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Potentially interesting, but deeply flawed.
on January 1, 2006
This book postulates a relationship between creativity and autism. This is a potentially interesting idea. There have been suggestions and some evidence that creativity is linked to tendencies to a variety of psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia (see the work of Gordon Claridge) and bipolar disorder (see the work of Kay Jamison). The hypothesis that it might also be related to autistic tendencies is certainly worth examining.
However, this book has several serious flaws that ruin it. The first is that it seems to ignore the notion of a personality spectrum, which is central to most theories of a relationship between creativity and psychiatric or neurological abnormality. Those who suggest a relationship between creativity and schizophrenia, for example, do not suggest that most creative people actually have schizophrenia, but that there is a continuous spectrum of liability to schizophrenia and that highly creative people tend to be further than most people along this spectrum. It is quite possible, and at least worth testing, that they also tend to be further than most people along the spectrum of liability to autism. However, Fitzgerald is not suggesting this. He is suggesting that many creative people actually had autism or Asperger syndrome as a definite diagnostic category. While it's possible that some did, extending the diagnosis to so many people is very questionable, unless one is to make the definition of 'autism' far more elastic than it usually is. If any eccentricity or social awkwardness is to be classed as 'autism' - as it sometimes seems to be here - then 'autism' begins to lose its meaning.
Secondly, just as the definition of autism is fudged, so is the definition of creativity. While it is probably impossible to get a definition that everyone will agree on, this book seems at times to equate it with eminence: a serious problem. For example, it is questionable whether even strong political supporters of Sir Keith Joseph would have described him as exceptionally creative in any of the usual senses.
Thirdly, the author ignores the difficulty of diagnosing people whom he has never met, and about whom the evidence is often imperfect. He selects biographical items that fit his theory, and ignores other aspects of the situation. For example, his discussion of the mathematician Ramanujan totally ignores the cultural differences that could have made this Indian mathematician behave unusually in the context of Cambridge University norms of the 1930s.
Fourthly, and most seriously, the author's zeal for a diagnostic category often lead him simply to try to portray his chosen characters in as pathological a light as possible: sometimes with very little relation to the characteristics of Asperger syndrome. This results in a very gossippy, 'tabloid science' style, which has quite negative implications both for the subjects of his biography, and indeed for people with Asperger syndrome. The references to Hitler are particularly offensive in this context. Hitler, who was able to mesmerize and manipulate others with frightening effectiveness, would appear to be at quite the opposite end of the spectrum from what is usually diagnosed as autism/ Asperger syndrome. These references, and the generally negative tone of the biographies, run contrary to what may have been the author's aim to portray the positive side of autism and eccentricity.