Technofile

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The Independent Culture
Autism is embedded in modern folklore as the reason for a host of unusual behaviours, from remarkable numerical prowess to being Bill Gates. The reality, as described by sufferers on their own Web page, is a lot more lonely. And at the other end of human communications, a videophone that allows you to see the person you're talking to

READING MINDS THE HARD WAY

The belief persists that the rich are different from us, in respects other than just having more money; and the richer they are, the more different they are suspected to be. In Bill Gates Speaks (John Wiley, pounds 11) Janet Lowe refers to suggestions that Gates is "borderline autistic". She summarises the traits once cited by Time magazine in support of this argument: excellence in logical thought, proneness to sudden bouts of rage or panic, reluctance to make eye-contact, a tendency to rock back and forth and fondness for trampolines. Maybe a psychologist would reckon that the trampolines are a clincher, but to the lay person this looks like a few symptoms short of a diagnosis.

If it weren't for Gates and others like him, a geek would still be no more than a caricature. Now the geek is a social phenomenon and a psychological species. He is still laughed at, but the laughter is edgier, because he is thought to rule the world. He understands the computer, therefore his mind must be like a computer, all logic and no empathy. Thanks to Rain Man, people have an idea that autism fits this bill. So folk psychology has a peg on which to hang its fears, and who better to personify those fears than the greatest Ubergeek of them all?

The strongest reason to doubt that Gates is any distance along the "autism spectrum", at the mild end of which lies Asperger's Syndrome, is the sheer scale of his wealth. It is possible for people with autism or related conditions to make money in business, testifies a correspondent on Hubert Cross's Web page "Asperger's Syndrome And Making Sense" (see below). He boasts that he has a gift for seeing patterns in data, which sounds like a variation on the numerical powers that sometimes come with autism. But much more remarkable is his claim that he is a skilled negotiator. At the heart of autism is what Jane Meyerding (in a Web essay entitled "Thoughts on Finding Myself Differently Brained") calls "feeling like an alien in human society". This is thought to arise from "mindblindness", the inability to put oneself in another's place, which makes it difficult to predict the behaviour of others. Cross's correspondent says that, with immense effort, he is able to use conscious thought instead of intuition to "read" other people. He is left exhausted by even an hour of what to others is informal conversation.

Cross himself spells out the more typical outcome of such encounters: "The mindreader will deceive, take advantage of, manipulate, fool, rob, and exploit the non-mindreader without mercy. Ask any Asperger adult."

Cross wants to get across the message that guidance may make all the difference for Asperger children. He describes schooldays of mockery and bullying which culminate in a hellish and desolate puberty. Asperger children and adults must learn to make sense of other people, since people do not make sense for them.

As Cross punches out these arguments, his family assumes a disturbing presence in his narrative. He wrangles with the reasons why his sister said she was in love with a sexually exploitative psychiatrist; he refers to his emotionally cold "refrigerator mother"; and most of all, he talks about his father. In the end, he presents pictures of his father's greenhouse, gone to ruin since the old man's death.

Cross also urges Asperger men to marry absolutely anybody who will have them. Their prospects, he warns, are next to negligible: "My friend Arthur was recently devastated because he was rejected by a schizophrenic drunkard. You probably get the picture." Career opportunities are better - thanks to the computer industry, in which all the working Asperger men he knows are employed.

The bleakest outlook of all is for friendship: "We Aspergers just cannot make and sustain friends in the normal intimate and affectionate way. The best we seem able to do is find somebody with whom we share a mutual interest, and with whom we can pursue this interest in a parallel sort of way."

WINDOW ON NT

"It is so good to see new research being done on NT. Ten years ago it would have all been attributed to over-affectionate parenting (ie 'toaster-oven moms'), and that myth badly needed dispelling."

(Guestbook message for the Institute for Research into the Neurologically Typical, a website that parodies psychological research into autism.)

"The most devastating deficiency in the case of high- functioning Asperger's syndrome is our mindblindness. Our incapacity to visualise mindstates. The WANTS, BELIEFS, and INTENTIONS that drive other people's behaviour. Without visualising mindstates, we cannot MAKE SENSE of anything. We live in a world of constant CONFUSION, and we go through life making one blunder after another because of our total lack of common sense. And yet, we can learn to compensate for our mindblindness by using our logic to figure out mindstates. It is rather easy once we learn how to do it, and once we learn, OUR TOTAL LACK OF COMMON SENSE DISSIPATES."

Hubert Cross

REFINED TASTE

The Complete Food & Cooking Encyclopedia (Anglia, Windows 95 and Macintosh, pounds 40) isn't just practical. Many of its entries could be used for a light brush of natural history education, or for a more substantial dose of nutritional data. And it also makes your computer screen look like something out of a Heal's shop window.

TECHNOTIP

www.cookerybooks.com, published by books online limited, promises to list the thousands of cookery books which are either not published in Britain, or lose out in the merciless struggle for limited space on bookshop shelves.

OBJECT LESSON

VIATV PHONE

Those telephones where you can see the person you're talking to are no longer the stuff of Bond movies, nor restricted to smoke-filled boardrooms. Now all you need is your telephone, your TV and pounds 399 for the ViaTV Phone (of course, this only works if the person you're calling has a similar set-up for another pounds 399, or at least a PC videophone such as Intel's model). As far as installation goes it's pretty straightforward but the big question was what the picture quality would be like. And the answer is - it's up to you. The system allows the user to choose between an impressively sharp image which only updates once or twice a second, or a faster-moving, less detailed image. You can also zoom in on different parts of the image and take snapshots. And for when you answer the telephone naked or you're having a bad hair day there's a "privacy" option. All very good fun in the few moments before you remember just how static telephoning really is - not that this will stop the videophone taking off. Time to get yourself a low-maintenance hair style. For stockists, call 0800 9808 889. David Phelan

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