Innovation is Dangerous & Gaming Causes Asperger’s

At its heart, diagnosis is about exerting control.  Clinicians want to get some sense of control in understanding a problem.  We link diagnosis to prognosis to control our expectations of how likely and how much we will see a change in the patient’s condition.  Insurance companies want to get a handle on how much to spend on who.  Schools want to control access to resources and organize their student body.  And with the current healthcare situation, the government is sure to use diagnosis as a major part of the criteria in determining who gets what kind of care.

Therapists and Educators do not like to think of ourselves as controlling people.  But we often inadvertently attempt to exert control over our patients and entire segments of the population, by defining something as a problem and then locating it squarely in the individual we are “helping.”

This week has been one of those weeks where I have heard from several different colleagues about workshops they are attending where the presenters are linking Asperger’s with Gaming Addiction:  Not in the sense of “Many people on the Autism Spectrum find success and motivation through the use of video games,” but rather in the sense of “excessive gaming is prevalent in the autistic spectrum community.”

This has always frustrated me, for several reasons, and I decided its time to elaborate on them again:

1. Correlation does not imply Causation.  Although this is basic statistics 101 stuff, therapists and educators continue to make this mistake over and over.  Lots of people with Asperger’s play video games, this is true.  This should not surprise us, because lots of people play video games!  97% of all adolescent boys and 94% of adolescent girls, according to the Pew Research Center.  But we love to make connections, and we love the idea that we are “in the know.”  I can’t tell you how many times when I worked in education and clinics I heard talk of people were “suspected” of having Asperger’s because they liked computers and did not make eye contact.  Really.  If a kiddo didn’t look at the teacher, and liked to spend time on the computer, a suggested diagnosis of Autism couldn’t be far behind.  We like to see patterns in life, even oversimplified ones.

2. Causation often DOES imply bias.  Have you ever stopped to wonder what causes “neurotypical” behavior?  Or what causes heterosexuality for that matter.  Probably not.  We usually try to look for the causation of things we are busily pathologizing in people.  We want everyone to fit within the realm of what the unspoken majority has determined as normal.  Our education system is still prone to be designed like a little factory.  We want to have our desks in rows, our seats assigned, and our tests standardized.  So if your sensory input is a little different, or your neurology atypical, you get “helped.”  Your behavior is labeled as inappropriate if it diverges, and you are taught that you do not have and need to learn social skills.

Educators, parents, therapists and partners of folks on the Austism Spectrum, please repeat this mantra 3 times:

It is not good social skills to tell someone they do not have good social skills.

By the same token, technology, and video games, are not bad or abnormal either.  Don’t you see that it is this consensual attitude that there is something “off” about kids with differences or gamers or geeks that silently telegraphs to school bullies that certain kids are targets?  Yet, when an adolescent has no friends and is bullied it is often considered understandable because they have “poor social skills and spend too much time on the computer.”  Of course, many of the same kids are successfully socializing online through these games, and are active members of guilds where the stuff they hear daily in school is not tolerated on guild chat.

Let’s do a little experiment:  How about I forbid you to go to your book discussion group, poker night, or psychoanalytic institute.  Instead, you need to spend all of your time with the people at work who annoy you, gossip about you and make your life miserable.  Sorry, but it is for your own good.  You need to learn to get along with them, because they are a part of your real life.  You can’t hide in rooms with other weirdos who like talking about things that never happened or happened a long time ago; or hide in rooms with other people that like to spend hours holding little colored pieces of cardboard, sort them, and exchange them with each other for money; or hide in rooms where people interpret dreams and talk about “the family romance.”

I’m sure you get my point.  We have forgotten how little personal power human beings have before they turn 18.  So even if playing video games was a sign of Asperger’s, we need to reconsider our idea that there is something “wrong” with neuro-atypical behaviors.  There isn’t.

A lot of the work I have done with adults on the spectrum has been to help them debrief the trauma of the first 20 years of their lives.  I’ve had several conversations where we’ve realized that they are afraid to ask me or anyone questions about how to do things, because they worried that asking the question was inappropriate or showed poor social skills.  Is that really what you want our children to learn in school and in treatment?  That it is not ok to ask questions?  What a recipe for a life of loneliness and fear!

If you aren’t convinced, please check out this list of famous people with ASD.  They include Actors (Daryl Hannah,) bankers, composers, rock stars, a royal prince and the creator of Pokemon.  Not really surprising when you think about innovation.

