The Quirk Stack

When neuro-divergence starts to pile up

Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip (above), has advanced a theory to account for the success of his creation: the talent stack. The idea behind the talent stack is that you don’t have to be excellent at one thing if you’re pretty good — or good enough — at a multitude of things. Here’s Adams describing his own talent stack:

Well, if you take me as the perfect example of this: I’m a poor artist — certainly in the beginning — I’ve kind of through brute force brought myself up to mediocre. I’ve never taken a writing class, but I can write. I’m okay. You put me in a room of writers, I’m not gonna be the best one. If I have a party at my house, I’m not the funniest person in the room. But I’m a little bit funny; I can write a little bit; I can draw a little bit. You put those three together and you have Dilbert, and it’s a fairly powerful force. Add on top of that that I have an MBA. I have business experience. All of that works in. So I’ve got a bunch of fairly average talents that only the sum of them makes them valuable.

(It’s a theory that Adams also advances to account for the electoral success of President Donald Trump in 2016, helpfully shared by CNN here:

Readers’ approval will vary, according to political bias.)

In her brilliantly gentle — yet apparently provocative — piece You’re Not Trans, You’re Just Weird, my friend Donna advances the idea that her son’s trans identity is his way of coping with being different. This sense of being an outlier, she argues, seems to run in the family:

By third grade, we realized you were different, but we still didn’t realize you were weird. Truthfully, we’re used to people like you. Our family is full of engineers, artists, musicians, computer programmers, and a lot of “free-thinkers.” Family gatherings always have chess, political debates, and quartets around the piano. That’s just us.

Donna’s experience is not unique. Among many parents of gender-questioning boys, there is a deep conviction that transition is a misplaced attempt to process the feeling of being a stranger, looking in on the rest of society. And in many of these families, unusual ways of seeing the world do seem to be inherited traits. Parents speak of their sons as being ‘just like my dad’ or ‘exactly like my sister’ — often with frustration, more often with affection. Whether it’s black and white thinking, a tendency to obsess, a fixation with rules, or the stark alternation between hyper-focus and absent-mindedness, neuro-divergence — or perhaps what we used to call plain old eccentricity — is a recurring theme.

This is not a new thought in gender critical circles. Many parents are extremely frustrated at the inability — or unwillingness — of autism associations to discuss the eyebrow-raisingly high levels of ASD diagnoses among trans-identifying kids. School counsellors seem paralysed by the very idea that such children might be mistaking one thing (neuro-divergence) for another (being a member of the opposite sex). Counsellors wind up siloing expert diagnoses as irrelevant, even though the kids in front of them are inescapably different from their peers in so many ways which go far beyond gender presentation.

In the clandestine parent support community which has sprung up in response to the surge in trans-identification, parents like Donna gather data in informal surveys, measuring the incidence of autism, ADHD, OCD and other conditions which single their children out. But no one condition prevails. Autism spectrum traits are common, yet not universal; obsessive thinking and hyper-focus dominate, but are more prevalent in some kids than in others. The one word which crops up again and again is quirky: a useful descriptor, but hardly a diagnosis. And parents do seek out a diagnosis, not least because it might provide a means of having their concerns heard out.

In my ongoing Quillette series, where I narrate the experiences of parents who feel sidelined and attacked, I advance the notion of hyper-ruminative transgenderism — a term which the wonderful Stella O’Malley and I came up with to describe precisely this kind of trans-identification. The notion is fairly simple: transgender identities can emerge from excessive rumination over discomfort, trauma or the feeling of being at odds with the world.

For males, this might (or might not) be seen to take on Ray Blanchard’s dichotomy: that male-to-female transgenderism can be accounted for by autogynaephilia on the one hand, or a particular form of homosexuality on the other. Personally, I am minded to believe that the autogynaephilia vs. homosexuality analysis is failing to account for the new, teenage-onset surge in transition. But it is possible to disagree with me on this point, and still concede that hyper-rumination is overlooked by specialists, to the detriment of the young people who suffer from it. It may prove useful to parents — and perhaps to detransitioners — to have a term which pegs this particular phenomenon, and gives a more honest account of the role of rumination and fixation in the establishment of a new sexual persona.

So perhaps the kids experiencing this hyper-ruminative form of transgenderism have a quirk stack. Like the talent stack, the sum of small factors may prove at least as powerful as one large factor alone. They’re not necessarily autistic, but may have autistic traits. They may not have an ADD or ADHD diagnosis, but there are shades of hyper-focus and excitability which colour their behaviour. You wouldn’t call them obsessive-compulsive per se — but catch them on the wrong day and they’re certainly obsessing about something.

As someone who has a great deal of empathy for these young men — and who would have misplaced his own trauma-driven pubescent dysphoria into a transgender identity — I suspect I have my own quirk stack. I’m certainly not autistic, but I do measure as having mildly autistic traits. I wouldn’t say I am obsessive-compulsive, but you can turn me into a crumpled wreck with a loudly ticking clock. And my own dysphoric feelings, which rendered me unable to look in a mirror for years (bonus: I can shave in the bathtub), were definitely exacerbated by a hyper-rumination which I wouldn’t have suffered were it not for my mismatched developmental pathway. At 14, I was going on 24 in academic terms, but going on 9 in pretty much every other way that counted.

If Scott Adams is to be believed, stacking minor advantage on minor advantage builds a tower of talent so impressive that it can get you into the White House. So maybe it’s time for teachers, school counsellors, therapists and clinicians to recognize that quirks, like talents, can also stack up. Neuro-divergence — if properly understood and properly channelled — can be as much of a strength as a weakness. But it doesn’t just have to be one diagnosis or another. It’s time our quirky characters got intersectional.

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