above that the term also apparently describes "not bipolar", and other things, just in this thread. Do you have references to studies on bipolarity versus fabric sensitivity? ADHD versus fabric sensitivity?

If you're defining it to mean "not autistic or aspergic", what advantage in communication does it have over "not autistic or aspergic"?

I see it used far more as a natural descriptor defined by not having a known set of symptoms.

Its use as a term that attempts to demedicalise autism, and now bipolar and ADHD as well, may well be a good idea, but is entirely politics.

what advantage in communication does it have over "not autistic or aspergic"?

It is one word not four. Humans always invent jargon terms if they are in a subculture that requires repeated reference to a specific concept.

It also allows to some extent to include the not-bipolar, not-ADHD things by default which is useful. Because it is easier easier to have general discussions about category if you can conveniently eliminate most of the outliers.

Do you have references to studies on bipolarity versus fabric sensitivity? ADHD versus fabric sensitivity?

For what it is worth, look at Hallowell for information on fabric sensitivity and ADHD. But not only is the way you have framed a demand for references a tad disingenuous bipoar/ADHD fabric sensitivity is not even required for the point. (And I have no specific information regarding bipolar clothing.)

If autistics tend to have greater fabric sensitivity than average then the average of that trait in non-autistics is going to be higher than either the autistic group or the whole population. That provides predictive power.

Excluding bipolarity and ADHDness is a strength of the term, not a weakness. Once you throw out all the complicated outliers you can have an easier time just describing what makes bipolar (or autism or ADHD) what it is.

I know a bipolar woman who uses the phrase neurotypical in contrast to her mind-type.

As someone not super familiar with the lingo, I always assumed this referred to more than just non-autistic.

While 'Kipedia (and the highest-ranked batch of google results) say it's autism-specific, there is anecdotal evidence of alternate usage. It certainly sounds like it'd refer to more, and the Wikipedia article itself conflates "not on the autism spectrum" with "neurological development and states that are consistent with what most people would perceive as normal, particularly with respect to their ability to process linguistic information and social cues."

There's certainly a lot of confusion and variance in usage within this very thread.

[-][anonymous]5y 0

My total Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) score is zero, '0'. So, there are autists who would label me ''neurotypical''.

Anyone familiar with my posting history can be confident that the face validity of that term is way off.

Do we have statistics for where lesswrong readers / posters lie on the Autism spectrum?

We had surveys a while back but I'm not sure if that was one of the questions. I'm not sure how useful the direct autistic poll is. We can calculate a lower bound for the proportion of autistic folks in the population simply by taking the number of people who have explicitly declared they are on the autistic spectrum and dividing by active posters. Even that lower bound is far higher than in the general population. (But complicated somewhat by a high proportion of self diagnosis).

What are your thoughts on the relationship (if any) between lesswrong and autism

Overwhelmingly large. It is somewhat of a haven where the worst of what an autistic person hates in discussion is minimized.

(and, perhaps, between rationality and autism)?

Still overwhelmingly large. Explicitly thinking rationality to a significant degree is more or less a cognitive defect in terms of diverging from the usual naturally successful behavior for humans. I expect a clear majority of people that are described as 'rationalists' to fit somewhere on the autistic spectrum, at least in as much as having tendencies that way.