The wall and the asymptote: neurodivergent intelligence and social isolation

A black-and-white photo of a thoughtful-looking black man.

Photo by Tyler Gebhart @ Unsplash

Theoretical background

People like Nils Holm, Michael Ferguson, CJS Hayward, Chris Wayan, Grady Towers and Leta Hollingworth have discussed the communication difficulties of many people whose intelligence varies drastically from the norm. (So have I, but using different language.) While I think the observations themselves are valid and seem to dovetail with accounts I’ve read about neurodivergently intelligent1 (NI) people’s experiences, I think they could benefit from more nuance. I am especially uncomfortable with the interchangeability of ‘highly intelligent/gifted’ and ‘high IQ’ that many of these people use. While all high-IQ people are necessarily intelligent - false positives on IQ tests are much less likely than false negatives - there are many people whose IQ scores do not reflect their innate intelligence because of the ways in which these tests are constructed, especially since modern IQ tests include tasks that measure skills other than the general ability to learn, think abstractly and recognise patterns, and many of them also exhibit cultural bias. This caveat is important; otherwise, the analyses unnecessarily exclude a population of people who may be very intelligent and express all or most of the qualitative signs of extreme intelligence, but do comparatively poorly on IQ tests relative to their developmental trajectory. Fixating on IQ scores as a proxy for intelligence misses the forest for the trees: it’s about the experience of developing asynchronously and being neurodivergent in a way that lets you learn more quickly than the majority of the population and see patterns they may not see, but that separates you from them because your mind is more difficult to understand. It is deeply othering to hear descriptions that fit your experience, but that may not precisely match the way you tested. The majority of NI people will probably have test results that reflect their abilities, but some NI people who are also disabled may not. This article applies to all NI people who feel their experiences match qualitative descriptions.

Though I’ll be talking about specific social difficulties that NI people encounter, the issue is ultimately more complex than that. The deeper issue is less about intelligence, really, as it is about people having a hard time understanding perspectives that are drastically different from theirs: problems with ‘theory of mind’. It’s about neurodivergence. A similar phenomenon occurs with autistic people who interact with non-autistic people and vice versa, regardless of where they fall on the cognitive-ability spectrum. Some people stereotype autistic people as lacking ‘theory of mind’, but it’s actually a bidirectional problem for many people. Because autistic people appear less frequently in the population at large, we are accused of lacking a theory of mind. Neurodivergent people tend to have difficulties socialising with neurotypical people because we experience things that most people don’t. It’s therefore unfair to claim that autistic people or other neurodivergent people lack social imagination when the problem exists on both ends.

The wall and the asymptote

I’ve noticed two related communication difficulties related to one’s learning abilities: the wall and the asymptote.

NI people hit the wall when the person they’re talking to doesn’t understand them at all. The person who feels confused may admit they don’t understand, shut down and go silent, or become hostile towards the person who’s confused them. While it’s possible for NI people to simplify their language and discuss only topics that other people can understand, it can still be a laborious task that prevents them from expressing their true selves. Constantly encountering the wall when talking to people during childhood and adolescence may make an NI person feel alone with their observations and interpretations of the world. It’s difficult to hold a conversation that other people can’t reciprocate. NI people may may feel crazy when others deny what they’ve seen and heard. They may clash with other people because of this problem and end up ridiculing them, becoming hostile, dismissing them or acting as though their perceptions are entirely imaginary. Somehow the original message gets lost in translation or interpretation. Issues like this underscore the importance of learning to communicate well across the ability spectrum.

My professional work involves translating complex ideas like the thorny details of public policy, systemic discrimination, critical theory and cultural studies into more digestible information that laypeople and beginning professionals can understand. I’ll often translate academic journal articles into plain-language summaries that people with ID or reading difficulties can digest more easily. Even if you can’t fully explain everything you want, there are ways that you can learn how to communicate certain ideas in a more accessible way. The onus is on the NI person to translate what they’re saying if they want to communicate a particular idea to the general public. NIs make up a far smaller portion of the population than typically developing people. Most people are not being obstinate when they don’t understand you. Of course, if people are being hostile towards you because of their confusion, that’s their own responsibility, but there’s a difference between the hostility and the misunderstanding itself. As a disability advocate, professional and activist, I believe passionately in making things accessible. I’m not saying that NIs should spend every minute of every day trying to dial themselves down and communicate only with people who don’t understand them, but it is an important skill to have.

