Dysfunction as high function

During his New Year’s Day seminar, author Dan Pink shared five trends that he is following in 2010. In the science category, the trend he is keeping an eye on is dysfunction is high function. During the discussion he referenced the Atlantic Monthly article The Science of Success, which considers the possible “up-side” of genetic dysfunction:

Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts.

Re-reading the article last night reminded me of a story I heard many years ago in an episode of Fresh Air focused on Asperger’s Syndrome (paraphrased):

A boy with Asperger’s Syndrome is focused on snakes. He knows about everything there is to know about snakes, and can bring snakes into just about any story or subject. If he can’t make it about snakes, he doesn’t care about it.

For a cumulative school project this boy had to prepare a report about the Battle of Gettysburg. The purpose of the project was to teach research and presentation skills. You guessed it – no snakes, the boy didn’t care and wasn’t doing anything on the project. Until, that is, the teachers and staff came up with the idea, “What if we let him do his report on The Snakes at the Battle of Gettysburg?”

To make a long story short, this got the boy’s attention and he dove right in. To do the project, he had to learn as much or more about the battle and the geography, etc., as any other kid. His project was so good, and so unique, that he was asked to present his project to the entire school. Everyone wanted to hear the presentation about the snakes at the Battle of Gettysburg, and everyone thought it was great.

The kicker here is this: Before this presentation, everyone avoided this boy because all he wanted to talk about was snakes.

I recognize that humans are a social bunch that prefer to socialize with others like themselves, but it is unfortunate – for both the “typical” and “non-typical” populations – that anything that is different is so shunned, before even being given a chance.

2 thoughts on “Dysfunction as high function

  1. Okay, so in the article you linked they described the so-called “orchid hypothesis”. According to this, if kids who are genetically at risk get the “right” upbringing, then they perform better than their “normal” peers.

    Which means that if my kids are not performing better than their peers, then it’s all my fault.

    Sounds like a high tech genetic equivalent of the “refrigerator mother” theory.



  2. Joe,

    When I read through the article the first time (back in early Jan), I remember thinking along the same lines, at least at first.

    As I read through it, though, what I found intriguing was that when kids with and without this risk were both raised in the “right” way, that those with the risk did “better” than those without. That the potential “risk” is also a potential “benefit”, and it all depends on how you nurture it. The range of performance is much less with “normal”. Very interesting indeed.

    I think this is very different from the refrigerator mother cause of autism, at least as I understand it. “Right” or “wrong” parenting does not cause autism. I would add, though, that “good” or “bad” parenting can definitely influence the future success (or not) of an autistic kid.


Comments are closed.