Friday, October 27, 2006

Autism Squeaks

Anybody who works in a trading room tuned to CNBC is extremely tired of the Autism Speaks commercials that have been playing for the last few months. If the following post seems overly cruel, it is hard to be dispassionate about a set of commercials that have caused so much pain to so many people.

The commercials begin with a statistically unlikely possibility for "your" child, and then close with the odds that "your" child will be diagnosed with autism. "The chances of your child growing up to appear in a Playboy Centerfold are one in fortyfive thousand. The chances of your child being diagnosed with Autism, are one in one hundred and sixty six."

They are odd, nearly nonsensical pieces. After all, if your child is over eight, the probability of that child being diagnosed with Autism is either 1 or 0, with nothing in between, and certainly not 1:166. Similarly, the probability of the children of people in trading rooms having illustrious career paths is slightly higher than the probability of the population at large, and that probability is different for every family, depending on their predispositions and gifts. Only the bossiest commercials assign personal probabilities to highly conditioned events, and it is not completely clear from the commercial whether autism is even a problem, or whether they are calling attention to the greater social evil of rampant autism diagnoses.

But what does it take to get a diagnosis of Autism around here? High-functioning autism can include "a facility with numbers, a need for repetition, and a difficulty generalizing from the concrete to the abstract". The Autism Speaks commerical satisfies all three diagnostic criteria in a mere thirty seconds.

Another diagnostic criteria of Autism is emotional blindness and insensitivity that can be mistaken for rudeness. For example, if the rumors are true, and Jim Simons of Renaissance Technologies is financing those commercials, then it is insensitive to the point of sadism for him to use the alpha that he has removed from other portfolio managers to repetitively inflict a commerical that repeatedly irritates his former and current victims.

People usually bracket Simons' interest in Autism research by mentioning that his daughter is severely Autistic. But the rule of thumb is that a daughter's brain has a closer relationship to her father's brain than does a son's brain, and it is quite likely that, just as James Joyce was a high-functioning schizophrenic with a low-functioning schizophrenic daughter, Jim Simons is a high-functioning Autistic with a low-functioning Autistic daughter.

While we're diagnosing Autism, the success of Renaissance Technologies could even be reduced to the central conjuncture of an emotionless person exploiting the mood-swings of over-emotional people. Jim Simons' ability to treat the emotions of the market as pure information rather than as contageous panic or thrilling euphoria has allowed him to quantify that information in extremely profitable ways, and it is sad if the only thing he can think of doing with his billions is to study the structure of his own brain. So, my response to the commercial is that "The chances of my child growing up to be in a broadway show are zero in fifteen thousand. The chances that this commercial will do more good than harm are one in ten thousand, and the chances of the people responsible for this commercial being diagnosed with Autism are 1 in 1."


Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Thanks for this response. If I were you, I would send this to Autism Speaks and possibly sign the petition Autism Speaks: Don't Speak for Us which you can google.

I come from a community that finds their actions reprehensible. I am the mother of an autistic son.

4:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also want to thank you for this post. I am an adult on the autism spectrum and the parent of a autism spectrum adult (I'm also the parent of a non-autistic adult). I just want to take a moment to be pedantic and say that Mr. Simons' daughter is not 'low functioning" in the way most people would think of "low functioning" she's in college, if I remember correctly. Autism's impairments are inseparable from it's gifts, something that Autism Speaks is loathe to admit, and it's nearly impossible to assign a "functioning" level to any autistic, for instance, we might find out that without the extraordinary amounts of daily help from his wife, Simons himself might look pretty "low functioning."

I think the big money behind Autism Speaks is NBC's Bob Wright, and the commercials are probably running for free. They were made by the Ad Council, I think that was gratis, also, paid for by the Ad Council (who should know better, the ads are ethically lousy and misleading). Simons is funding big time research, though whereas he'd be better off funding a reworking of at least a portion of society to accept his daughter as she is.

For more reading, try or

6:25 AM  
Blogger Do'C said...

Indeed, an excellent piece and an insightful perspective, thank you.

-Father of an autistic son

7:43 AM  
Blogger georgieporgie said...

Thank you, all, for your kind comments and helpful information. I should have done more research before I wrote the piece: this blog is oten so undertrafficked that I can revise essays for a day before the first reader shows up.

But, thanks, as a framing context, it is even more irritating to have the commericals be earning a tax deduction for GE while currying the boss's favor.

Anyway, without wanting to exhibit anti-Autistic prejudices, I would gently suggest that insensitivity to other people's needs and hard-charging inflexibility often correlate with both the brain structures that are diagnosed as "Autism". At the core of Bob Wright's anger at being cheated of the grandson he wanted is a deep inability to love, and "love is the answer, you know that for sure..."

So I would say, sure, it'd be nice to have PSAs telling us how to appreciate and accommodate the neurodiversity that comprises our species -- but enumerating diversity is an infinite task, and accepting unity is rather simpler. Wouldn't it be easier to have PSAs to remind us that, when love is in your heart, there is really isn't any difference between conventional success and utter failure, "high functioning" and "low functioning", the future that awaits Bob Wright's grandson and the illustrious career paths discussed in the opening of the Autism Speaks commercials?

5:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Author has nothing better to do than write about subjects he knows absolutely about. I really hope no woman is insane enough to procreate with you because if you're baby turns out to be one of the 166 he or she has no chance. Get a life. Do some research. Mom of 1 in 166.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's the link to the Don't Speak for Us petition:

Autism Speaks: Don't Speak for Us

The strange statistics in the Autism Speaks PSAs actually aren't nonsensical because the goal of their research is to develop a prenatal test for autism. When they say "your child," they are referring to unborn children. The implied message of those PSAs is that Autism Speaks' genetic research will result in routine prenatal screening and abortion of every fetus identified as autistic, thereby reducing the probability of having an autistic child to zero.

Some of the funding for autism genetic research comes from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (so much for the Bush administration supposedly being pro-life). I created a web page last year that discusses this issue in more detail:

Autism Research and Prenatal Testing

8:48 AM  
Blogger Maddy said...

Thanks for bringing us here Estee.

4:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have two autistic sons and our lives are consumed with a reality that you cannot understand and, obviously, did not care to research before you wrote this entry. Get a clue.

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post, but I thought you might be interested in a more accurate version of the latest Autism Squeaks advert, which can be read at
@ Anonymous just above me, I'm not just an Autie, I'm also the elder sibling of an Autie. Because of this, I've been on both sides of the neurodiversity 'battle', and I still could never advocate a 'cure' that involves wiping people out simply because their brains work differently.

5:11 PM  

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