The subtitle of Page’s memoir is Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s, and indeed Page didn’t learn until age 45 that he suffers from what is called autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. ASD is usually defined by impairments in social interaction and communication, but many people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome (in which symptoms are milder) also tend to fixate on and remember seemingly irrelevant information in their world. Their attention seems to be awry, or to use Page’s words, they notice the wrong things.
Remington and Swettenham studied a group of people with autism spectrum disorder, most of whom had Asperger’s, along with normal controls. They asked all the subjects to look at a computer screen, which displayed various combinations of letters and dots forming a ring. The subjects were instructed to very rapidly determine if the letters N or X were present in the ring and then hit the corresponding key on the keyboard. Some of the circles—those with more letters—were more difficult to process than others. There were also other letters floating outside the circle, but the subjects were specifically instructed to ignore those letters. Those floating letters were the laboratory equivalent of an irrelevant distraction in the real world.
And that is exactly what they found. As the researchers reported online in the journal Psychological Science, although there was no difference among subjects in either reaction time or accuracy on the main task, those with ASD processed the irrelevant letters while solving much more complex problems. Their reaction times indicated that they were still noticing when the extra letter was an N or X, while also finding the target letter in the ring with the same speed and accuracy as the normal controls. Put another way, they weren’t ignoring the main task, nor were they distracted away from it. Instead they were completing their work and moving on, using their untapped capacity.