Wikipedia:High-functioning autism and Asperger's editors

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A group of students and their family members carrying a sign saying "Different Not Less: We Are United" with different coloured puzzle pieces on the sign
Students and families walk to support Autism Awareness Month.

Wikipedia is the ultimate honeypot! If a group of researchers had been given the task of creating a working/hobby environment specifically designed to attract high-functioning autistics, they could not have come up with anything better than Wikipedia! If anyone's curiosity is piqued by this idea, do the test.[1] "Normal" people will generally score under 20, while people with high-level math functions often score in the 20–30 range. But remember, the autism spectrum is not a threshold, it's a continuum. (Note: Please be aware that autism can only be legally diagnosed by a licensed professional or a group of licensed professionals.)

As with many things, when it comes to real-world applications, high-functioning autism and Asperger's are probably best not thought of as "disorders" or "disabilities", as they're really just differences in thought-processing methods. Adding the label of disorder or disability changes the way we think about things; it shifts us into the paradigm of "abnormality", whereas in real terms it can be just "less usual", in the same way that some hair colours, some eye colours, etc. are "less usual".

The hard-wiring of brains[edit]

The human brain has millions upon millions of nerve fibres, and connections (like switches) between those fibres. It can be thought of as being a bit like the insides of an incredibly complex computer. Different areas of the brain specialize in different functions. Some areas have vast amounts of wiring (or very highly active wiring), and some have more sparse (or less active) wiring.

Everybody's brain is unique. Areas where there is a greater intensity of wiring than average usually result in that person having stronger abilities, particular skills, talents, and genius-abilities, than the average person does, and areas where there is more-sparse-than-average wiring generally result in abilities a bit lower than average for those functions. This is all "normal" – different people are just wired-up differently. This helps explain why some people are much better at maths than other people, whereas others are much better at art, or sports, or fact-learning subjects like history and geography.

Our brain is a living thing. It can adapt, to a degree. If we learn a new skill, or if we practice more with an existing skill, our brain will increase the intensity of the wiring and the number of connections in the area which deals with that skill. A bit like a computer which can re-wire itself and add in extra peripherals when needed. If one part of the brain gets physically damaged, the rest can often adapt (to a degree) by building new wiring pathways to circumvent that damage (with the right training and support). This all said, natural predispositions also still exist. Some people have natural talents or are predisposed to excelling at certain tasks such that even with practice, it is not likely that everybody can learn every skill.

Explaining the differences[edit]

When using the computer metaphor[2] for brain structure and function, the majority of people – i.e. those who are "neurotypical" – have very intense / active wiring in typical areas of their brains, and much more sparse / inactive wiring in other areas, as standard. That's what their "default settings" are; it's how they're born. Autism-spectrum people, including Asperger's people, have more sparse (or inactive) wiring in some of the areas where neurotypicals are heavily wired, and more intense (or more active) – sometimes much more intense – wiring in different areas. If the "activity" of the circuits in some areas of neurotypical brains is temporarily reduced, they temporarily perceive the world more like autistics do.[3][4][5][6][7][8]

The only generalisations we can make are as follows:

  • Typically, one of the areas which is less-actively-wired than average, for people with autism and/or Asperger's, is the area dealing with innate comprehension of some social interactions, and some other functions which are processed in the same area. This means that some things just "don't come naturally" in the way that they do with neurotypical people.
  • Typically, People with autism and/or Asperger's will have one or more things which "come naturally" to them which don't for neurotypicals; this won't be the same talent-set for all People with autism and/or Asperger's, as there's a lot of variety here. And there is very often a difference in the way that language is processed, too. People with autism and/or Asperger's are often hard-wired to interpret things very literally, and to focus on detail. They often tend to say everything that needs to be said, and expect others to do so as well. That's the default setting.

This means sometimes we have trouble with misunderstandings.

Imagine three people, all listening to the same piece of music, but on different systems. One person's system has the treble turned up and the mid-range and bass turned down; one has the mid-range turned up but the treble and bass turned down; the third has the bass turned up but the mid-range and treble turned down. That's like having two A-spectrum people and a neurotypical in the same room. It's the same piece of music they're all listening to, but it sounds completely different to each one of them, and they can't help the fact that it sounds different. They can't adjust their ears! If none of them realise that the music is balanced differently for each of them, then they're each going to end up thinking that the other two are stupid, stubborn, lazy, crazy, or whatever, for not being able to understand what they personally hear so obviously and clearly. (See also Blind men and an elephant#The story)

Once we understand these differences, it becomes easier not just to deal with them, but to make really good use of them.

