Autistic by any other name?

I know I’m not alone in being neurotypical but utterly fascinated by the autistic mind. (How many other people loved Spock the best on Star Trek?) I want to explain why this way of being seems to me so interesting and exciting.

Let me begin by saying I have a big problem with many of the names/labels applied to people whose minds work this way.

I’m not wild about the word Autism. The first bit’s fine – it’s from the Greek ‘autos’ meaning ‘self’, and I’m quite happy to think of my autistic friends and contacts as being very unique individuals. It’s the ‘ism’ tag I don’t like. -Isms imply a lack or limitation, whether they are medical or social in origin: thus dwarfism and autism can be lumped with sexism or racism. They’re ugly words implying an inability to reach a desired potential. I’m with the wonderful and inspiring Satish Kumar here, when he says, “Let all ‘isms’ be ‘wassums’!”

I also object strongly to ANY label that includes ‘disorder’ or ‘dysfunction’. They both imply ‘dissing’ or disrespecting. They’re often seen with the words ‘suffers from…’
Now I’ve come across many people in my life who felt they were suffering in some way. Many of them had a condition which felt very limiting to them. I recall overhearing a group of six-year-olds planning a ‘let’s pretend’ game together. “Let’s pretend,” said the one with Cerebral Palsy, “that I can walk properly and…”
She was suffering.

Yet I’ve never heard anyone on the autistic spectrum complain or object to the way they are. On the contrary. Those who use words to express their feelings will tell you they wouldn’t swap lives with a neurotypical person for anything, and their reasons are always the same. They know they have abilities and skills the rest of us lack. Yeah, yeah – and vice versa, of course. The fact remains – they are differently ordered, not disordered.

So, given that I’m so picky about labels, which will I be happy with?
My favourite to date comes courtesy of a very special man called David Rowan: Autistic Spectrum Perception. That works for me on all levels and it gets to the heart of it. There’s a tremendously broad spectrum of individual ways of being which co-exist under the autistic umbrella. That diversity is to be appreciated and celebrated. And just look how different it sounds when Disorder is replaced by Perception. It removes the idea of ‘They’re not normal-like-us, so there’s something wrong with them’ and replaces it with a recognition that an autistic individual has levels of perception that differ markedly from that of the neurotypical population.

Now we have the label sorted, I’d like to explore that perception.

What follows are my own observations, based on ASP people I know and books, articles and other information that has come to me once I identified within myself a desire to understand. I’m not a neuroscientist; not a scientist, even. I’d welcome comments and corrections from others – particularly members of the ASP population.

A very dear ASPie friend once wrote me the following email. He was explaining his conviction that the increasing number of individuals diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum could provide our world with an advantage, should climate change or some other cataclysmic condition change our way of life dramatically.

What I suspect is the different ways of thinking, viewing information and processing that information – whether consciously or not – provides a better understanding (or different one which could be more relevant in a different or changing world) of what’s going on around them and also potentially have the ability to provide more accurate predictions of the future which could easily prove to be a valuable survival skill and very beneficial to non ASD people around them.
I think there could be very beneficial relationships between the 2 groups of people, though I’m not convinced that non ASD people would be able to develop the ability to think in the same way; particularly when not everything is necessarily done consciously.

It reminds me of Temple Grandin’s famous quote:

Who do you think made the first stone spears? The Asperger guy. If you were to get rid of all the autism genetics, there would be no more Silicon Valley.

Neither of them sound like they’re ‘suffering’ with anything, do they? Far less ‘disordered’…

So why and how are the ASP population different? I unexpectedly picked up some pointers when I watched the following Ted Talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html?source=facebook#.UOlP0c_KPz0.facebook

An amazing story in its own right, but Jill Bolte Taylor also eloquently explains the differences between the two hemispheres of the brain. She mentions that in the neurotypical brain, the corpus callosum has 300,000,000 connections that link the two. What is the effect of that?

It means that in every new life experience, my right hemisphere is thinking in pictures, in the ‘now’ and absorbing vast amounts of sensory information as energy. This is connecting me to every other source of energy in the cosmos. It’s huge, transcendent and – if I could only focus clearly on what it is showing me – it can provide unending streams of information and allow me to connect telepathically with everyone and everything else.

At the same time, though, my left brain is analysing the new data in a very different way. It is methodically sifting through its vast bank of memory files in order to categorise my experience – identifying how it relates to past events and computing logical steps to follow in order to minimise discomfort or produce a favourable result in the future. This part of my brain thinks in language. I could live very successfully by listening to the chatter of my left hemisphere, except that I tend to get distracted by all that sensory and emotional stuff coming from the right.

