May 19, 2008 8:44 pm
While I’m currently burnt out reading books on autism, I enjoy finding something insightful about autism in a mainstream book. I just finished reading blink by Malcolm Gladwell and found some unexpected references to autism.
The theme of blink is that our minds are very effective at coming up with conclusions about the world around us in very short periods of time. In many cases these conclusions, which are often derived subconsciously, are uncannily accurate. Other times, our minds are influenced by experiences and prejudices that lead us to come to grossly inaccurate conclusions.
Mr. Gladwell brings autism into his book when he describes situations in which we quickly form conclusions about people and their intentions. He briefly presents Simon Baron-Cohen’s term "mind-blind" that describes the inability to read the non-verbal cues of others. He also presents research and anecdotes from Yale psychologist Ami Klin which support the concept. This material is all presented in the context of several tragic incidents during which he proposes that police officers became "mind-blind". He postulates that their "mind-blindness" was caused by extremely high levels of stress due to events such high speed car chases or simple personal prejudices that escalated benign situations into something fatal. He goes a step further and proposes that these police officers ignored lots of input from their environment because of their intense focus on a particular aspect of the situation. Their focus narrowed so much that some assumed a suspect pulling out his wallet was pulling out a gun and others became became unable to hear what their fellow officers were saying to them. Many officers involved in shootings report that they did not even hear the sound of their gun fire, although they knew they fired it and observed the results.
blink’s coverage of autism is certainly superficial, and I admit to feeling some discomfort, almost offense, as Mr. Gladwell described the police officers in extreme situations as being "temporarily autistic". I stifled my feeling of offense and continued reading because the first three quarters of the book convinced me that the author had some insightful things to say. I gave him some latitude and looked a little deeper for both his meanings and some fresh perspectives. Fortunately, I found two views that made continuing worthwhile.
The first is that there is an aspect of "mind-blindness" that goes beyond autism. All people, at certain times, disregard one form of input from their environment in favor of another. We may ignore people’s expression when we are confident that we know what they are going to say or do (even if we are wrong). Many married women will attest to their husband’s inability to hear while they are reading the paper or watching TV. Most drivers have had the experience of finding themselves "not remembering" a part of a trip over familiar roads because they were on autopilot and didn’t observe their surroundings on that part of the trip. We are always choosing to focus on certain aspects of our environment and ignore others. Mind blindness is just one manifestation of this phenomena.
The second thing that I took away from the Mr. Gladwells writing is that we have the capability to improve our ability to make the quick and accurate conclusions that he describes. He presents several situations in which people learn to make more accurate conclusions about everything from recognizing fake pieces of art, to being able to predict the success of a marriage by observing a very short discussion between the couple. In all the situations, people are able to become better at making accurate conclusions through a very simple technique: practice. If practice can help a police officer distinguish between fear and aggression in a potential suspect, can practice help an individual learn to read nonverbal communication in others? Based on the large number of autistic adults that have developed skills in this area, I’d have to say yes. Reading nonverbal cues in others may require a lot of effort and energy for some autistic individuals, but I’ve met many adults that have shown the ability to develop these skills. All people, autistic and non-autistic, are lacking in some skills. Depending on the skill and the individual, improvement may be difficult but there is always the potential for growth. Mr. Gladwell points out that the obvious way to achieve such growth is simply to practice.