13 February 2019

I had titled my talk Genetic Precursors to Autism Spectrum Disorders and sourced some excellent diagrams of DNA structures. I had only been speaking for nine minutes, a little faster than usual to recover time, when Julie interrupted.

‘Professor Tillman. Most of us here are not scientists, so you may need to be a little less technical.’ This sort of thing is incredibly annoying. People can tell you the supposed characteristics of a Gemini or a Taurus and will spend five days watching a cricket match, but cannot find the interest or the time to learn the basics of what they, as humans, are made up of.

I continued with my presentation as I had prepared it. It was too late to change and surely some of the audience were informed enough to understand.

I was right. A hand went up, a male of about twelve. ‘You are saying that it is unlikely that there is a single genetic marker, but rather that several genes are implicated and the aggregate expression depends on the specific combination. Affirmative?’

Exactly! ‘Plus environmental factors. The situation is analogous to bipolar disorder, which –’

Julie interrupted again. ‘So, for us non-geniuses, I think Professor Tillman is reminding us that Asperger’s is something you’re born with. It’s nobody’s fault.’

I was horrified by the use of the word ‘fault’, with its negative connotations, especially as it was being employed by someone in authority. I abandoned my decision not to deviate from the genetic issues. The matter had doubtless been brewing in my subconscious, and the volume of my voice may have increased as a result.

‘Fault! Asperger’s isn’t a fault. It’s a variant. It’s potentially a major advantage. Asperger’s syndrome is associated with organisation, focus, innovative thinking and rational detachment.’

A woman at the rear of the room raised her hand. I was focused on the argument now, and made a minor social error, which I quickly corrected.

‘The fat woman – overweight woman – at the back?’

She paused and looked around the room, but then continued, ‘Rational detachment: is that a euphemism for lack of emotion?’

‘Synonym,’ I replied. ‘Emotions can cause major problems.’

I decided it would be helpful to provide an example, drawing on a story in which emotional behaviour would have led to disastrous consequences.

‘Imagine,’ I said. ‘You’re hiding in a basement. The enemy is searching for you and your friends. Everyone has to keep totally quiet, but your baby is crying.’ I did an impression, as Gene would, to make the story more convincing: ‘Waaaaa.’ I paused dramatically. ‘You have a gun.’

Hands went up everywhere.

Julie jumped to her feet as I continued. ‘With a silencer. They’re coming closer. They’re going to kill you all. What do you do? The baby’s screaming –’

The kids couldn’t wait to share their answer. One called out, ‘Shoot the baby,’ and soon they were all shouting, ‘Shoot the baby, shoot the baby.’

The boy who had asked the genetics question called out, ‘Shoot the enemy,’ and then another said, ‘Ambush them.’

The suggestions were coming rapidly. ‘Use the baby as bait.’

‘How many guns do we have?’ ‘Cover its mouth.’

‘How long can it live without air?’

As I had expected, all the ideas came from the Asperger’s ‘sufferers’. The parents made no constructive suggestions; some even tried to suppress their children’s creativity.

I raised my hands. ‘Time’s up. Excellent work. All the rational solutions came from the aspies. Everyone else was incapacitated by emotion.’

One boy called out, ‘Aspies rule!’ I had noted this abbreviation in the literature, but it appeared to be new to the children. They seemed to like it, and soon were standing on the chairs and then the desks, punching the air and chanting ‘Aspies rule!’ in chorus. According to my reading, children with Asperger’s syndrome frequently lack self-confidence in social situations. Their success in problem-solving seemed to have provided a temporary cure for this, but again their parents were failing to provide positive feedback, shouting at them and in some cases attempting to pull them down from the desks. Apparently they were more concerned with adherence to social convention than the progress their children were making.

test 2

I was not sure why she was sharing this information with someone she had known for only forty-six minutes.


I felt I had made my point effectively, and Julie did not think we needed to continue with the genetics. The parents appeared to be reflecting on what their children had learned and left without interacting with me further. It was only 7.43 p.m. An excellent outcome.

As I packed up my laptop, Julie burst out laughing. ‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘I need a drink.’

I was not sure why she was sharing this information with someone she had known for only forty-six minutes. I planned to consume some alcohol myself when I arrived home but saw no reason to inform Julie.

She continued, ‘You know, we never use that word. Aspies. We don’t want them thinking it’s some sort of club.’ More negative implications from someone who was presumably paid to assist and encourage.

‘Like homosexuality?’ I said.

‘Touché,’ said Julie. ‘But it’s different. If they don’t change, they’re not going to have real relationships – they’ll never have partners.’  This was a reasonable argument, and one that I could understand, given my own difficulties in that sphere. But Julie changed the subject. ‘But you’re saying there are things – useful things – they can do better than . . . non-aspies? Besides killing babies.’ ‘Of course.’ I wondered why someone involved in the education of people with uncommon attributes was not aware of the value of and market for such attributes. ‘There’s a company in Denmark that recruits aspies for computer applications testing.’

‘I didn’t know that,’ said Julie. ‘You’re really giving me a different perspective.’ She looked at me for a few moments. ‘Do you have time for a drink?’ And then she put her hand on my shoulder.

I flinched automatically. Definitely inappropriate contact. If I had done that to a woman there would almost certainly have been a problem, possibly a sexual harassment complaint to the Dean, which could have consequences for my career. Of course, no one was going to criticise her for it.

‘Unfortunately, I have other activities scheduled.’ ‘No flexibility?’

‘Definitely not.’ Having succeeded in recovering lost time, I was not about to throw my life into chaos again.

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