Thus my NT (neurotypical) brain is playing some ultra-fast game of ping pong with every new piece of information that comes to it. That allows me to understand idiom, sarcasm and all those complex interplays and nuances of meaning that can only be interpreted if we are able to use both hemispheres together at an optimum level.
The downside is that I find it difficult to quiet my brain chatter and meditate, for example, or to apply clear logic to a complex problem without noticing my desire for a coffee or a walk in the park. I sacrifice depth of perception for mental agility.

In the ASP population, the linking mechanism between the two sides of the brain, the corpus callosum, is differently formed. It’s not as thick. It’s often not symmetrical. It sometimes follows winding paths, deep into one hemisphere or the other.

Depending on each ASP person’s unique brain profile, the way they experience a new situation will vary. What they can all do, though, is to partially or even totally block off the stimuli from one side or the other. As my friend pointed out, this isn’t always intentional or conscious. However it allows them to delve deep, deep into the information provided by just one of the hemispheres.

Spock was super-logical, with a brilliant left-brained mind. Yet he also possessed tremendous telepathic powers and could link at will to the mind of another. Remember that Tesla, Newton and Einstein are commonly now regarded as having been autistic and you can see where the advantages lie.

Fascinating.

I strongly suspect that as we begin to work together, with both populations using their specific skills as equal and opposite partners, we will find massive mutual advantages. The first step is for the neurotypicals to drop their chauvinistic idea that anyone different to them is ‘disordered’. The second is to find alternative ways to link with those ASP people who don’t tend to think or communicate in language. (Suzy Miller in the US, among others, is doing pioneering work on this.)

What comes next is anyone’s guess, but I’m betting it could be extremely exciting.

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32 comments on “Autistic by any other name?

  1. I am loving perception. Why oh why was it asd when asp is so apt! Is it because we have trouble in seeing, so easier to name as a disorder!

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed your post. You have put forward so much information that will I am sure raise many discussions on this subject. Labelling is something I tend to ignore. Labels belong to the person who made them and it helps them understand something that is different to them. Perception is an excellent alternative although I am not sure this NT dominated world is ready for it. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    • Thank you, traedz. Yes I take your point on labelling. I still think it would change and expand NT perceptions if we could remove the ‘disses’ though! I hope we are ready…

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  4. I really like your idea of “perception” vs disorder and your discussion of labels and what that entails. I find that with having a son with ASD that the minute I put that label on him that people bring their own ideas of what they think that is and suddenly stop seeing him as a little boy who happen to have ASD but as a Autistic child who has challenges. Then you find yourself on the slippery slope that folks just see everything he can’t do that other children are doing at that age instead of celebrating what he can do. Too many times because my son is an emerging speaker the focus is on his speech challenges or if he’s looking away from the teacher I am told he does not pay attention all the time when in fact he needs to look away to process all the info and stimuli coming in. Sometimes I get the feeling that the push is to get the children with ASD to adapt and try to appear to become like the other children as best as they can without acknowledging that the ASD children might just be thinking differently but will get to the same spot eventually but in their own way.

    • Yes, I totally agree with all your comments here, Cyn.
      At least your little boy has a powerful and understanding advocate in you.

      Perhaps as a society we need to figure out WHY many of our experts and educators feel the need to “normalise” people who think differently. I suspect it’s more to avoid leaving their own comfort zone than to “help” the person with the so-called disorder.

      I’ve written a book called Life: A Player’s Guide. In it I have attempted to look at life in some fairly radical ways and spent many pages exploring the ‘journey’ these differently-wired young people are taking. It might interest you.
      I think these amazing children have a great deal to teach us.

      • I never thought about it that way before re: why normalize is the goal and a reluctance to step out of their comfort zone. I find that compliance is everything already and he is only 5! What is interesting is its compliance on a project level as well. When I walk down the kindergarten hallway I see lots of art up but it’s a lot of it is cookie cutter and parents are searching for their child’s name. I find that sad in a way because I know when my son brings something home when it has more of “him” in it.

        Looking forward to checking out your book:)

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  6. In my humble opinion, the autistics that I know have a direct link to the Universal Life Force-they know things about the other side and often demonstrate a fascinating wisdom that shines beyond our concepts of space and time 🙂

    • Thank you for sharing that Taijitumartini.
      Yes, I too know many autistics who seem less ‘grounded’ in our everyday world and more able to explore other realities. That’s one of the reasons I’m so interested to develop alternative methods of communcation with them – they have much to teach us.

  7. Great article. I have read that autism can be explained in terms of a drunk electrician who connected the wiring the wrong way round. The wiring of all those on the autistic spectrum vary from one to the other. The inputs of ASD people are processed differently along unusual connections compared to the way inputs are dealt with in “normal” people, which is when unusual outputs are obtained leading to discoveries for science and art in certain individuals. Temple Grandin is a great example of an ASPie who can see the world from the point of view from animals, I also note that some ASD people tend to develop a close relationship with some animals such as cats.

