Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Asperger's" and "Other" Poems at Awe in Autism

Two of my poems have been published at Awe in Autism, a website dedicated to art created by autistic people (or by people writing about autism). My two poems are "Asperger's" and "Other." Since discovering I have Asperger's (autism, according to the DSM-5), I have been working out how I feel about it. Yes, we do have feelings! We often just have difficulties articulating those feelings. For someone like me, poetry truly is an attempt to say the unsayable.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Autism, Empathy, and ADD

One theory of autism is that of "mind-blindness," developed by Simon Baron-Cohen. Out of this mind-blindness come a general lack of empathy. If you are mind-blind, you literally cannot empathize, after all.

Being a person with Asperger's and having a son (Daniel) with autism, I both know what it's like to have autism and to live with someone with autism. This is a quite different experience than is studying autism in the lab, through surveys (of neurotypical parents), etc.

For example, when I am ill, Daniel doesn't notice that I'm ill the way my neurotypical daughter does. She immediately notices and shows empathy. Daniel is still primarily interested in getting me to do whatever it is he's interested in doing. Most would argue that this proves lack of empathy. However, something interesting happens when my wife points out to Daniel that I am sick: he immediately looks worried and asks me if I'm okay. When you direct his attention to how I feel, he shows empathy. And he will periodically ask me how I'm doing until I'm well again. Also, we have a set of doctor toys, and he will go get them and give me a "check up" with them to make sure I'm okay. If those behaviors aren't empathy, I don't know what is (of course, my being autistic myself might mean I don't in fact know what empathy is -- but my answer to that is the same as that of George Takai on an episode of The Big Bang Theory when he was questioned as to how he could know anything about what a woman wants: "I read!").

In any case, this at least has the surface appearance of empathy. And I do in fact feel bad when my wife feels bad, and seeing her in pain induces feelings of pain. More, when my father lost his left arm in a mining accident when I was in high school, I experienced sympathy pains. Now, I will also admit that I don't always come across as the most empathetic person -- but that might be due to what I suggested with my son: I probably need my attention brought to the fact that the person is suffering. I am quite sensitive to suffering in general -- it affects my politics and support for free markets -- but I sometimes miss it in person.

Missing someone's suffering is part of the general problem of being constantly bombarded with information. It can be distracting. If there is any amount of noise in the house, I have a hard time hearing the television. While neurotypicals have the ability to cut off all but what they are trying to pay attention to -- indeed, can make background noise just that: background -- I hear the background noise at at least the same level, or higher, than what I want to pay attention to. Thus, I have to turn the T.V. volume up quite a bit. When there is nobody in the house, I can hear the T.V. at a volume of 30; when people are in the house, I have to have the volume up to at least 70, and I may have to have it all the way up to 100. And I'll still have to tell people to please quite down so I can hear.

This happens too when I am in public, at say a Starbucks, with a friend. My eyes are all over the place, noticing everyone and everything. At the same time, I am able to remain focused on the conversation. The distraction is thus sense-dependent. I can be visually distracted and pay attention to what you say. I can have auditory distraction and think and write. (I can even think while talking.)

Since much human communication is through visual cues, the fact that I am often visually distracted while I'm supposed to be focused on you, I can miss those visual cues you are communicating to me. This can result in socially awkward situations and an appearance of a lack of empathy on my part.

If this sounds a lot like attention deficit disorder, that may not be a coincidence. Many with autism are also diagnosed with ADD. I would not be surprised if ADD were in fact part of the spectrum, if we were to extend the spectrum out beyond Asperger's. Mere ADD does not result in missing social cues -- or at least, not as many as are missed by those with autism -- which is what keeps it outside the autism spectrum, but I must wonder if it is not unrelated. I will also note that, like autism, far more boys have ADD than do girls.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Few Misunderstandings About Autism

In the few months after I learned I have Asperger's, I was overwhelmed by the level of misunderstanding about autism prevalent not just in the general population, but with doctors and even parents of autistic children.

