Autistic Nation

     We’ve become an autistic country.
     I was reading “An Anthropologist on Mars” when Oliver Sacks died. Its last two chapters are on idiots savants and autism.
     Idiots savants are prodigies with peculiar talents – memory, math, music – talents far beyond those possessed even by gifted “normal” people. But the idiot savant is crippled, often hopelessly retarded, in what we call normal life: social tasks most of us take for granted. Making friends, understanding what friendship is, caring what other people think, having the slightest clue that the person in front of us, the rest of the world, may not be fascinated with what consumes us: prime numbers, what day of the week Jan. 14 was in 1323.
     Most idiots savants are autistic, and only a small percentage of autistic people are what’s known as “high performing”: possessed of a peculiar talent, such as the ability to multiply 19-digit numbers in their head.
     Dr. Sacks was interested in what autism and idiots savants can teach us about the way the brain works. We know that certain sections of the brain are devoted to specific tasks: memory, language, sight, and that large areas of the brain can be damaged, or removed, without affecting our abilities at all.
     It’s also understood that what we call sight is not a single task, that separate areas of the brain detect color, outline, motion, distance, and the brain assembles it all so deftly and rapidly we are not even aware so many operations are involved.
     What’s different, Sacks wondered, in the brain of a mathematical or musical genius who in the rest of his life is an idiot, and the brains of geniuses who are not idiots?
     The normal brain does not function like a bunch of highly sophisticated, tiny building blocks stacked together: the sight blocks, the sound blocks, the social interaction blocks, and so on. Without something integrating them, an underlying or overarching something making sense of what’s inside us and what’s outside us, we’re just idiot savants, or just idiots.
     That’s why I say we’ve become an autistic country. We make great movies. Great computers. Good cars. Terrific guns. Lots of cool, shiny objects. But socially, we just stand in our corners and chatter.
     If there is an integrating force in the United States – an underlying or overarching understanding that what fascinates us at the moment, that what we want right now is not the most important thing in the world, that there are other people out there who are just as important as we are – that integrating force should be Congress.
     Need I say: Har har har.
     Congress, and many of our state legislatures, act like a bunch of retarded, autistic idiots.
     We regulate hairdressers and the paint on toys, but not guns.
     We slash taxes to less than a third of the level under Eisenhower, when we built our interstate highways, then find ourselves unable even to fix potholes, and we say: How did that happen?
     We create idiotic, racist systems to pay for schools, giving rich folks lower tax rates but more money than poor families, depriving poor kids of books, paper and pencils; we prohibit poor families from taxing themselves a few pennies more to buy their children textbooks, then we say: What’s wrong with our schools?
     Faced with all this, and worse, millions of people scream about abortion, about guns, about the Jews, about liberals, about Mexicans, about the evils of medical care, about lawyers, about unions.
     And above it all sits an autistic Congress, unable to perform the simple social functions we once took for granted, chattering with echolalia: pro-life … Second Amendment … tyranny … freedom … evildoers … God told me to do it.

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