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Mild autismhas 'selective advantages'

Nobel Prize-winning economist Vernon Smith, who has Asperger Syndrome, the mildest form of autism, talks with CNBC's Sue Herera about what he calls the deficiencies and the advantages of  the disease.
/ Source: CNBC

What happens when children with autism grow up? It may sound paradoxical, but some with the mildest form, Asperger Syndrome, may turn out to be stars.

People with Asperger's often have extreme difficulty interacting socially, preferring to focus on narrow fields of interest. But often they're able to pursue those interests with great intensity.  Geniuses throughout history, including Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol and Emily Dickinson, have all been thought to have had Asperger's. And now Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith has decided to speak openly about what he calls the deficiencies and the selective advantages of Asperger's.

“I can switch out and go into a concentrated mode and the world is completely shut out,” he said in a recent interview. “If I'm writing something, nothing else exists.”

Smith received the Nobel Prize in 2002 for inventing the field of experimental economics, which uses laboratory methods to test economic theories. Smith says his capacity for deep concentration contributed to his ability to win the Nobel Prize.

“Perhaps even more importantly, I don't have any trouble thinking outside the box,” he said. “I don't feel any social pressure to do things the way other people are doing them, professionally. And so I have been more open to different ways of looking at a lot of the problems in economics."

CNBC: Did you feel like you seemed strange in the eyes of other people?
Smith: Oh, yes.
CNBC: How so?  
Smith: Sometimes I'm described as "not there" in a social situation. You know, a social situation that lasts for a couple of hours I find it to be a tremendous amount of strain, so I've been known just to go to bed and read.
CNBC: What led you to teaching? Teaching is very social and you said earlier you don't do well in social situations.
Smith: Teaching ... has forced me into being more social, but it's on professional dimensions that I'm comfortable with. We're talking about things that I have a lot of experience with, and I can relate to students very easily in that mode.
CNBC: Because they're in your world?
Smith: Yes, exactly, that's a good way to put it, they're in my world. And there are maybe worlds out there that I don't understand, so I don't go there.

Smiths' wife, Candace, says it hard at times to understand why her husband can't be part of her emotional world.

"He might not always know what he feels," she said. "In fact, many times he doesn't. He'll say, 'I don't know. What do you mean? ..."

Smith says she's found comfort in the Asperger's label because it's helped put some of her husband's actions into perspective.

"If you didn't have these words like autism or Asperger's as entry words into your own experience and understanding then you could categorize a child or adult as unemotional, cold, insensitive," she said. "Many people don't understand Vernon and they conclude wrongly about him."

Some doctors who treat people with Asperger's, like Dr. Ami Klin at Yale University, say Smith's success is not typical of people with this disability.

"The vast majority of individuals with Asperger Syndrome need help — without that help they won't be able to do very well," he said. "The individuals that I know have to overcome a great deal of difficulty to maximize their potential and get the things in life they deserve."

CNBC: There are people who think that a number of highly influential executives may have Asperger's or are on the autism spectrum. Is that society making a judgement or is it coming to realize that there are different kinds of minds?
Smith: I think it's different kinds of minds, and the recognition that certain mental deficiencies may actually have some selective advantages in terms of activities. We've lost a lot of the barriers that have to do with skin color and with various other characteristics. But there's still not sufficient recognition of mental diversities. And we don't all have to think alike to be communal and to live in a productive and satisfying world.