March 27, 2010

Asperger's, Autism, and Soothing

There's a terrific article in this month's Vanity Fair by "big swinging dicks" (Liar's Poker) author Michael Lewis about Michael Burry, a neurologist/hedge fund manager whose obsessive personality led him to understand credit default swaps and the sub-prime market in a way nobody else had; as a result he predicted for his investors the collapse of the financial markets in a manner that allowed him to make them boatloads of money. While his success was obviously interesting to read about, what intrigued me more was his personality.

The article begins: "Michael Burry always saw the world differently - due, he believed, to the childhood loss of one eye." Burry dislikes meeting people face-to-face because he can't read non-verbal signals, often takes verbal signals too literally, tends toward the obsessive in peculiar ways, spends most of his time alone, and, "By his late 20s he thought of himself as the sort of person who didn’t have friends."

All this information appears relatively early in Lewis' article, and as I read it I decided Burry must have Asperger's. I've known people with varying degrees of the Syndrome, and over the past few years have made an effort to become friendly with a few because they are often very interesting. Most of the piece details Burry's brilliance as a hedge fund manager; only towards the end does Lewis delve into his private life, his young son's diagnosis with Asperger's, and his realization that he also had Asperger's.

Most of the people I've known with Asperger's are at the low/lowish end of the scale (I have some Asperger-ish attributes myself); they are quirky people with quirky interests who mis-read social cues and just don't quite fit in. They often spout non sequiters, interrupt conversations, and can't be bothered with social niceties, but because they look at things in a slightly skewed fashion, they often observe things others miss. And because they tend toward the obsessive, they can be incredibly knowledgeable about the things about which they are passionate, be it cooking, music, or cheese.

This is not to say I like all the people I've met who have the Syndrome; they can be rude, and if they are very high on the scale, tend toward the creepy because although they've been taught certain behaviors to "fit in," they really haven't internalized them. Regardless of my personal feelings, though, I sympathize with them; they know something's wrong...but they don't know how to fix it.

Reading about Burry reminded me of a book I read last year - and strongly recommend - John Elder Robison's Look Me In the Eye. I spent a year eyeing the book at the bookstore, picking it up and looking at it, but never buying it...until Thanksgiving weekend when I finally bought it and read it in one sitting. It's a fascinating memoir and for any of you interested in understanding the thought processes of someone with Asperger's, it's terrific at providing that insight. Lewis' article also does that, but in far less detail. Even if you don't have a particular interest in Asperger's, this is a book worth reading because of Robison's voice, and the life he's led.

While we're on the topic of Asperger's, let's take it one step further, into full-out autism, and the story of Temple Grandin.I'd read profiles of her over the years, so when HBO aired her story some months ago, I couldn't wait to watch it. Though I have personal issues regarding its star, Claire Danes, she's a good actress and the movie an inspiration.

Of particular interest was the soothing device Grandin created for herself. She advocates the calming effects of deep touch pressure on the autistic and while I have no first-hand experience with that, I think it must be accomplish something similar to swaddling an infant.

Which brings me to this personal tidbit. There are times when I don't know what to do with myself; I'm out of sorts, I walk around the house and can't sit still, am unable to focus on anything in particular, and though I know I'm being weird, I just can't settle. I discovered something the last time this happened: When my husband and I got into bed (I was still antsy) and we got into our nightly spooning position, I almost immediately settled down. I figured out that his holding me against him was the adult version of swaddling.

When I told him he was my very own personal soothing device, he looked at me as he does when I say something bizarre, then smiled. Soothing, and sweet.



Robin Uncapher said...

Welcome back to blogging Laurie! I was so happy to see this!

I am glad that Michael Lewis has a new book out but I have to say someting about the BSD. Liars Poker and the whole BSD thing is incredibly outdated. It was starting to become outdated when I worked for Salomon back in 1991. The reason is that the BSD's were operators, guys who had gotten into finance on pure nerve and smarts. Many of those guys did not even have college educations much less Harvard Business School degrees. But the immense amount of money that poured into places like Salomon meant that they had their pick of who to hire. And who Salomon and Goldman hired were guys with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Wharton. Those guys are about as far from the BSDs as can be.

Lewis himself is a terrific writer. Its worth remembering however that Lewis worked for Salomon as a trainee, intern and did not make a career of it. So calling him an expert is a bit like taking someone who was an intern in the Obama White House and assuming he's got all the info that David Axelrod has.

I am delighted to see that Lewis has a new book out. It drives me crazy to see that virtually every business school requires Liar's Poker. Don't these guys have a clue? The book is over twenty years old and is so outdated its ridiculous. Salomon is now part of Citigroup. Ah well, I shouldn't be surprised that academics are ridiculously out of touch.

Anonymous said...

Have you read The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley. I think it's the first time I've read a romance with a hero who probably has Asperger's. Another friend with a husband who does have Asperger's said she 'read him' on every heroic line. Good book, actually. It was unusual and well written, and a unique romance.


Donna Lea Simpson said...

I've heard of Asperger's, but know virtually nothing about it, so now I'm interested!

I'm always wary of 'self-diagnoses' though... one must be cautious.

Laurie G said...

I remember reading Liar's Poker during the Michael Milken/junk bond era, at roughly the same time as Bonfire of the Vanities. IIRC, one of the things I liked about Lewis at the time was that he hadn't cut it on Wall Street but knew enough about it to write knowledgeably. It was the first non-fiction book I had read in years that engaged me...and not only because I was dealing with tje junk bond fall-out at the local level with all the RTC stuff. He's very engaging as a writer. Even this short piece in VF was really well done.

Laurie G said...

Malvina, somehow I initially missed Ashley's book, but I did eventually download it. I think that once I'm through this reading crunch I'm under, I'll give it a shot. Thanks for reminding me.