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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