Turning Confusion Into Clarity: Lessons Learned From Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Autism spectrum disorder refers to a group of conditions characterized by difficulty in navigating normal social situations and having all-absorbing repetitive behaviors or stereotyped interests. At the milder end of the spectrum is Asperger’s syndrome, generally confined to people with higher functioning levels, yet they usually have difficulty picking up social cues and have isolating laser-like interest in specific topics. Some of the most influential inventors and scientists have had Asperger’s syndrome, including Sir Isaac Newton, Steve Jobs, Nikola Tesla, Bill Gates, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein, to name but a few.

Camilla Pang, PhD, a bioinformatics scientist was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 8, which heavily influenced her life and career path. She shares that wisdom-gaining journey in her new book, An Outsider’s Guide to Humans: What Science Taught Me About What We Do and Who We Are.


Title: An Outsider’s Guide to Humans: What Science Taught Me About What We Do and Who We Are

Authors: Camilla Pang, PhD

Publisher: Viking Press

Publication Date: December 2020

Price: $25.95, hardcover, 256 pages

Feeling Like an Alien

“It was 5 years into my life on Earth that I started to think I’d landed in the wrong place…. I felt like a stranger within my own species: someone who understood the words but couldn’t speak the language; one who shared the appearance with fellow humans but none of the essential characteristics,” writes Dr. Pang, in the opening of her fine-tuned memoir. She takes a head-on approach, filled with subtleties and nuance, in confronting the realities and myths surrounding this still-misunderstood neurologic phenomenon. This alone makes it an important read, given the wild theories about autism that have flourished during the social media age.

A worldwide increase in the rate of diagnoses of autism—likely driven by broadened diagnostic criteria and increased awareness—has fueled conspiracy theories that an environmental exposure, such as vaccines, might cause autism. However, epidemiologic and biologic studies have failed to back these assertions. Perhaps one simple sentence brings the reader into the author’s special world: “The strange world of my Aspergic brain is an odd place to be, but certainly never dull, one in which my headphones rarely leave my ears; it’s a useful barrier between me and the sensory overload of the outside world.”

A World View Built on Mathematics

An Outsider’s Guide to Humans is organized into 11 chapters. For the most part, it is a guide into the world of autism in which Dr. Pang explores the vagaries associated with spectrum disorders through the lens of a scientist searching for answers and offering real-world suggestions on how to better understand and deal with this life-altering neurologic mystery. It makes for an interesting read, from both human and scientific angles.

In chapter 1, “How to Actually Think Outside the Box,” Dr. Pang sets the stage for a narrative that is imbued with mathematical and logical analogy. For the most part, it works, but whenever one attempts to cross-pollinate disciplines, there’s a risk. For instance, she dives headlong into artificial intelligence (AI), comparing the human brain to supercomputers, and making light of what’s actually on the horizon, as AI becomes ever more intuitive.

However, that’s a small gripe, even for careful readers, as the author takes control of the narrative in chapter 2, “How to Embrace Your Weird,” which is wonderfully written, offering lessons in life for everyone, not just those on the autism spectrum. Readers will get an intimate window into the author’s younger years, one that will garner empathy. Teenage girls struggle with various identity issues; those with autism have another layer of challenges.

Dr. Pang described a eureka moment while watching a high school football game; the complexity and purpose of the running and ricocheting bodies short-circuited her thought process. Then her science brain figured out that the chaotic adolescent behavior could be modeled after her favorite molecule, the protein.

“I reached an epiphany, a realization that this dynamic behavior that was dizzying my brain could in fact be modelled. I stood up and practically bellowed, ‘You are like replicating proteins!’ to which blank and uneasy faces stared back at me. ‘Just watch the game, Mille.’”

Trial, Error, Success

Throughout this endearing book, Dr. Pang focuses on many of the social issues that all humans deal with, which are greatly amplified for those on the autism spectrum. Like many teenagers, she found defining the shape of her preferred world difficult, requiring lots of trial and error. However, unlike her schoolmates, she was often in another orbit, one they could not understand. Through incredible perseverance and resilience, the author worked her way out of the din and into an equilibrium of her own making.

Dr. Pang uses her life and career as a scientist to fashion a book that offers multiple pleasures for the reader; it’s smart, insightful, and woven together with a creative mix of scientific and mathematical analogies, most of which are spot on. In addition to her work as a bioinformatics scientist, Dr. Pang is also a volunteer cancer researcher at the Francis Crick Institute. Her splendid book is recommended for readers of The ASCO Post.