Too Smart II: Aspergers and math

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Discus: Parents Forum: 2004 Archive - Part 2: Too Smart II: Aspergers and math
By Marite (Marite) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 10:11 am: Edit

Today's NYT (AUg 3, 2004) carries an article on Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. To me, the most interesting passage is:

>>Speaking of Asperger, he said that many people describe the syndrome as "an extreme form of maleness." As he said, "The need for oder, the difficulty in social situations--they're the kind of things you meet commonly in men, particularly in academics." He said a math professor friend thinks "Curious Incident" is not a novel about a young boy with Asperger, but a novel "about a young mathematician with behavioral issues.">>

We had 7 budding mathematicians at our home over the weekend. Thankfully, they seemed to be utterly normal, in a nerdy kind of way. They were all well-behaved and well-spoken and did not seem to be control freaks. Great sigh of relief. I can only hope that my S does not read the article and begin using messiness as a yardstick of normalness.

By Aparent4 (Aparent4) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 10:48 am: Edit

Marite, if you want to read more about that maleness theory, here is a book by one of its main proponents:
I would say that although AS is generally seen as the "geek syndrome," aside from the control, language, and awkwardness isues there is a lack of ability to empathize with others that is its hallmark. (Of course, many believe that men are often less empathic than women, so that tends to go along with the maleness theory.) AS people can intellectually empathize with others -- they can consciously think, "Well, when that happens to me I feel such-and-such so that person must, too," but the rush of feeling, the sharing of the experience, doesn't seem to come naturally. Sacks is very wise in saying that there are all different kinds of AS. Another article on AS in the Times a few months ago noted that many people with AS are only recognizable as such in their own families. So as you note it is not always easy to recognize...

Re AS and Silicon Valley, here's an article from Wired magazine that created a stir: (Scroll down, there's garbage at the top).

Oh, for an explanation of the messy room syndrome... ;-)

By Marite (Marite) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 10:59 am: Edit


Thanks for the reference!

By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 05:31 pm: Edit

Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University is the primary force on the "extreme male" theory of Aspergers/Austism spectrum. He has broad support in some parts of the psychiatric/psychological community.

Whilst the cluster of patterns described has been given an official "name"(Aspergers), there are still physicians and others who are reluctant to "overpathologize" and aren't so happy about the "labeling" aspect. As is true for many types of's only a problem if it's a problem! Each child is unique...there are, to quote Dr. Mel Levine, "All Kinds of Minds" and there is no compelling reason why any given type of mind has to be well suited to all endeavors!!

By Marite (Marite) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 05:35 pm: Edit

My S's cousin is borderline Asperger's and I can tell you, it's real, and it's a considerable source of concern for his parents. It's not a matter of being suited to all endeavors. It's having a rather debilitating characteristic. We cheer Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident when he manages to get himself from Swindon to London. But hey, for most people, using public transportation is not such a perilous odyssey.

By Aparent4 (Aparent4) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 06:23 pm: Edit

Robyrm, the link in my post is to one of Baron-Cohen's books. It's true that it's important not to overpathologize or to use labels in a reductive way. It is truly sad when kids are reduced to a diagnosis and when the adults in their lives begin to interact with them as though they were their particular disorder.

However, for adults living with AS the diagnosis can go a long way to explaining some pretty baffling and intransigent relationship difficulties. Many adult "Aspies" and their partners have been through years of individual and couples treatment with little improvement because the AS diagnostic criteria are so recent and still understood very little. Frequently the diagnosis is most helpful to the spouse or partner, who can now understand things like avoidance of eye contact, jokes not laughed at, and lack of endearments and empathy in a different, less painful light.

If I had a child diagnosed with AS, I wouldn't see cause for alarm but I would take the opportunity to get a head start on coaching in nonverbal communication and other social skills.

By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 06:32 pm: Edit

I am happy to defer to your personal experience regarding your neice or nephew, however, please know that "Aspergers syndrome" is a cluster of observed findings which is defined by psychiatrists as a diagnosis. The diagnosis is made by checking off a certain number of characteristics on a check list (following observation and discussion). As is true for all diagnoses made in this somewhat subjective manner, there is room for concern. The same is true for ADD, for example. If the book (DSM IV- R) says, for example, that a person needs 7 check marks to be diagnosed, does that mean that a person with 5 characteristics that are very severe isn't also worth diagnosing--for example...(just one of the problems with this approach)

Some individuals in the field describe Aspergers as a "whiff of Autism." It is currently seen as part of the Autism Spectrum of diagnoses, though this is the subject of debate.