One major misunderstanding about autism involves the nature of our social anxiety. The fact that we have social anxiety does not mean that we don't like to be around people per se, or that we won't do things that involve groups of people. When I told my Aunt Cindy that I had Asperger's and that I suspected her father also had Asperger's, she objected that he went to church and was a member of the Audubon Society (coincidentally, I recently read somewhere that people with autism are particularly good at bird spotting). The fact that he was involved in a social group or two does not prove he did not have Asperger's. The fact that in his diaries there is no mention of the births of any of his grandchildren, and the fact that on the very day I was born, he discovered the nesting site of the upland sandpiper in South Bend, IN (when most grandparents would have been at the hospital where their daughter was giving birth to their grandson), suggest he probably did have Asperger's. My maternal grandfather was not particularly social, and the fact that he was a member of a club and a church doesn't mean he was social. I was not only a member of several clubs in high school and college -- I was elected president of the Association of Undergraduate Geneticists (AUG) at WKU. But I am definitely autistic.

Another example came from a question at the talk my wife and I gave on our experience with autism. A man in the audience was curious how it was that I could stand in front of a large group and talk. Well, standing in front of a large group and talking about something about which I am very interested is in fact pretty easy for me. In fact, you may not be able to get me to shut up. I am not dealing with people as people, but as an audience; I am not interacting personally, but rather discussing something I want to discuss. There is no small talk involved; there are few if any emotions involved. But when I go with my wife to our bimonthly support group at The Warren Center, I am extremely anxious. I have to chit-chat with people, I am faced with some pretty raw emotions at times from people having a hard time with what they and their children are going through, etc. But if someone asks me a question and I am in the position to talk about what I know about autism, my anxiety tends to dissipate. I can focus on the topic, and thus I am in a more comfortable place.

I have also learned to force myself to do social things even when I don't want to do them. Again, it's not that we don't want to ever do anything social; rather, it is that we don't want to do social things all that often. Sometimes I'm in the mood to hang out with a bunch of friends. Often, I'm not. But I learned that I had to agree to hang out when I really didn't want to so that I would be invited to hang out when I did really want to. That makes me appear to be more social than I really am; in other words, I act more social than I want to act. And I do so to get what I want, not because I feel any social pressure. You cannot use social pressure on me to get me to do anything; that is the very last thing that will work on me.

Another misunderstanding involves the ability to look someone in the eye. Now, I do understand that there is a range involved, that there are those who are severely autistic who can never look someone in the eye. But what many people fail to understand is that there is, in fact, a range involved. More, I have learned over the years to look people in the eye when I talk to them. Again, it is not my preference to do so. But I do understand that it makes people uncomfortable if I don't. And that can create problems for me. I used to look at people's mouths, and I still often do. But I had several people complain about that and demand I look them in the eye. So I learned to look people in the eye. But to do so means I am consciously thinking about the fact that I need to look that person in the eyes. Often, when I am in a meeting, I will look at my notepad and generally avoid looking at anyone. But if I speak or am addressed, I will make the mental effort to look at the person. But it is a mental effort to do so. And it means you don't have my full attention.

Finally, I have had people express surprise that I am a poet. I'm not sure why people don't think someone with autism can be a poet. The singer/songwriter of The Vines and Courtney Love both have Asperger's, and they write songs. So yes, it is possible to have autism and to be a poet. Perhaps it is because people with autism tend to be literal in their understanding of language; but in my case, that tendency to be literal with language has resulted in an interest in metaphors and other figures of speech. I often find what neurotypicals do to be of interest for their very oddity to me. And that strangeness of language use is particularly useful for being a poet.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Sheep Go To Heaven, Goats Go To Hell

What constitutes the "social awkwardness" of those with autism? I have discussed how autistics' discomfort with lying can lead to socially awkward situations, but there is another thing I have noticed by observing my son and reflecting on what I know both through experience with and through reading about autism that definitely leads people to consider autistics as socially awkward.

Neurotypicals are naturally social, and the reason they are naturally social is that they are uncomfortable unless they are conforming to the group they are in. If you are a Catholic, you would feel uncomfortable not kneeling to pray when everyone else is. Or pick any social situation and refuse to do what everyone else is doing -- that anxiety you feel is how people with autism feel in pretty much any social situation. Neurotypicals of course know how to solve the problem: conform. Conforming does not solve the problem for autistics.

