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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Personality and Profession: When Who You Are Becomes What You Do

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Multitasking workWork of a multitasker. Photo by totalAldo/Flickr, cc by 2.0

To be effective workers, many of us use learned principles of best workplace practices, even though they may counter our natural instincts. But this goes against a common sense idea that your personal tendencies could help you at work. In "Autism and Humanity" this week, Paul Collins cites psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen's research correlating autism with certain professions:

"There’s been really fascinating research on this done by Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University. And what he noticed essentially was that there seemed to be a lot of autistic siblings, in particular, of students of his who were in science-related majors and, you know, math students as well, and engineering students, and that kind of thing. And so initially, he simply looked at, just sort of did an informal study comparing English majors and the rates of autism in their families with a number of science majors. And the science majors that he was looking at had rates that were like five and six times that of autism in their families. Interestingly enough, the English majors had much, much higher rates of manic depression in their families…

Which is suddenly all makes sense. So, and then when he expanded to studying the broader population, he found that this held up. That actually, when you looked at the professions that family members of people with autism were in, they tended to be in things like accounting, engineering, computer programming, and had very low rates of employment in fields like sales, for instance.”

Harvard Business Review recently made a similar point with seven personality traits of successful salespeople. The research took an organic approach to understanding what personality traits top salespeople happened to have in common, and in what ways it served them in their sales roles.

Many of us may have struggled less on the career ladder by choosing a career more suited to our personalities. But would you trade in the unexpected skills or experiences picked up along the way?

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What Might Autism Teach Me about What It Means to Be Human

by Krista Tippett, host

Paul Collins's bookPhoto by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr, cc 2.0

The Centers for Disease Control report that 1 in 110 children in the U.S. is now diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum of autism. In other words, this is a condition that affects many lives, many families.

General reporting and publicized controversies tend to focus on the physiology and neurology of autism, or on possible causes and cures. As I’ve followed such stories, I’ve longed to understand something about the inner world of people with autism and those who love them. I’ve wanted to hear about autism in terms of spirit, intellect, and human nature. And when I discovered Paul Collins’ warm and erudite book Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey into the Lost History of Autism, I knew I’d found a way in.

During a routine checkup, his beloved son Morgan was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and a half. Paul then went searching for understanding in history and literature. He traced the winding process by which 20th-century physicians finally diagnosed autism after centuries in which it was conflated with very different conditions, such as schizophrenia and Down syndrome. He had previously written about eccentric characters and forgotten inventors in history, and he began to find evidence of autism in some of these figures who had already captured his attention. In his travels, he also experienced how the spectrum of autism quietly reaches into centers of contemporary invention — such as Microsoft.

Some of our programs feel like an “experience” in the making. This one did. Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder have opened my imagination about what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be autistic, without for a moment downplaying the debilitation that life with autism also entails. I had imagined this condition to be thoroughly isolating and inscrutable.

The very word “autism” comes from the Greek for “self” — autos — connoting a state of being in which a person seems quite literally to live in his or her own world. And yet Paul and Jennifer help me grasp that autism is not one thing but a spectrum on the vast continuum of human personality. Autism has deepened their understanding of disability and of intelligence, curiosity, and accomplishment.

Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, are their stories of how life with Morgan has imparted a new generosity and respectful good humor to their dealings with each other and their families of origin. There is a documented correlation between autism and families with achievement in fields like engineering, music, mathematics, science — professions that require an aptitude for logic and a capacity for intense, solitary focus. You can read a beautiful essay by the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould about his son with autism.

Paul writes this:

"Autists are described by others — and by themselves — as aliens among humans. But there’s an irony to this, for precisely the opposite is true. They are us, and to understand them is to begin to understand what it means to be human. Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. But autism is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an overexpression of the very traits that make our species unique. Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result."

There is more in this hour of radio than I can evoke in these paragraphs. And if you enjoy it, I’d encourage you to listen to my original, unedited two-hour conversation with Jennifer Elder and Paul Collins. It is full of illumination and warmth, and I didn’t want it to end.

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