If there can be a whiff of Autism, then why can't there be a whiff of Aspergers...and when do we stop labeling variations in human nature and development as abnormal...I think this is the point of the Dr. Levine approach, that we have to understand, describe and demystify, support and remediate and perhaps most importantly nurture strengths. For some children/adults/families this is best accomplished without labeling, for others the label seems to faciliate the process. For another perspective on this, if you are so inclined, try "Quirky Kids" by Perry Klass, M.D. as well.

By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 06:44 pm: Edit

Aparent, I work as a professional in this area. I perform very thorough assessments of children in terms of their development, behavior, attention, etc. After I do this, I write very thorough reports with extensive information about how to best understand and support the child.

From that point on my job is to help the child, parents and teachers understand and work with and for the child. I can't tell you how discouraged I get when someone focuses solely on the label or diagnosis-- as if hearing that someone is Aspergers or ADD is all they have to know about the child.

Each individual with ADD or Aspergers is as different from one another as are all those of us who don't have a diagnosis! Each person deserves to be fully understood. As I said in the previous post, for some people, the "diagnosis" facilitates this.

The most successful children I have treated with any developmental diagnoses are the ones whose parents use the process of diagnosis to understand not only areas of weakness, but also areas of strength. They move ahead in a proactive manner as you describe in terms of therapeutic interventions, but they also "strengthen strengths". Too often, however, there is an overfocus on what is wrong, and on remediating and making this better.

By Marite (Marite) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 06:46 pm: Edit

My s's cousin is one who could be described as having a whiff of Asperger's since he has been diagnosed as borderline (he also has been diagnosed as having ADD as well as Asperger).
For his parents and teachers, it has been very useful to have this diagnosis, instead of labeling him as retarded (would not follow instructions), disobedient (ditto), rebellious, impolite, etc... The diagnosis was made around the time when his parents, being upset that he was being labeled as retarded in kindergarten and 1st grade, took him in for IQ testing which, of course, put him in the gifted category. So why could this supposedly gifted kid not follow simple directions? When the answer came it was a relief to all concerned.

By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 06:50 pm: Edit

I am sure this was/is true, and hopefully it is his "giftedness" which will ultimately define him, and not his other variations...

By Ohio_Mom (Ohio_Mom) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 07:26 pm: Edit

Well, my son doesn't have a 'whiff of Asperger's' but my husband, and many of my male friends - now that's another story. My husband in particular drove his first grade teacher (a first year teacher, poor thing) right out of the profession. Too smart kid, wouldn't follow directions, stood in the closet making weird noises. Hum.

By Aparent4 (Aparent4) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 07:53 pm: Edit

Robyrm, ah, there are so many professionals here on these boards. ;-) You are fighting the good fight in refusing to define your patients by a DSM code. Nonetheless for those living with AS adults, the diagnosis can provide welcome relief and a new way forward, after what has often been a very difficult life. Remember that there is a whole adult population out there that had many of the signs and symptoms -- and had bewildered spouses who suffered -- long before the diagnosis entered the DSM.

Marite, your story reminded me of the probably apocryphal one about Einstein's being a poor student who was thought to be stupid. He is often on the list of famous people who probably had AS traits. The most famous living one is, of course, Bill Gates.

By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 08:19 pm: Edit

Aparent4..Glad for all professional input..always..and glad for all non-professional input as well-- both of which are abundant on these boards, fortunately. Sorry to credential my opinion- not intending to imply otherwise.

Some of my best lessons are learned in life. My undergraduate school (MIT) is/was populated by kids who were celebrated for their successes, and misunderstood for some of their attributes. I didn't know anything about AS as an undergraduate. All I knew was that people could be unevenly brilliant, and that they flourished in environments where this was understood.

Interestingly, there is possibly going to be an ongoing study of children of MIT alums who married MIT alums...looking at the incidence of AS as there is speculation about the incidence of undiagnosed individuals (as you note). Our family is a "genetic pressure cooker" in this regard. Alas, my children are uniquely unique in their own right- but without a whiff of AS among them...((by my estimation!!)

So, while I diagnose with reluctance (and with integrity), I do appreciate the positive significance to many of doing so. I just also feel that it never hurts to "accentuate the positive."

