Thursday, August 30, 2007

An astronaut with Asperger's

When I first read of Lisa Nowak's infamous cross-country drive, I was fairly confident that she was having a psychotic episode. I did not suspect she also had Asperger's syndrome:
Former astronaut Lisa Nowak will claim temporary insanity - Los Angeles Times

Former astronaut Lisa Nowak plans to claim she was temporarily insane when she attacked Colleen Shipman on Feb. 5 at the Orlando International Airport.

Her attorney, Donald Lykkebak, filed a notice of this type of defense late Monday with the Orange County Clerk of Courts.

Some of the reasons listed in the notice include "a single episode" of major depressive disorder, severe insomnia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The plea also notes Nowak's marriage problems and inability to confide in family members or others, as well as her large weigh loss.

It also diagnoses Nowak with Asperger's Disorder, a condition with autistic-like symptoms that causes problems with social skills and can lead to eccentric behavior...
There are two aspects of this story if interest to our community. One is how the law should handle diminished capacity. I personally favor a tailored approach based on the future likelihood of harm to self and others, but that's not what I'll discuss here. The other aspect of interest is her history, and I believe the diagnosis is likely correct, of Asperger's syndrome.

It's a cliche that a large portion of electrical engineers could have met the diagnostic criteria for Asperger's as children, and could probably meet it today. Lisa is an aerospace/astronautical engineer. It's not electrical engineering, but it's close enough. I would love to see a real study that tested how true the cliche is. The first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, was also an aeronautical engineer and famously shy and publicity adverse. I wonder how he'd test out.

My personal sense is that individuals with Aperger's, and with high-IQ autism (the definition of both is famously inexact, they likely overlap) can do extremely well in some settings. They do, like all of us*, retain weaknesses they must continue to compensate for. I don't know how much of a role Lisa's Aperger's played in her tragedy, but I suspect the combination of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Asperger's and depression was just the "right" wrong mix. As psychiatry continues its sluggish and difficult transformation into a scientific trade, there will be more of an emphasis on how persons with austism, Asperger's, attention-deficit disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder can leverage their strengths and offset their disabilities, and how decompensation can be recognized and individually managed.

Good luck Lisa. Oh, and astronauts -- if someone tries to make Asperger's a disqualifying diagnosis, insist they test Neil first.

* When the gene testing does emerge, it will be interesting to learn how many of us have the predilections.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

There is no way Lisa Nowak could have gotten through the Naval Academy - let alone the space program if she indeed had AS.

I have a son with AS, and have experience with the service academies. She would not have been able to take the social pressure you need to get through Plebe Summer alone. You are harrassed to death by your peer military superiors, and need to know how to "get under the radar" so you don't stick out. Kids/people with AS stick out at one point or another.

Academically I'm sure she would have been just fine - NO WAY on the social end. No way.

Anonymous said...

It would depend on how high functioning she was. There are even varying degrees of functionality with Aspergers itself

Anonymous said...

I was a Group Captain in the Royal Air Force. I am an Engineer by occupation and most certainly do suffer from AS. Many AS sufferers don't realise they have it and learn to live below the radar by natural ajustment. Later in life I realized that I'd had AS all of my life. It should be no bar to types of employment, but could be judged on a case by case scenario. I think yo uwill find that many Engineers and Scientists are Aspies.

John Gordon said...

I much appreciate the comment from our RAF captain.

Smart people are capable of a great deal of adjustment and compensation.

We are accustomed to seeing amputees skiing, but cognitive adaptations are less obvious.

Anonymous said...

I graduated from the Naval Academy (with an engineering degree) and was eventually declared unfit for service following a brief psychotic episode. I'm also certain that I am an Aspie although I have learned to cope and have not sought diagnosis because I don't see any real potential benefit. Undoubtedly, USNA, plebe year, and the naval officer profession (some types more than others) are challenging in proportion to one's Aspie tendencies and one's inability to moderate them. Still, it's not at all shocking that an Aspie could achieve in the military the degree of success that Nowak did, particularly if you consider that there is no such thing as a pure meritocracy.

Anonymous said...

Its rather bizarre being AS and being unaware of it till my teens. I used to get ostracized in elementary and middle school and my parents made it worse by embarassing me in front of my few friends by saying things like, "Why don't you say you'll invite her over again?" and being extra pushy. Now I can say that those kinds of things certainly added to my unpopular image but when I hit 8th grade and moved to an entirely different school district, I reinvented myself. First, I decided to fit in. It was an all-too concious choice bent on years of being bullied and avoided. I decided to replace former solitary hobbies with listening to popular music, buying my clothes from the mall, and acting less serious and more frivolous. The last part was the hardest, but now I'm in 12th grade and I have a close group of friends who encompass various cliques and who are on the road to college and yet are entertaining to be around. I even have one friend who likes to party alot. Personally, I stay away from that sort of atmosphere, and instead hang out with several friends every weekend.