By Rob Archangel, 180DegreeHealth.com staff writer
The topic of autism came up recently on the Facebook page, and I thought back to an article I’d read several years ago, The Truth About Autism: Scientists Reconsider What They Think They Know. The radical idea at the time was that autism is not a dysfunction or disorder, but instead an expression of human diversity. And this doesn’t mean just the “savants” like Dustin Hoffman counting cards in Rain Man, but perhaps all autistic individuals. What if their condition and experience of the world was just difficult for us to understand, but not necessarily tragic? This article makes a good case for that. One of the feature players is a woman named Amanda Baggs, a young non-speaking autistic who can nonetheless communicate through typing (120 words per minute), and through type-to-speak software. She maintains a Youtube account and her most popular video is entitled “In My Language.”
In it, we see her engaging in the sorts of behaviors we associate with low-functioning autistics, seemingly random and a repetitive tasks like rubbing her hand across a keyboard, gesturing toward the window, and humming to herself. Upon first view, these are incomprehensible and maybe a bit disconcerting. But, a few minutes into the video, we see some of the same motions again, this time overlaid with her speech software describing a very different but nonetheless rich experience of the world. She makes the compelling point that she is regularly shortchanged because she is only considered communicative when she types words the rest of us can understand. We “neurotypicals” on the other hand, are not expected to be able to speak her language, and are not seen as less intelligent as a result of that deficit.
This idea has existed on the margins for some time now: we may need to re-think our ways of categorizing autistics, and in fact, understanding their minds may be helpful and instructive for those outside of the autistic spectrum. I spent a little time talking with a friend with Asperger’s Syndrome, and want to share some of the ideas that came up.
He is unique among the Autism Spectrum Disordered (ASD) individuals he knows in that it manifests for him as a high-level, hyper logicality. His ability to grasp concepts and ideas, to manipulate them, to run them alongside one another and find areas of congruence and contrast, is not typically the strong suit of autistic folks. More common is an ability to utilize 3-D models or pattern recognition, or demonstrate perfect pitch or possess superior memory skills. The increased frequency of powerful capacities in these sorts of arenas is one of the arguments that autistic minds just function differently, not necessarily less well. The Truth About Autism article linked above recounts the story of “E.C.” a mechanical draftsman who could rotate objects in his mind and make detailed technical drawings without needing revision, tasks which are essentially impossible to those with standard issue brains. What then are our standards for ascertaining intelligence? Are most people dumb because they don’t possess these capacities?
In the course of our conversation, my friend describes using his logical mind to relate to people in ways that many autistic people cannot. Difficulty with empathy is common among autistics, but he’s found a way to essentially reverse engineer it. By paying careful attention to words, intonation, body language and subtle contextual indicators, he’s compiled a database of associated emotions that he can then understand and has learned how to appropriately respond to. What struck me is not that this is somehow “inauthentic,” but instead is a highly conscious and intentional act that is mostly unconscious for the average person. What is relegated to behind the scenes processing for the typical brain takes front stage for my buddy. And so in this way, understanding someone like him might help the average person understand their subconscious assumptions and patterns.
Another fascinating part of the Baggs video for me was when she describes being “in constant conversation” with her environment. My friend mentions that some autistics experience this to such a heightened degree that they veer close to animism, where even the supposedly “inanimate” objects around them can be communicated with in powerful ways. As a former student of anthropology, I know that animism, an experience of aliveness in the world, is said to be the initial spiritual orientation of all human cultures. And as more recent physics demonstrates, everything interacts dynamically with its surroundings, whether that’s just the air and light circulating around it, or the more active engagement we associate with plants and animals. Physicist Nick Herbert has even argued for a “quantum animism.”
Herbert’s quantum animism differs from traditional animism in that it avoids assuming a dualistic model of mind and matter. Traditional dualism assumes that some kind of spirit inhabitats a body and makes it move, a ghost in the machine. Herbert’s quantum animism presents the idea that every natural system has an inner life, a conscious center, from which it directs and observes its action
I don’t want to take any sort of hard-line position about this, but it’s curious and leads me to wonder whether these individuals with uncommon ways of experiencing the world might be ahead of the curve in accessing insight that others among us haven’t caught on to yet.
None of this is written to minimize the challenges that those with autism and their loved ones experience. Autism can often make functioning in the world very difficult. As the countervailing voices in the article point out, simply accepting and celebrating neurodiversity, and changing the criteria by which we determine intelligence is no guarantee that such individuals will experience a higher quality of life, and might even obscure us from helping them most effectively. The variations among those diagnosed with ASDs is wide, and strategies and understandings that apply to one may not apply to all. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the possible links to vaccines or environmental factors in the etiology of the condition, or the impact of diet and lifestyle on managing it. I’m deliberately side-stepping that. The post is aimed at instigating thought, broadening the conversation about autism, seeing it as perhaps more than a tragic state some of us are unlucky enough to be born into, and thinking beyond a pathology model. Such an approach might be useful in understanding, helping and relating to people dealing with it, and might be instructive for all of us in learning more about how our minds work.
What do you think? Do you have experience with autism? Is it crazy to think about the possible upsides of autism? Does the conversation obscure our attempts to help?