By Mom101 (Mom101) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 08:50 pm: Edit

Robyrm, I'm fascinated that there would be such a study. I know serveral Asperger and full blown autistic children of brilliant scientists and mathmaticians. Someone should include employees of places like Stanford Research Institute and hedge fund partner families in similar studies. I've wondered for a long time about the connection.

By Marite (Marite) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 08:58 pm: Edit


In some cases, the diagnosis of AS is correct. In other cases, it may be a case of asynchronous development. When my S was in grad school and his group was joined by a 17-year old, the rest of the group lamented the 17-year old's lack of social skills. It is very possible that, even knowing his age, they expected behavior that came more easily to 24-25 year olds. So it may be that a place like MIT, which readily accepts younger students, has a higher proportion of such students than a college that is full of the above average students.
We''re all hoping that my S's cousin will be able to develop his positive attributes. His mom is concerned about his inability to make friends, though.

By Tkdgal (Tkdgal) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 09:17 pm: Edit

I haven't read every story entirely, but I'd just like to share a story.

One of my brothers, the second of 6 (I am the eldest), was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. This was around 1990. At that time, he didn't speak at all. He screamed and harmed himself physically by banging his head against the wall or hitting himself when people didn't understand him. Before his diagnosis, it was thought that he was deaf.

Although he was not performing at all socially, he showed an intrest, no, an obsession with order. Before other kids his age even learned what to do with blocks, he was building color-coded houses and organizing his toys by size, color, usage, etc. He started using a computer and learning how to operate all the electronics in our house (stereos, vcrs, electronic keyboards, etc.) at age three. He could also replace batteries, fix the tracking while watching a video, And repair other minor things.

He still didn't communicate well for many years. He was more like a parrot, memorizing combinations of words and repeating them as he heard them. He would speak in idioms or song lyrics without any idea what he was really saying. He did not in any way understand humor or sarcasm and would watch sitcoms and laugh when the "audience" laughed. He couldn't tell a story. When stimulated, instead of laughing or talking about it he would flap his hands like a hummingbird and jump around.

He was sent to special education schools in the state of New York at age 2 and a half. He was thrown in with all kinds of kids, even mentally retarded ones. My parents decided after first grade (age 6) to mainstream him into public school, with his own aid in the classroom. We were moving to NJ at the time, so Mike re-did the first grade in a new public school.

He's 15 now, and will be a freshman at our public high school next year. The aid was removed after the 7th grade. He's taking high level courses and has always maintained an A average, even though his standardized test scores are usually in the high 80's in math and the low 50's (if that) in verbal. He is still one of the most socially challenged kids you will ever meet. He cannot create his own stories or analyze literature, because he doesn't understand idiom to this day. Abstract math concepts are a challenge as well, but the kid is gifted in other ways.

He has the best memory of any child I have ever seen. He is like a human calculator for simple tasks, and while most young kids have to labor learning to spell annoying words, he would look at the list once and know it. he will become obsessed with something for a while, like football or the Beatles, and know EVERYTHING there ever was to know about the subject. He knows who won every superbowl, what the score was, where it was played, etc. etc. He knows how many shows the Grateful Dead played in 1976, and how many times they played "Casey Jones" in 1977. He knows every lyric to every Bruce Springsteen song, and every note to every lyric. He knows the exact date and time important events in his life happened. He excells in music because he can play by ear and memorize pieces (he plays the alto sax, guitar, and bass.) He can take apart anything electronic and put it back together again.

Recently doctors have been saying that my brother has Asperger's Syndrome. When he was younger, his autism was moderate but hardly mild - sure, he could speak and do simple tasks but he was pretty much socially retarded. Now, speaking to him, one would call him "weird" but not what they used to presume - handicapped, challenged, etc. He is very difficult to deal with sometimes, because he has also been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder.

Not to mention, he is a very attractive guy and doesn;t have a clue what to do when unsuspecting girls flirt with him!

"The most successful children I have treated with any developmental diagnoses are the ones whose parents use the process of diagnosis to understand not only areas of weakness, but also areas of strength. " This struck a chord, Robyrm. My parents, I believe, have done well by my brother. By being in a family of 8, he is constantly forced to be social. However, my parents do allow him to do what he wants with his gifts as far as computer programming, playing music, reading baseball cards, or obsessing over the stock market. I volunteer with handicapped kids (as does my brother - he's a big inspiration for the kids!), and I have met/worked with many kids with autism/Asperger's. Even though they are hard to understand, many of them are gifted mentally one way or another. I knew a boy with Asperger's who taught himself Spanish (and he was brought up bilingual in English/French!) and one who could recite the lines from all his favorite movies. :) This thread is interesting...