People with autism and/or Asperger's can be capable of really intense concentration and focus on things which other people just don't find gripping. This has an up-side and a down-side.

The down-side is that it can be really hard for A-spectrum editors to drop the stick and let something go. Much, much harder than it is for neurotypicals; like having a raging thirst and being told you're not allowed to drink what's in front of you. That's not an excuse for carrying on doing that, it's just something which A-spectrum editors need to be aware of and take special care with. Neurotypical editors should help them let go by kindly and clearly reminding them about it; maybe finding something much more interesting for them to focus on instead.

The up-side is that an A-spectrum editor "on a mission" can be the most indefatigable researcher and fixer-of-things. All the WikiTasks which obsessive-compulsives excel at, A-spectrum editors are also worth their weight in gold on. A-spectrum editors can turn out, from scratch, a Featured Article quality piece of work in just a few days, if they get hooked on doing it, and if they're hooked, they can do it easily.

A-spectrum editors may have a phenomenal data-storage type of memory. The down-side is that memories of past tiffs and emotional baggage left over from Real Life can get in the way. The up-side is that, once they've learned WP's policies, they know them inside out and backwards and can think up loads of ways of explaining them, which is incredibly helpful when dealing with A-spectrum newbies. A neurotypical's best helper for training an A-spectrum newbie is to have a well-versed A-spectrum oldie on hand.

Dealing with it in the WikiWorld[edit]

Some people, whether on the autism spectrum or not, just don't belong in Wikipedia. Vandals, trolls, and abusive and disruptive editors can be blocked or banned, and being on the autism spectrum is no excuse for unacceptable behaviour.

On the other hand, some of our very best editors are on the autism spectrum, and we have some excellent autism-spectrum admins here.

In fact, it's very probable that here in Wikipedia we have a much higher percentage of people on the autism spectrum than you'll find in the real world. Wikipedia is like a honey-trap for people on the autism spectrum.

There are two sides to this:

  1. Neurotypical editors need to be aware that they're more likely to encounter autism-spectrum people here than they are in real life, and to know how best to work productively with them.
  2. People on the autism spectrum need to be aware that pulling the "Oh, but I'm a poor misunderstood person with autism and/or Asperger's" card out of the pack is a bad move! There are a lot of us in here, and we can tell when someone's using it as an excuse! Being on the autism spectrum does not give you carte blanche to be a jerk as well.

All editors, whether neurotypical or on the autism spectrum, need to be prepared to be creative in finding alternative ways of explaining things, remembering that thought-processes which come naturally to you may very well not come naturally to the person you're talking to.

  • Drawing parallels which activate different areas of the brain can work extremely well here. Relating a concept to sounds or colours (or sometimes to shapes) can make an enormous difference.
  • Avoid ambiguity wherever you possibly can. People on the Autism spectrum can have very literal minds and it's just as easy to pick up the wrong end of the stick as the right one, and very hard to let it go and turn it around. Be very clear; avoid phrases like "I should do ...." and use words like "do", "don't", "never", "always" instead. Some of the most common problems arise from simple good-faith misunderstanding of what the other person actually meant.
  • It's always worth re-explaining something in fresh terms, and asking for an alternative explanation. Dispute resolution can be a good place to find people who can come up with a different explanation which will suddenly make things clear.
  • If you're a neurotypical, don't leave things to be inferred, include them, if they're important! People on the autism spectrum may have real trouble understanding why you would choose to "hide" important stuff from them. If you haven't said something, they may well take it as meaning there was nothing more to be said.
  • Avoid inserting extra meanings into what an editor on the A spectrum says. Editors on the A spectrum are likely to be saying exactly what they mean, and not meaning anything else.

Facts and information can be incredibly emotionally important for people on the Autism spectrum. They're like tangible Things, which you can both "own" and "give away" at the same time. And because so many people on the autism spectrum see their own major strength as "knowing stuff" and "remembering stuff", it can be devastating to them to discover that A Fact turns out not to be real. It's as if something has been stolen from you, or you were lied to before, and it's very upsetting. So, be gentle when disillusioning people about the accuracy of what they "know". Explain it along the lines of "more accurate stuff has been discovered since you were told that. This is The New Fact, which you can share." An editor on the autism spectrum who has suddenly had one of their Important Facts taken away from them can be as badly affected as a child who's just been told that there is no Santa Claus, or as a neurotypical who's just been told that their house has been burgled. This is why they can get so emotional about it. This is a very simple but very important paradigm-shift; it turns you from someone who is "destroying their fact" to someone who is "giving them a better fact".