    I agree with you autism is not so much a disorder as a challenging gift, often it is the carer who needs more support than the ASD people in my opinion.

    • Thanks.
      Yes, the element of challenge is there on all sides, I agree.
      I’m in the middle of reading Temple Grandin’s autobiography. Remarkable to have autistic perception explained so eloquently from the inside, so to speak.

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  9. I love this perspective. And I agree with how things are labeled. I really dislike referring to my son as having Sensory Processing Disorder. Ever since I learned that his ability to sense energy is off the charts, I usually refer to his having Sensory Processing Differences. Loud noises are quite shocking to his system. But he can feel the energy coming off of a tree with his body. How do I explain that the reason he shuts down at school is from energy overload, as much as from being overwhelmed by the academics at times? How do I tell his teacher that he’s a Crystal child? It’s been a tough road. Don’t know how things will be this year; although his teacher used to be a special education instructor, so her tool bag for helping his dyslexic brain to grasp concepts, is a big one.

    • I really hope she’ll ‘get’ him. The chances are good. With every new intake of kids at the start of a school year, I’d notice more and more of the new energy ones who were wired up differently.
      In fact, over recent years I started by asking them to tell me if they have any special powers or abilities which others don’t appear to possess. There are always some interesting answers – from the boy who heard electricity flowing to the one who could sense his dog’s mood by the colour of her aura.

  10. Oh my freaking God!!! I just had the biggest synchronicity in reading this article… again. Guess who I discovered today?? Suzy Miller! A friend steered her to me yesterday, but I was too busy until today to listen to Suzy’s radio show about the kids. After listening, I went to her website and watched a video, that if you haven’t watched, is an absolute must- http://www.suzymiller.com/free-for-you/interviews/ -the second video down the page is the one I am referring to (haven’t watched the others yet). And as I was scrolling down through my WP Reader, I saw your post and thought, “I must tell Jan about Suzy and this amazing interview!” And you already know about her. Excellent!

    Also, it was after reading My Stroke of Insight that I put a few things together in my head about how my son is, and about how he is right brain dominant. He lives in the moment, can’t tell time on an analog clock, has great difficulty marking the passage of time, he’s psychic (so I’m told), he’s dyslexic, and his creativity is off the charts.

    Thank you for reblogging!!!!

    • Oh I so love synchronicities! If you get the chance, do read Suzy Miller’s book Awesomism. You’d love it, Susan. She’s an amazing lady. Don’t think I’ve watched that video, so will go and do so.

      Also Jill Bolte Taylor is one of my heroes. Hope everyone who reads this follows to the link to her Ted Talk, because it is stunningly good.

      • Yes, Jill’s story is more than fantastic. I’ve seen her interview with Oprah (free to download on iTunes), watched the Ted Talk, and read the book. Then I bought another copy of the book and gave it to my parents to read.

        I will definitely check out Suzy Miller’s book. Thanks!

  11. This has been fascinating. I’m not an Aspie, don’t have an Aspie, but I wonder, the ‘labeling’ begins, if not before, then when they get to school. What if they are wrongly diagnosed? My husband son was diagnosed as Add,then ADHD, then Autistic and then Aspergers. I don’t believe any after meeting him many times. How does one get him rechecked when he has already been labelled as having a disorder by the “Disability” people? He had been placed on a disability pension since a child…. something is really wrong with our system (Australia).
    Blessings for a terrific article
    Susan x

    • Hmm. I once read a report here in the UK that said the diagnosis given depended largely on the age at which people were ‘tested’ – autism was most common for children, Aspergers for adolescents and schizophrenia for adults. I think it says far more about how the tests were constructed than those being tested (but I think that’s true of most kinds of testing – as a former school teacher with much experience of such things!)
      What the ‘Disability People’ will not do, as far as I can see, is ever admit that a mistake could have been made…
      Thanks for reading and for your comments, Susan
      Jan x

      • Thanks for the response Jan, it explains the changes in thinking. It still shows a lack of understanding. We are in the process of a reassessment where they are trying to move people off disability and onto the unemployment sector.
        I know this may sound dreadful, but the young man I mentioned has perfected the mannerisms of someone with ‘learning difficulties’, he doesn’t want to do more than he is, he said “he was happy on the pension and only working one half day a week’. He has perfect understanding of what he is doing, he needs a training course to be able to do something… and it would give him some self respect.
        We’ll have to see what the imperfect system here has to say.
        Many thanks,
        Blessings
        Susan x

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