By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 09:19 pm: Edit

Mom101- Simon Baron-Cohen (previously referenced on this thread) will be the advisor...but beyond that I am not exactly sure how it will take place.. It is in the very early stages. I agree, there are other places where an equally disproportionate number of "likelies" might exist. AS is a relatively new diagnosis, and surely there will be a range of epidemiological studies in the future.

Marite- Asynchrony is so significant- I fully agree. But wouldn't the world be a blander place if we were all evenly developed? There lies the rub... As for your son's cousin, II completely appreciate the friendship making concern. Conventional social skills training is not well generalized, unfortunately. Kids with AS, like other kids but moreso, make their best friends in places where they share interests and passions- where they feel at the top of their game. In my experience they can be uniquely well suited- as a result- for self contained gifted programs. The problem is, there can be a dearth of kids with good social skills in these environments! So, prosocial instruction needs to be a curricular focus...The teen years are a particular challenge, admittedly- increased desire to be like others, to be liked by others, but without the ability to implement. Given that the child was diagnosed at a young age, there, hopefully will be plenty of time to anticipate this...

By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 09:34 pm: Edit

Tdgal- thanks for the story of your brother. I am sure the doctors have told your parents that what is now called AS sometimes was/is sometimes called "high functioning Autism"...some find the AS diagnosis more palatable. The truth is, not everyone is sure that AS is on the same spectrum as Autism at all...time, and lots of relevant research is needed. I also had a younger brother with learning/developmental issues (not AS, just learning and attention issues) and I am sure that this is why I (on some subconscious level) took professional interest in what I do.

Your brother is lucky to have parents and siblings who can see a light!

By Marite (Marite) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 09:54 pm: Edit


I forgot to thank you for the reference to Perri Klass. I used to read a lot of her columns, but I have not read this book. I'll send a copy to my SIL. She has a math-advanced child, if I remember.

By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - 10:02 pm: Edit

The co-author is Eileen Costello. Both practice in the Boston area I think...I think the book is refreshing in that it helps to understand the process of understanding a child. Hope it resonates with your SIL and provides information and hope!

There is also a website/organization about "twice exceptional" kids that might be useful to her.

By Emptynester (Emptynester) on Wednesday, August 04, 2004 - 09:39 am: Edit

Robyrm, thank you for the book recs (also a big Klass fan) and I am really enjoying your posts. Thank you for your pov. The idea of studying families is fascinating to me. My own family has several generations of "quirky" -- one of the few labels okay with me. My sons during the ages 2-4 attended a very low key, loosely organized nursery school three afternoons a week. It was not uncommon for parents to have a psychologist come in to evaluate their child for kindergarten readiness. Always the psychologist expressed concern to the teachers about my children. I would have been concerned too if I didn't remember most of their unusual behaviors in my younger brothers and wasn't constantly reassured by great aunts that all the little boys in the family were *a handful* and that they all turned out fine. One of these boys, a psychiatrist, was adamant my sons not be given meds. He also told me that since our children tend to be highly intelligent, my take on what *normal* means is very skewed.

By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Wednesday, August 04, 2004 - 06:50 pm: Edit

Emptynester- hope you enjoy the Klass book...another one I like is "successful intelligence" by Robert Sternberg, a Yale Psychologist. It is not specifically about quirky kids, but more a discussion of how to translate intelligence into "success"- even in the context of a varied and unique individual! I saw him speak about 6 years ago at a "Conference on Thinking" in Singapore. I am not sure he resonated with others as much as he did me (he is not formulaic)- but I have liked all his books.

By Marite (Marite) on Wednesday, August 04, 2004 - 09:14 pm: Edit


Did I read somewhere that Robert Sternberg is trying to develop (with the blessings of the College Board) an alternative to the SAT? Do you know about this?

By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Wednesday, August 04, 2004 - 10:12 pm: Edit


Hadn't heard. He is a broad thinker and probably would have something useful to contribute to the process though!

By Aparent4 (Aparent4) on Wednesday, August 04, 2004 - 10:25 pm: Edit

Marite, yes, Sternberg wants to test kinds of intelligence other than analytical.
He has a theory of multiple intelligences that's a bit different from Gardner's but also interesting.

When d was looking at Yale I seem to remember reading that Sternberg teaches their intro to psych class and that it's one of the most popular courses on campus.