The asymptote occurs when someone comes very close to understanding a communication but never quite reaches the point of full understanding. This often happens when an NI person is talking to someone who’s reasonably intelligent, but whose learning abilities and developmental trajectory aren’t to the degree that they make them feel isolated from others. In mathematics, an asymptote is a line that lists towards a curve on a graph, reaching out infinitely, but never fully reaches the point it approaches. (Similar concepts include infinitesimals, numbers that become infinitely close to zero, but never actually become zero.) In the same way, an NI person may discuss a topic that someone else mostly understands, but the other person may not get the nuances or wants to drop the subject when the NI person feels like they’ve just got started. They keep reaching and reaching, but never quite get there. It can be an unsatisfying experience, though it’s still less exhausting than encountering the wall. An NI person can have a conversation that they find mostly fulfilling, but find that the other person has missed the subtlety of what they were saying, or can’t quite relate to what they’re talking about and will be inadvertently dismissive. The NI person may feel a twinge of dissatisfaction and wonder, yet again, whether they’ve just made things up or are overreacting or are making completely arbitrary connections that make no sense. Like the wall, the asymptote problem isn’t a deliberate reaction designed to infuriate NI people; it’s simply a matter of NI people’s brains functioning differently. Sometimes breaking things down further or using tangible metaphors can help.

Consequences

I agree with Nils Holm that it’s important for NI people to find a community of people who understand them so they’re not always running into the wall or having asymptotic conversations, whether that’s online via in-person groups. When you’re misunderstood by the people around you, it’s hard to feel as though you belong anywhere. That disconnection can lead to a number of negative outcomes: developing severe depression or anxiety, getting into abusive relationships because the abuser is the only person you feel understands you, joining or starting cults because you think either you or the leader has the answers to all your existential worries, developing a superiority complex that elevates you above the rest of humanity, joining terrorist groups, and getting involved in authoritarian political movements. The news is full of examples of maladjusted, highly intelligent people who were somehow convinced they were superhuman or otherwise disconnected from the human race. Keith Raniere, a sexually abusive and manipulative cult leader operating out of Albany, New York, is penetratingly intelligent and uses his abilities to charm and swindle while presenting himself as a messiah figure. The same applies to Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon and any number of small-time cult leaders and self-appointed gurus who fancy themselves the saviours of humankind. Cult followers, too, tend to be more intelligent than the general population. While your brain may work differently from most people’s, this does not make you superior to other people. Yes, you’re neurodivergent and your experiences are valid and real, but recognising those differences shouldn’t lead to lording it over other people, going ‘LOOK AT MY MIGHTY INTELLIGENCE AND DESPAIR, MINIONS!’ You can’t fix all the world’s problems on your own, no matter how intelligent, rich, educated or well-connected you are. We are an interdependent race that has to work together in order to improve our collective lot. Coalitions are important. Be wary of anyone who claims to have all the answers.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend high-IQ societies like Mensa or Triple Nine, though; the requirements may exclude NIs who have spiky profiles that disqualify them or don’t particularly care to be tested anyway. Also, I’ve seen a worrying number of people who make a big deal about being ‘high IQ’ (as opposed to being NI, or even gifted) espousing disablist beliefs about people with intellectual disabilities, supporting eugenics, making misogynistic and racist claims, spouting nonsense from The Bell Curve and other works designed to denigrate marginalised people, or being otherwise horrible for other reasons. I think this attitude is directly connected to the history of intelligence testing, especially in the United States and Germany, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom. (Incidentally, most of the people I’ve seen adopting this awful attitude about intelligence seem to be American, German or British.) One of the most galling examples I can think of is Paul Cooijmans, a high-IQ society founder and intelligence ‘expert’ whose bigotry I’ve covered extensively in ‘The perils of attaching value judgements to intelligence’. I use a neurodiversity framework to describe differences in learning ability precisely because I don’t want to fall into that trap, or the alternative trap that claims that these differences don’t exist at all.

  1. ‘Neurodivergently intelligent’ is my coinage and a term I prefer over ‘gifted’; it’s a clearer description of the phenomenon. ↩︎