3.  Innovation is Dangerous.  Innovation, like art, requires you to want things to be different than the way they are.  Those are the kids that don’t like to do math “that way,” or are seen as weird.  These are the “oversensitive” ones.  These are the ones who spend a lot of time in fantasy, imagining a world that is different.  These are the people I want to have over for hot chocolate and talk to, frankly.

But in our world, innovation is dangerous.  There are unspoken social contracts that support normalcy and bureaucracy (have you been following Congress lately?)  And there are hundreds of our colleagues who are “experts” in trying to get us all marching in lockstep, even if that means killing a different drummer.  When people try to innovate, they are mocked, fired from their jobs, beaten up, put down and ignored.  It takes a great deal of courage to innovate.  The status quo is not neutral, it actively tries to grind those who are different down.

People who are fans of technology, nowadays that means internet and computing, have always been suspect, and treated as different or out of touch with reality.  They spend “too much time on the computer,” we think, until they discover the next cool thing, or crack a code that will help fight HIV.  Only after society sees the value of what they did do they get any slack.

Stop counting the hours your kid is playing video games and start asking them what they are playing and what they like about it.  Stop focusing exclusively on the “poor social skills” of the vulnerable kids and start paying attention to bullies, whether they be playground bullies or experts.  Stop worrying about what causes autism and start worrying about how to make the world a better place for people with it.

Like this post?  There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book.

Comments

  1. “It is not good social skills to tell someone they do not have good social skills.” Bingo. Brilliant.

  2. Brilliant. I love the stark display of these two disparate “truths” (perception vs. reality). IMHO, it comes down to two things to choose from…

    Fear or Fact

    Great post!

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says:

      Hi Jei, when it comes to fear or fact, we are often long on the first and short on the second. 🙂

  3. Johnathan Clayborn says:

    Mike, a very well written article. I completely agree with you. Just because a “high volume” of something exists in a given population doesn’t mean that it necessarily causes it. It could be that they are using games as a method of coping with their situation. And one also has to stop and consider what the researcher’s definition of “excessive gaming” is. the video game industry is larger than ever before. They routinely net more income than hollywood movies (as an industry). With computer gaming so prevalent in our society, if gaming actually did cause Aspergers, logic would stand to reason that the number of people being diagnosed with Aspergers would be at an all time high. Additionally, aside fromt the controller unit, video games themselves use the same basic technology as watching TV. So I’m curious what particular aspect about “gaming” is supposed to be so deterimental to your health and so independent from television? Is it the ability to control the environment? Or to overcome adversity? I’m glad that there are a few therapists like you out there to set the record straight.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says:

      Thanks Jonathan, I always find it motivating to hear from gamers who have read some of my stuff and finally feel like someone gets it. I’ll keep trying to get the word out, feel free to help!

  4. Great post!

  5. Helen Kraus says:

    Great post! I loved what you had to say

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says:

      Thanks, Helen. Please pass the link on to some of your colleagues so I can get the word out. 🙂

  6. Deborah Greene Bershatsky, PhD says:

    Your work contains seminal ideas, not all of which I agree with, but you have taken on a huge and necessary task in a changing world (someone has to do it). I will try to be there to support you, while I duck the fire for promoting my own, similar and unpopular ideas.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says:

      Deborah, what a great comment to get! I especially like how you both say you don’t agree with everything I think (nobody does) yet also pledge to be there to support me. Reading this blog is a form of support. Engaging with me through comments is another. Other ways of supporting my work can include forwarding posts to colleagues (including your criticisms,) buying my book, or asking your agency or department head to consider engaging me as a speaker or consultant. What are some ways you could use support.

      • Deborah Greene Bershatsky, PhD says:

        Mike, I’ve posted this article on Facebook, forwarded it to colleagues, will buy your book and can propose a talk at our institute; and I’m happy to continue to read and comment here.

        I’ve an anecdote for you: One of my children, now 22, didn’t speak until he was 4, didn’t read until he was 9, had odd behaviors and had to be home-schooled to graduate high school, because he couldn’t keep up with the work, nor was he able to study. After winning several vocal competitions he is now on a large scholarship at a prestigious music conservatory. Having begun as a vocal major, he recently added a second major of composition, which is exceptionally demanding and requires every skill he didn’t seem to have in secondary school. I believe his gaming taught him much of what he needed to learn to prepare him for this study. Ask me how happy I am that he attended a school that didn’t force me to have him evaluated, diagnosed or treated, although by the 8th grade it was a fight, especially as his room was decorated entirely with posters of videogames and he spent most of his time at the computer. I caught a lot of criticism for allowing this.