By Reidmc (Reidmc) on Wednesday, August 04, 2004 - 10:57 pm: Edit

Aparent - Thanks for that link. Very interesting article.

By Midwesterner (Midwesterner) on Thursday, August 05, 2004 - 03:32 pm: Edit

Thanks to all who started or contributed to this thread. Asperger's syndrome, and related issues, are not well understood, perhaps because they do take many forms. Members of my family have AS characteristics that can be seen over five generations, so I lot of what I'll comment on is anecdotal.

As others have mentioned, family, school and peer group situations can make a huge difference in the adjustment level of those with Asperger's.

Isolation is the worst thing, in my opinion. Although AS people tend to need a large amount of private time, they also need, on a different level, the stimulation of normalizing activity. I think today's smaller families have increased the isolation of some kids, exacerbating the problems and lessening the adjustment to situations with a variety of people. Think of the difference in activities over two generations: watching TV alone in a room versus visiting the relatives every Sunday; getting information over the internet versus talking to a knowledgeable adult, etc. I'd compare it to the small, insidious ways our physiques have changed due to the automobile. So, are we seeing an increase in AS or an increase in AS people with low coping strategies?

As to the incidence of high AS among computer programmers, I'd have to agree that the nature of the work is a perfect marriage with AS. Solo working conditions, deep concentration, the responsiveness of the machine to straightforward yes/no commands - these are ideal for AS. You can find high levels among accountants, actuaries, bridge and chess players, among others. And these groups have compensated for the way their members think - some have precisely written rules for many behaviors which other groups would not think of regulating. Knowing the specifics of interaction is actually a very freeing situation when you have AS. Being judged on your strengths rather than your weaknesses is another wonderful de-stresser.

Getting back to the comments on "extreme maleness", I do think that women have a number of coping strategies that lessen their Asperger-related problems. To begin with, women's brains are known to have more neural connections than men's, which aid in making behavioral judgements. I think women tend to be better at self-assessment and correction. And, women benefit greatly from having spent time in female-dominated social groups, which offer support to those who need it, and are wonderfully educational in the way they analyze social behaviors (aka gossip!).

By Marite (Marite) on Thursday, August 05, 2004 - 03:47 pm: Edit

Proposed alternative to SAT assesses creative and practical skills

April 2003

"Researchers Call SAT Alternative Better Predictor of College Success," Sean Cavanagh. Economist (, January 29, 2003.

Robert J. Sternberg, a professor of psychology at Yale University, has completed the first phase of a project he believes could produce a college admissions test that is a stronger predictor of success in college than the SAT, and more fair to underrepresented minorities. His premise is that the SAT, taken about 2.6 million times each year, measures primarily memory and analytical ability, rather than creative or practical skills.

As director of the Rainbow Project, which is funded by the College Board, the New York-based non-profit that sponsors the SAT, Sternberg has designed an alternative exam that is expected to augment, rather than replace, the SAT. "We see this as not just a project, but a step to transform education -- that will change the way we teach in the classroom," he says.

Full text at:

By Emptynester (Emptynester) on Friday, August 06, 2004 - 09:40 am: Edit

So, are we seeing an increase in AS or an increase in AS people with low coping strategies?

Midwesterner.. I enjoyed your post and my own family experiences confirm all your observations. Recently I have been wondering if individuals whose behaviors are sometimes outside the *norm* may have been more accepted in close knit rural communities that have a tradition of oral history/story telling. Even though their behavior may be frustrating to their family and neighbors, it's not necessarily a surprise and the community has had a couple of generations to develop some coping mechanisms of its own. My musings on this began last year at a family reunion when someone asked me "does anyone here understand this behavior isn't normal?" I had to think about the answer for a while because though the behavior might not be "normal" it certainly wasn't unusual.

By Ohio_Mom (Ohio_Mom) on Monday, August 09, 2004 - 05:29 pm: Edit


My husband's early experiences with being too smart in N. MN lead me to believe that his family must have provided exactly the correct coping mechanisms: multiple siblings, lots of cousins, great aunts from the old country (Sweden), accepting parents, woods to play in ... his schools sent him around on his own (on public transportation) to attend advanced math and science classes.

This thread really makes me wonder how things would have gone if he had been raised in a city as an only child - more social pressure, I would think - that go hand in hand with many advantages. And more noise - one can reasonably by oneself in the north woods (providing one watches for bears) - and think, and enjoy the quiet.

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