More, autistics don't feel the need to conform. We will join in if we want to join in -- or we will not join in if we don't want to join in. How is this going to be perceived by neurotypicals? As socially awkward behavior. Neurotypicals think everyone should conform because, after all, if they are uncomfortable not conforming, then others must be as well. This feeling gets transferred into a social rule (sometimes into an explicitly moral rule), and those who do not conform are at best perceived as socially awkward, at worst as not being a member of the social group at all. Yet, this failure to conform may be a source of a great deal of social change. How many cultural changes have been made because someone with autism did something different? Perhaps more often than we realize.

Someone with autism is going to only do something if he or she wants to do it. There is no social pressure felt by them. They may try something everyone else is doing, simply to see what it's about, and if they like doing it, they will continue doing it, but if they don't like doing it, they simply won't do it. Like everyone else, though, they aren't likely to merely say they aren't doing it because they don't want to; rather, they are likely to rationalize it after the fact, declare it "stupid" or "irrational." It's likely neither irrational nor stupd (from a cultural standpoint), but rarely do people allow you to say outright that you don't like something because you simply don't like it. They demand a reason, and in the end, you will get one -- though it may be expressed in a "socially awkward" fashion.

So it seems to me that autistics' tendency to not conform would be interpreted by neurotypicals as being "socially awkward" behavior. However, it might be the very behavior that makes us question what we are doing, and which can sometimes lead to cultural changes and social transformation.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Social Problems and Bottom-Up Thinking and Learning in ASD

If you really understand the difference between top-down and bottom-up learning and thinking, you can begin to understand much of what is happening with people with autism. And the more bottom-up the learning and thinking, the slower learning is going to take place.

Those who are top-down learners and thinkers typically only have to experience something once or twice before they "have it." For example, a top-down thinker only has to experience a social situation once or twice for that social experience to be generalizable to other, similar social situations. However, bottom-up learners have to have many more such experiences before they can become generalizable. Thus, oftentimes, a social situation is experienced as being completely new, even if it is similar to other social situations experienced in the past.

Let us say that we have a bottom-up thinker for whom 10 similar social experiences are needed before those experiences can be generalized into similar experiences so that the 11th experience is familiar enough for the person to have a proper response to that experience. If it is a common experience, such as a daily school routine, those ten experiences will accumulate fairly quickly, and the person in question will soon know how to properly respond to that situation. If this person is fortunate enough to have someone around who can point out that certain social situations are in fact similar, he might even be able to learn more quickly (since bottom-up thinkers are also more explicit learners). But if the social situation is a rarer one, the bottom-up thinker might not learn how to negotiate such situations for a decade or more. And, of course, if some situation is spaced out enough, it might take more than the typical ten times for the patterns to become apparent.

Worse, imagine this same person is working at a job, and he has the social experience of someone failing to do their job in a timely manner, which is required for him to do his job. The top-down thinker will maybe get burned by this situation once or twice before they learn the proper thing to do in such a situation. The bottom-up thinker will, given the one we have posited here, get burned ten times before he learned the right thing to do. What are the odds he will have gotten fired before then?

Many top-down thinkers will have learned most social rules by their early twenties. However, bottom-up thinkers may take years or decades more to learn those same rules. The former will thus be more likely to keep their jobs for long periods of time; if not the first job or two, certainly the second or third. The latter, however, will be faced with the same situations in more and more jobs, and fail to understand they are really facing the same situation each time. Thus you can end up with someone in their forties not understanding a social situation that they "should have" learned by the time they were twenty. How stable will that person's work history be? Not very.

The most extreme bottom-up thinkers are those on the autism spectrum. The more bottom-up a thinker is, the more severe that person's autism will be (or vice versa). All learning will be slower, but social learning will be particularly slow, because social situations cannot typically be repeated as often as can facts. Learning language is going to be equally slow, because words have to be associated with concrete reality, and words have to be repeated in their proper context, for the autistic person to learn those words. More, grammatical structures being learned more explicitly than implicitly is going to slow down language learning for those who are bottom-up language learners. This style of learning -- bottom-up, explicit learning -- is what makes social learning so slow and difficult for people with autism. Without accommodations for that, people with autism are going to continue to have problems in life and work.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


A recent finding on oxytocin is of great interest to many with ASD.