        How can you support me? How’s this for starters: Correspond with me personally; I come from the ravages of an innovative school of thought that has been ridiculed, over-regulated and sold out by some of its supporters. In defense of what I still believe in about that training, and to implement my own ideas, I am considering the idea of creating am entirely new discipline that excludes psychopathology, diagnosis and treatment when possible, and therefore sidesteps the entire system. I don’t need any supervision or consulting, but I would appreciate a dialog. It’s possible that such a discussion might benefit you as well. I’m impressed with your personal attention to each of the comments made here.

  7. Your headline sure got my attention, Mike! 🙂 “Wait…what?!”

    I love this post and will be putting it on my Facebook and Twitter in a moment.

    What you said about our education system made me want to share this: While I’m attending grad school to become a (hopefully epic) therapist, I’m also working part-time as a Special Ed Instructional Assistant at a junior high (I work in a few general ed classes, and one class that’s SE-only). We had an assembly recently, and my SE class was to walk over to the assembly together; when they realized they were supposed to sit by class, there was a noticeable anxiety spike in some of the students – “They’re going to know we’re in a SE class!” There have been a few times recently when some of them have been so down on themselves because they’re “different” (or, in their words: “dumb, stupid” 🙁 ); it pains me to see it. After their teacher tried to give them a pep talk one day, I tried to tell them how there are many famous and successful people who have/had dyslexia or who think/learn differently or whatever, but the students aren’t ready to take that onboard. Yet.

    On the other hand, one of the students in that class is a young woman who talks next to never. I was helping her one-on-one the other day; after we finished the classwork, I complimented her on a drawing she’d done on her binder. It turned out to be of a character from an anime or video game I’m not familiar with. We ended up talking for the rest of the class about the games we like to play, what animes we each watch… That’s the most verbalization I’ve EVER heard from her! Obviously she connects with gaming and anime; any adult trying to help her but not utilizing that is missing a huge opportunity.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says:

      Rebekah, this is such a powerful story. There are more educators and therapists willing to bring in technology and student interests, but still not enough. Thanks for reminding us also about the continued stigma special needs/differently abled kids have.

  8. Dr Roberts says:

    …yes, there are positive aspects to gaming, but when gaming interferes with real life relationships, going out and doing other stuff that is good for your physical and mental health (not sitting in chairs for hours and hours interacting in a socially limited way), interferes with broadening your mind and senses with real life experience (not virtual desensitised experiences) then there is a problem; and it’s not about social “norms” or social “conformity.” People have a body as well as a mind, and people need real experience as much as places to go (like books and computing) where they can enter a different world.

    As for Aspergers and the link to video games, I guess most people would not suggest it causes it, but certainly computer games can become a focus of interest for people with Aspergers, and while yes, gaming may help them socialise and develop certain skills, unfortunately gaming may make life even more difficult for them. To live you have to negotiate the real world and engage with real people and develop real social skills. Otherwise, in the end you will end up missing out on a awful lot of life beyond your avatar and end up lonelier and less of a person for not engaging in the world beyond the computer. Indeed, avoiding the real world by spending a lot of time online and not getting enough practice of real life social situations (good and bad) is probably not a great way of developing the necessary life skills to get on in life.

    Life is about balance, not trying to justify or defend one perspective or way of living. That balance should be encouraged not to maintain an oppressive social norm but to develop well-rounded individuals less prone to the mental and physical problems that comes with any over-focused activity, particularly one that offers little physical benefits and detaches them from their bodies and their real environment.

    • Dr. Roberts, you have a very poor understanding of Aspergers and gaming. Gaming allows players to practice things like social interaction.
      Requiring an Aspie to immerse themselves in public social interaction as treatment is akin to recommending torture therapy for someone who suffers from chronic physical pain. In you statement, you are exemplifying the expert discussed in the article.

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  1. […] and relationships.  But to label them as pathological is to miss the point.  Even if we rule out the cultural incompetency of the clinician around video games which often masquerades as dismissal o…, we need to understand that we are in essence asking the patient to adopt the same lusory attitude […]

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