Sunday, July 10, 2011

Channelling The Rain Men

The game of rugby, according to Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), is a good way of ‘keeping thirty bullies out of the city centre’. Typical Wildean wit, of course, but it remains a statement of profundity. Founder of the Scout movement, Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941), might well have shared Wilde’s view. In old age, he wrote to the Scouts:

‘... make yourself healthy and strong while you are a boy, so that you can be useful and so you can enjoy life when you are a man. You can die happy in feeling that at any rate you have not wasted your time ...’

These two messages, combined, point to a fundamental truth: when young males involve themselves in organized physical endeavour, they become less likely to behave anti-socially. Professional fighters, for example, have often been described as ‘reformed thugs’. Only last week, American boxing legend Evander Holyfield said:

‘My mother sent me to the gym at the boys’ club, where you learned discipline as well as how to win.’

The logic is inescapable: many young males, while generally lacking maturity and empathy, are nonetheless high on a cocktail of testosterone, adrenaline and other potent hormones. Aggression and a desire for fierce competition are inevitable, either by means of sport or, failing that, violence and crime. Most people, I think, acknowledge this conclusion, which is why both political and voluntary groups recommend, for instance, the Scouts, YMCAs, boxing gyms, cricket and football clubs, partly as a means of crime prevention. The strategy works.

Now, let me make a comparison. In 2002, a 36-year-old Briton, Gary McKinnon (Figure 22.1), was arrested for conducting what was described as ‘the biggest military computer hack of all time’. A few weeks ago, a 19-year-old, Ryan Cleary (Figure 22.2), was also arrested, for hacking the website of a British law enforcement agency. These two ‘loners’ were found to have something in common: Asperger’s syndrome (Figure 22.3). This is a high-functioning form of autism, characterized by obsessive attention to detail, an excellent memory, and the ability to identify patterns where others see mere randomness. Famous ‘Aspies’ include Socrates, Michelangelo, Mozart, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Bill Gates. Some line-up! All (have) exhibited classical traits of the syndrome.

Figure 22.1: Gary McKinnon, the self-confessed 'bumbling nerd' who outwitted and humiliated the US government's finest online security experts

Copyright 2011

Figure 22.2: Unemployed 19-year-old recluse Ryan Cleary, now in police custody, awaiting trial

Copyright 2011 Reuters

Professor Michael Fitzgerald, of Trinity College, Dublin, describes Aspies as hyperfocused, very persistent and especially creative. Cambridge University Professor, Simon Baron-Cohen, believes Aspies possess far superior powers of rational analysis.

‘This might be in mathematics, machines, natural phenomena or anatomy, to identify rules that govern a system and any variations in that system.’

Figure 22.3: Dr Hans Asperger (1906-1980), the Austrian paediatrician after whom this remarkable syndrome is named

Copyright 1991 Cambridge University Press

So far, so impressive; but Aspies have disadvantages too, namely poor social skills. Most have few friends, and frequently suffer discrimination for their perceived shortcomings and ‘weirdness’. Many, perhaps even the majority, are unemployed, often deemed to be of little economic worth.

However, if we put the boot on the other foot, perhaps Aspies are equally unimpressed by ‘normal’ individuals, with their rotten memories, poor concentration spans and heads filled up with boring trivialities. As for social skills, those whose are highly honed doubtless include – to use the not-so-eloquent parlance of British businessman Sir Alan Sugar – ‘schmoozers, bullshitters and arselickers’. There are no such types in the Aspie world, only a wealth of peculiar cerebral talents being made to sit idle.

So I ask: what, in this context, is the difference between Evander Holyfield and the likes of Gary McKinnon? Is it not obvious? The former’s immense physical energy was channelled into something constructive, whereas the latter’s unharnessed mental capability remained at liberty to cause mayhem.

Like the aggression of the fighter, the intellect of the Aspie cannot be suppressed. It is destined to manifest itself – one way or another. It seems to me that if the modern world does not recognize, nurture and provide rewarding outlets for such unusual abilities, then it will surely reap the destructive consequences of its own neglect.

Copyright 2011 Paul Spradbery

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