Is Your College Professor Autistic?

Last Updated Jul 17, 2009 9:56 AM EDT

Is your college professor autistic?

Could be.

Apparently there are lots of autistic professors teaching in college classrooms. And some are even winning Nobel Prizes.

"There is a lot more autism in higher education than most of us realize," writes Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Cowen notes that one of his former colleagues is, in fact, an autistic economist and Nobel Laureate.

Come on. This is a joke, right? Actually, it's not.

College campuses are a perfect incubator for high-functioning autistic individuals. Research suggests that about a third of autistic Americans out of a pool of roughly 2 million may possess exceptional skills.

People with autism, who tend to have troubles connecting emotionally with others, often possess the sorts of abilities that make for superior researchers. They often are blessed with strong memory skills and visual acuity, they can perform calculations in their head and they excel at sorting information. In short, an autistic professor who fails miserably at small talk at a cocktail party could possess a scrapbook full of accolades.

Actually, it's not surprising that autistic adults would prefer hanging out in ivory towers. One of their common characteristics is that they recoil from changing environments that bombard them with too much stimulus. Autistic professors can spend much of their time working in their own offices or at their homes where there are few distractions to keep them from single-mindedly focusing on their work.

Perhaps now we know what makes some absent-minded professors tick.

College classroom image by Vaidotas2007. CC 2.0.