It's as powerful as the difference between saying "I just burnt your house down!" and saying "I just bought you a new house!"

Understanding and tolerance[edit]

It's desperately important for non-Autism-spectrum people to internalise the idea that Autism-spectrum disorders which don't affect basic intelligence (or the appearance of it) doesn't mean being "disabled" in any way. Neurotypical and Autistic processing are just differences.[9]

Compared to neurotypicals, high-functioning autistics and Asperger's people have a "disability" only in terms of the kinds of intuitive interactions with others, and with language, that neurotypicals have. On the other side of the coin, and just as valid, is that neurotypicals have a "disability", compared to A-spectrummers, in data handling, data storage, data processing, indexing, and rapid access. Each type has an area of dysfunctionality compared to the other type.

In the same way that A-spectrum editors can appear (to neurotypicals) to have seriously sub-standard levels of language and interaction processes, the neurotypicals appear (to high-functioning people with Autism/Aspergers, and to A-spectrum savants), to have almost-moronic levels of data processing. This is why we lose patience with each other so readily; it's virtually impossible for each type to be able to believe that the other type isn't being disruptive, or disingenuous, or dishonest (or "disabled"). One of the best parallels is to think of the two types as two different types of computers. One computer-type has a wonderfully intuitive user-interface, but comparatively lousy data-handling power. The other type has vast data-storage and data-processing powers, but a really lousy (comparatively speaking) user interface. It's a simple case of each computer type coming pre-loaded with different software; not different power. There's a huge "mythconception" amongst neurotypicals about what autism-spectrum really is. That mythconception causes so many problems for all of us, and enlightened education is the only answer to it. So, in short, please don't equate autism with disability or intellectual incompetence! Neither HFA's nor neurotypicals are "thick" compared to the others. We're just different in where our processors direct the power.

See also[edit]

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  1. ^ "Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ)". Retrieved 2014-06-02. 
  2. ^ "your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer". 
  3. ^ Koenig,; Tsatsanis; Volkmar (2001). The development of autism: Perspectives from theory and research. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. pp. 81–101. 
  4. ^ Minshew, NJ (1996). "Brief report: Brain mechanisms in autism: Functional and structural abnormalities". Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 26 (2): 205–209. doi:10.1007/BF02172013. PMID 8744486. 
  5. ^ Sugranyes, Gisela (2011). "Autism Spectrum Disorders and Schizophrenia: Meta Analysis of the Neural Correlate of Social Cognition". PLos ONE. 6.10 (E25322). 
  6. ^ Dapretto, M.; Davies; M.S.; Pfeifer; J.H.; Scott; et al. (2006). "Understanding emotions in others: Mirror Neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorder". Nature Neuroscience. 9 (1): 28–30. doi:10.1038/nn1611. PMID 16327784. 
  7. ^ Snyder; et al. (2003). "Savant-like skills exposed in normal people by suppressing the left fronto-temporal lobe" (PDF). Journal of Integrative Neuroscience. pp. 149–158. Retrieved 2012-04-07. 
  8. ^ Snyder; et al. (2006). "Savant-like numerosity skills revealed in normal people by magnetic pulses" (PDF). Perception. pp. 837–845. Retrieved 2012-04-07. 
  9. ^ Baron-Cohen S (2002). "Is Asperger syndrome necessarily viewed as a disability?". Focus Autism Other Dev Disabl. 17 (3): 186–91. doi:10.1177/10883576020170030801. A preliminary, freely readable draft, with slightly different wording in the quoted text, is in: Baron-Cohen S (2002). "Is Asperger's syndrome necessarily a disability?" (PDF). Cambridge: Autism Research Centre. Archived (PDF) from the original on 17 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-02. 
  10. ^ Well-behaved neurotypical editors are also welcome, especially if they need help with an A-spectrum colleague. There are a lot of autism-spectrum talk page stalkers over there who can give extra input and advice, and who (obviously!) personally know what the challenges can be like.

Further reading[edit]