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Autistic Genius

By Rajesh C. Oza Email By Rajesh C. Oza
July 2014
Autistic Genius

with PostModern Gandhiji (PMG)

An advice column offering the Mahatma’s perspective on modern dilemmas


Dear PMG,

There’s something about the American quickness to label people that is a bit unnerving. While it’s flattering that Indians are considered brilliant, labeling does come with its downsides.

Yes, it is true that my wife will soon be a physician, and I’m developing some rather interesting software in the “Big Data” space, but both of us feel scared about another label that might stick to our daughter: “autistic child.” At a recent parent-teacher conference, our daughter’s teacher said that our sweet baby must be tested for autism.

Like Shakuntala Devi, our seven-year-old can compute fantastic numbers in her head. Yes, she’s a bit shy socially, and enjoys spending time by herself doodling repetitive patterns, but does that mean we should put her in a category and maybe even force a regimen of medicines upon her?

I imagine that during his idiosyncratic life, Gandhiji was considered nutty by some people.

Dear Friend,

“When [my British friend] came to know that I had begun to interest myself in books on vegetarianism, he was afraid lest these studies should muddle my head; that I should fritter my life away in experiments, forgetting my own work, and become a crank.” (M. K. Gandhi)

While it is true that the modern world is fond of putting people in psychological boxes, it is equally true that some mental disorders require professional treatment.

As a parent, your responsibility is to your daughter—not to the well-meaning teacher, not to the field of psychology, and certainly not to protecting your accomplished family’s “good name.”

I add the last “not,” because for some this is the knottiest: “How could our daughter be autistic!” Please be careful that you don’t find yourself in denial about your child, while considering the following.

During Gandhiji’s time, we were much more tolerant of a wide variety of behaviors. Part of the tolerance was rooted in ignorance of Freud and the nascent field of psychology, and part of it was based on blithe acceptance. Perhaps it has always been impossible to separate ignorance and acceptance. When we didn’t know that a condition such as autism existed, we just assumed that there was a wide spectrum of behaviors and accepted the spectrum; no one was really off the spectrum. We were all just humans, with some people a bit more different from others, but difference didn’t require normalization. We accepted them for who they were. Yes, with the difference came some costs, but life was like that; when one part of life was optimized, another was suboptimized.

To be sure, many people thought Gandhiji was a crank. Had he lived today and not been a world-changing “saint” (I use quotes here, because “saint,” too, is a label), he may very well have been classified as psychologically unstable. Or perhaps he would have been “straightened out” and lived his life as a “white-shoe” lawyer on Wall Street.

[Dr. Rajesh C. Oza serves as a consultant to organizations and individuals requiring change leadership. We invite questions for consideration in the PMG column at]


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