Wednesday, September 30, 1998

Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical (ISNT)

First appeared in the

If you'd happened across Jon Katz's columns on Geek Force in recent editions of Hotwired, you'd likely have read pronouncements like the following:

The idea of geek pride was  . . .  stirring, ascending. The rise of the geeks has an epic feeling.

As Katz describes it, geeks are nerds plus modems; they have the nerd's affinity for technology plus a wired sociability nerds lack. The Internet is their meeting ground, and in the age of the Internet geekdom is groovy. Outsiders for so long, geeks now "bristle with attitude." Katz's insight is good so far as it goes but Katz is so concerned with the social and political ramifications of geekdom that he fails to consider any possible neurological underpinnings.

Readers interested in taking Katz  a step further  might want to stop in on the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical (ISNT). There, geeks speak in their own voices as they emerge from the neurological closet and declare themselves to be high-functioning autistics (HFA). NT, or Neurologically Typical, on the other hand, is the designation for those who are neurologically vanilla. and who, until recently, have had the privilege of believing that their form of wiring was the standard for the human brain. ISNT wants to make it clear at once this will no longer be held to be self-evident: Webmaster Muskie, a high-functioning autistic, declares:

Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity.

In other words, being NT is only one way to wire up brain and, when it comes to working with hi-tech, quite possibly an inferior one. This sentiment, sometimes in the form of pity for the poor NT, is best expressed in remarks left on ISNT's guest book. According to one visitor to the site, NTs have terrible difficulty adjusting to  "the predictability and logic of computer technology, instead, expecting the machine to conform to their wishes." Another visitor, also autistic, complains: "My parents are NT, and my brother and sister are NT. . . They can't even work the VCR! . . . Hopefully there will be a cure soon."

Today, it is generally understood that autism is genetic in origin but until quite recently it was often blamed on bad parenting and, in particular, on the cold touch of the refrigerator mom. This prehistory of autism (see Bruno Bettelheim's "The Empty Fortress" for innumerable variants) is recollected and turned on its head in the following submission to ISNT's  guest book:

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

Whether using parody or direct statement, ISNT makes a case for the value of neuro-diversity. Muskie writes that "my experience of life is not inferior, and may be superior, to the NT experience of life."

The common assumption in cognitive studies these days is that the human brain is the most complicated 2 1/2 pounds of matter in the known universe. With so much going on in a brain, the occasional bug is inevitable:  hence, or so the argument goes,  autism and other departures from the neurological norm. ISNT suggests another way of looking at it. Neuro-diversity may be as crucial for the human race, in particular, as bio-diversity is for global life forms. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? The optimal solution would be to have a variety of models available. What is  be neurologically typical at one point in time may not be at another.

Cybernetics and computer culture may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind. That may be the neurological significance of Jon Katz's foregrounding of Geek Force — and what  makes ISNT's argument for neuro-diversity not only timely but irresistible.

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