It seems that "A pair of researchers, one in Israel the other in the Netherlands has found that volunteers given oxytocin tend to be more willing to lie if it benefits a group they belong to." Now consider the fact that there seems to be less oxytocin in those with autism than in neurotypicals. This would suggest that those with autism are less willing to lie, even if it benefits the group to which they belong. This would of course be interpreted as "social awkwardness" by those for whom it is natural to lie to benefit their group (such as their family). The neurotypicals in the autistic person's group are wondering, "Why wouldn't you back me up on that?" while the autistic person is saying, "But I was only telling the truth."

Oxytocin is an interesting molecule. It is the trust molecule. It is a love molecule. And it is a divisive molecule. Specifically, it seems to be a strongly in-group molecule. The kind of trust it fosters, for example, is among those within your group. Those with autism are trusting -- but they/we are typically trusting of everyone. We don't in-group, out-group. Which, for all the benefits lost with lower oxytocin, is something I would consider a significant gain.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Personal Story About the Intense World

I think there is little doubt that autism runs in my family, and that the kind of autism we have is best described by the intense world theory. The dominance of positive feedback in our neural systems goes a long way toward explaining a large number of traits, including my being mildly bipolar. Another thing that happens to me on occasion also now makes sense in the light of the intense world theory. Every so often my skin becomes hypersensitive. Some times it is more intense than others. Often, my joints and muscles ache and my mind is racing -- I cannnot remain asleep for more than a half hour at a time -- and I become ravenously hungry, but then be able to satiate that hunger with, say, a handful of chips. Everything moves at top speed in me. After a few days, it will subside.

This makes perfect sense with the intense world theory of autism. When positive feedback dominates, the system in question cycles. This is true of any scale free network process, including neural networks. There are times when I don't feel very much; but most of the time the cycles are subtle enough that they are not all that noticeable. However, sometimes those cycles run amok, and the intensity increases and increases. There is eventually a crash back to normal, but the period of intensity can be a bit much.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Ambition vs. Passion

John Hagel has a paper in which is discusses the difference between passion and ambition. I don't want to go into all of the differences he raises between the two. You can read the article for that. But his distinction immediately made me think of myself and of those of us on the spectrum.

People on the autism spectrum do not have ambition. But we do have passion. Equally, I think the father away from the autism spectrum and the closer you are to the solipsistic end of the neurotypical end of the neurodiversity spectrum, the more likely you are to be ambitious rather than passionate. This would imply that the more top-down your thinking, the more strategic a thinker you are, the more likely you are to be ambitious rather than passionate. The more bottom-up, the more analytical a thinker you are, the more likely you are to be passionate rather than ambitious.

Naturally, these things are on a spectrum. But we have to wonder in what ways ambition and passion are really opposite things. We hear of ambitious politicians, but rarely truly passionate politicians. We hear of passionate scientists and artists, but rarely truly ambitious scientists and artists. Is it any surprise to learn that there are plenty of people on the autism spectrum in the latter group, but few if any in the former?

If we think about the dynamics involved in, say, a business, we can see what might happen. The passionate will be happy working at whatever they are passionate about. Meanwhile, the ambitious will move up the company, get raises, etc. And they will do so on the work of the passionate. Worse, many who are passionate at their work will often be viewed as not worth promoting precisely because they are perceived as not having enough ambition -- which often really means, "We don't perceive him as caring as much about the company." But that is wrong. The passionate worker is the one who cares more about the company, while the ambitious worker cares more about himself. Of course, since it is the ambitious who are at the top of the company more often than not, they will naturally relate to others' ambitions. Thus, rewarding the ambitious over the passionate is institutionally reinforced.

