In 1943, Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American and the first physician in the USA to be identified as a child psychiatrist, published his first paper describing what he termed "early infantile autism" based on his observations of children who had been labelled as slow learners but with abilities that did not fit that label and as behaviourally abnormal yet without the patterns of emotionally disturbed children.
The word "autism" already had a meaning: "escape from reality" (coined by the man who had first used the term schizophrenia) and may have been used by Kanner because he either believed that the children were trying to escape from reality, or that they gave that impression.
Throughout the 50s and early 60s, Freudian psychologists believed that if certain basic psychological bonds between parent and child fail to form, the child would fail to progress. This led to some children being removed from the parental home - since unaffectionate parents were viewed as causing unaffectionate behaviour in their children - and others being brought through the various psychological states in another attempt to overcome the impact of having lived in a "dysfunctional" family.
Needless to say, neither treatment was sufficiently successful. Indeed, scientists have now found that the "autistic brain" differs in several ways and are attempting to clarify whether these differences are the cause - or result - of autism.
These differences include enlarged frontal lobes (the bit that does higher reasoning) and an undersize corpus callosum (the band of tissue linking right and left regions of the brain) leaving a brain that has, "too many connections that are local and not enough that are long-distance between regions".
This lack of long-distance connection means that people with autism have "difficulty bringing together different cognitive functions together in an integrated way […with a…] tendency to hyper focus on detail and miss the big picture."
In some beautifully crafted way, there are numerous parallels between brain science and a certain organic or social view of organisational shape and function.
Considering relationships to be like connections between synapses, for example, allows us to postulate that generally increasing the number of these connections is a good thing. But just like autism, having more of the wrong type of connections or an imbalanced set of connections is likely to cause problems with cognitive functions.
The brain/organisation is not, in this instance, a slow learner or unintelligent but it does suffer from unhelpful wiring that make it hard for individuals with autism to relate to others.
This might manifest itself in difficulty translating a stimulus ("come here!") into an action (getting up and walking) without explicit, detailed instructions ("stand up", "walk forwards", "stop").
Similarly, individuals within "autistic" organisations might have problems relating to functions other than their own or reacting to subtle competitive stimuli, meaning that they have to wait for a crisis (or crisis management) to force basic responses.
In her recent Time Magazine piece on autism, Claudia Wallis points out, "perhaps the worst fate is for a person with autism to have a lively intelligence trapped in a body that makes it difficult for others to see that the lights are switched on."
She cited the example of a girl called Hannah - profoundly autistic and thought to be "retarded" (her words not mine) - who a few days before her 13th birthday used a specialised computer keyboard to type "I love Mom", and is now working her way through high school with what appears to be competent intellect and a near photographic memory".
But one of the worst fates in "autistic" organisations is for people to be trapped in structures, processes and cultures that make it difficult for anyone to contribute – with the upshot that the whole is not even equal to the sum of its parts.
Is this over-dramatic? Well, lives are lives and waste is waste. And the cumulative impact this bad wiring in organisations means that they fail to meet the objectives we expect of them.
Social network theory, another newly-prolific kid on the block, supports many of the conclusions that can be drawn from this brain-based analogy since it describes social structures as a series of connected nodes.
Analysis has shown social networks operating on many levels, so it is hardly a shock to find that they have a major impact on how problems are solved, organisations operate, and objectives are achieved.
Inside a network there are nodes (the people) and ties (their relationships) which, when added up, give a person his total "social capital". Represent this in a diagram and it quickly becomes clear that smaller, tighter networks (lots of close connections) are less useful than networks with loose, wide ranging connections because the latter are more likely to suck in new ideas and throw up opportunities.
Old friends and members of the same department, for example, are less likely to know stuff that you don't already know. So it's far better to be connected to a range of networks in which you can learn and co-ordinate or channel effort by bridging the gaps.
Meanwhile, technology is revolutionising networking, making it possible to manage a far larger group of contacts than the 150-odd people that is viewed as the upper limit for conventional social networks as well as enabling us to look for and 'meet' people who we would have been unlikely to cross paths with in the normal course of events.
Social networking websites include classmates.com (the original) sixdegrees.com, friendster.com (the first circle of friends concept), myspace.com (with more page impressions than Google), linkedin.com (described as privileged club of connection), or facebook.com (where the idea is to try and connect to everyone you have ever known and to anyone that they have ever known in an ever increasing circle of acquaintance).
Used with instant messaging software, sites like these make it possible to have a global network that is many times more valuable than operating within the physical and social limits of habit and proximity.
Organisations are too complex, and beset by too much complexity, to be managed through "command and control" by an isolated group at the top. But perversely, those organisations that are most in need of the brain expanding benefits of social network growth are those least likely to permit the use of such software and approaches at work - presumably because of an unhealthy blend of ignorance, desire for control, and prejudice.
Yet we need to communicate. Restricting individual competence to narrowly-defined areas - a form of corporate "idiot-savance" - is not enough to meet organisational objectives. At some point (sometimes it takes only a couple of people, occasionally only one) an organisation's size outstrips it's connective intelligence. As it grows, it will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns and eventually become too stupid to survive -regardless of how many individually smart people it employs.
It is this regressive evolution which probably lies at the root of Vodafone's $20billion loss – and the converse which explains Nissan's dramatic turnaround under a CEO who has been able to create the kind of (often self-organising) connective tissue that organisations need if they want to make use of all that lively but wasted intelligence.