People need to come to understand that the person quietly working over in the corner, from whom you hear little or nothing, but who is working constantly, is the one who cares about the work, who cares about the job, who cares about the company. Those are the things that ought to be rewarded more, rather than personal ambition.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

When Your Work Is Who You Are

Recently my wife observed that my work is deeply intertwined with my identity. It was not the first time she observed it, but sometimes the Nth time you hear something is when you start to think about it.

I hadn't really thought about it before because she was and is right. And it seems so natural to me. I am a poet/playwright/interdisciplinary scholar/spontaneous order theorist. When I awake, those things are on my mind; they are on my mind throughout the day; they are on my mind when I go to sleep. My mind is always active thinking about my various projects.

Asperger's has been called the "Little Professor Syndrome," and I certainly fit that description. When I was obsessed with dinosaurs, I could have held my own with a paleontologist; when I was obsessed with sharks, I learned everything I could find on sharks; when I was obsessed with plants -- and later narrowed that obsession to orchids -- I learned everything I could find on plants and, particularly, orchid. That obsession later turned into molecular biology in college, then economics, then quantum physics (at least, to the degree one can learn about it without math), then chaos theory and complexity, then fiction writing, then poetry, then play writing. The older I have gotten, though, the more I have retained past interests. I remain curious about molecular biology, and I very often think with the concepts of biology; I have increased my interest in economics, combining my interest in complexity with economics into Austrian economics and spontaneous order theory; I still write plays and poems.

One of my more recent obsessions is learning about autism. When I learned my son had autism, I did the autistic thing and became obsessed with the topic and learned everything I could about it. My familiarity with molecular biology and neurobiology helped. It was in dong this research that I learned I had Asperger's.

It turns out that those with Asperger's deeply identify with the work they do, with the work with which they are obsessed.

If the person with autism can find a place that will indulge his obsessions, he will be a great worker and will do great work. If the person with autism cannot find such a place, he won't allow that job to interfere with his "real" work. One can perhaps imagine what the outcome of that is likely to be.

For autistics with advanced degrees, like me, the logical place to work is a university. And if universities were primarily interested in research, scholarship, and teaching, they would be the ideal place for autistics. Unfortunately, universities are primarily interested in more fully developing their bureaucracies, playing university politics, and engaging in all sorts of other social games at which those with autism are terrible. If universities were places where a professor could see that something was not working, and the next semester change the way he taught classes based on his observations of what worked and what did not, they would be ideal places for those with autism. However, universities are in fact places where professors are pressured into teaching the same way as everyone else, no matter what the educational outcomes may be.

It seems, then, that there are no places to support people with autism. There is no institutional support; the institutions we have are structurally opposed to both the strengths and weaknesses of autistics, while thoroughly supportive of both the strengths and weaknesses of neurotypicals.

Worse, because people like me are so personally identified with their work so that there is little differentiation between the work and person (please note I said "the work" and not the ideas, as particular ideas will be chucked if they are shown  not to work out), we tend to take it quite personally that nobody wants us or wants us to do what we are good at. We resent the fact that we cannot make a living being who we are, because of the prejudice against us built into the institutional structures of society. I do not know if there was ever a time when things were better for those with autism; however, I suspect that before the growth of bureaucracy as a fundamental institution in all areas of life, life for those with autism was much easier.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Aspie Holidays

Holidays can be hard on you if you're on the spectrum. Particularly if you have people over to your house -- or you are over to their house. The disruption of one's routine, the large number of people, being unable to do the things you typically do, meaning you have no earthly idea what to do with yourself.

Don't get me wrong. It's good to see friends and relatives. It's good to talk and visit. I love having people over, and I would never want anyone to not want to come over. But I really don't know what to do with myself during these times. I can typically get all my "visiting" in pretty quickly. After that, it's mostly small talk, and if there is something someone on the spectrum can't stand, it's small talk. I can't seem to make myself have a conversation that doesn't involve philosophy, ideas, literature, economics, spontaneous orders, etc. And if I can't do that, or read about those things, or write about those things, I'm at a loss with most people.

Of course, with it being Thanksgiving, I did get to cook. And I love to cook. I literally cooked from 8am to 4pm. After I prepared the turkey and put it in the oven, I made breakfast. After I ate breakfast, I started working on all the sides for dinner, including home made dressing, using bread crumbs I broke up and dried myself. That was the best time for me.

Several of Anna's family came, and I'm glad they came. I'm glad Anna and the kids got to see some of Anna's family, and that they got to see Anna and the kids. But I'm always concerned that I come across as distant and unfriendly when I mostly leave people alone and sometimes disappear into the bedroom. I don't mean to come across that way. I always want people to feel welcome.

So the week was pretty exhausting for me. I didn't appear to do much of anything, but the fact of the matter is that I find working less exhausting than social situations.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Institutional Discimination Against Those With Autism

Institutions matter.

The structures of our institutions do indeed matter a great deal. The structure of our property rights, for example, can be the difference between widespread wealth and the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few who are politically powerful. Those structures affect whether or not we are playing a positive sum game, a zero sum game, or a negative sum game. Inevitably, the structures of our institutions influence who is successful and why.

Thus, the Left's complaints about "institutional racism" or "institutional sexism" are not wrong. It is likely that there are structural elements to various institutions in any society that make it easier or more difficult for a particular race or sex to succeed.

But I have discovered another kind of institutional discrimination.

I have come to realize that there is widespread institutional discrimination against those with autism. I know this because I have experienced it. In fact, I have been experiencing it for a long time now, only I did not know or understand this to be the case because I was unaware I was autistic.

For example, there is perhaps nothing more anti-autism than bureaucracy. Bureaucracies reward those who socially conform the most, who are socially most clever, who know how to brown nose the best and play office politics the best. They do not reward hard work, innovation, or insight. In other words, bureaucracies are an autistic's worst nightmare. Yet, it is not uncommon for high functioning autistics to have advanced degrees. If that advanced degree is a Ph.D., that means working in a university more often than not. Yet there are few places more bureaucratized than universities.

While being a university student actually plays into many of the strengths of those with autism -- which is why so many get advanced degrees -- the work environment is anti-autistic. And this includes the work environment of colleges and universities.

More, among neurotypicals, HOW something is done is just as important -- sometimes more important (especially in places with large bureaucracies) -- as the outcome. To take something with which I am familiar, it should matter more whether or not the students actually learned the material than whether you are teaching those students the same way as everyone else. But it turns out that student learning per se is not what is important to anyone in the universities' bureaucracies; rather, what is important is that you are conforming everything you do to how everyone else is doing things. And if you are doing even one small thing differently, you have to defend what you are doing to more and more and more people -- until you just give up on it just to get people to leave you alone. Nobody cares if what you are doing works; they only care that they aren't doing it, or that they hadn't heard of it before. For the autistic person, none of that stuff matters. The only thing that matters is what works. Show me it doesn't work, and I won't do it. But if I show you it does work, you should leave me alone to do what works. Perhaps you ought to try doing it yourself. But ego gets in the way of neurotypicals adopting things others have developed.

Neuroptyicals typically won't adopt something new until and unless they are made to do so -- either by a boss or by circumstances. This also works in reverse. You are expected not to adopt something new until and unless the boss makes you. You are not supposed to just do things on your own. Yet, this is exactly what you can expect people with autism to do. We care only about what works, and ego or hierarchy or anything like that does not come into play at all (although we are typically interpreted by the much more egocentric neurotypicals as being egocentric for insisting on doing things "our" way).

Bureaucratic  hierarchies play into the strengths of neurotypicals, but outright punish autistics. One could almost define neurotypicals as political animals and autistic as poetic animals. The poetic person wants to simply make or do (this is the origin of the work in ancient Greek), while the political person wants to be social and to interact with other human beings. Most of our modern institutions are political in structure, rewarding those who engage in politics. It is not hard work that gets rewarded, but whoever is the  most politically savvy. More, the more autistic you are, the more difficult it will be to succeed in a job, as most jobs reward social intelligence over other kinds of intelligence. And social intelligence is precisely where autistics fall short.

Thus we can see that our institutions are discriminatory against those with autism.