Autism, according to Wikipedia, is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior. They go on to say that, "Parents usually notice signs in the first two years of their child's life. These signs often develop gradually, though some children with autism reach their developmental milestones at a normal pace and then regress. The diagnostic criteria require that symptoms become apparent in early childhood, typically before age three."
Wikipedia represents a distillation of common knowledge on a subject, and having read deeply about autism myself I can attest that Wikipedia's definition is a pretty good summary of the current state of thinking. The problem, if the reader will allow me a moment to reflect, is that no matter how confident, the scientists are trying to tackle autism as a single unified illness with causation and effect, like smallpox. Autism, except for the socially popular version that allows smart people to explain away misanthropy, simply is not a syndrome with a dualistic definition of existence.
In recent years, there has been recognition of the complexity of autism by creation of the concept of spectrum. Spectrum assumes that on one end you have high functioning autism, which has actually become cool and had names like Aspergers attached to it to make it more interesting to discuss at parties. Aspergers is autism for the me generation, a boutique version of autism that allows people with difficult personalities and social awkwardness to be able to say, "See, I am an asshole because my brain is shaped like an asshole.'However, I am nothing like those autism kids who scream continually. They are on the other end of autism.
The problem with this is that I do not see autism as a disease or syndrome, but as a symptom of an underlying structural design of the brain, and far from being a disability, it is actually a strength, at least when seen from the point of view of the survival of a group. To understand what I mean, it is usually important that I tell people what I do not believe.
The first thing to present my audience is my nearly complete rejection of Dawkin's the Selfish Gene, and Herrnstein, and Murray's the Bell Curve with their attempts to define a person in terms of individual superiority. In my theoretical universe, there is exists little room for individual ‹bermensch. Let me be clear: Friedrich Nietzsche is an idiot and Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a tissue of fantasy. I do not want my audience to mistake my polite and scholarly tones for the willingness to believe any book that gets popular on the tea circuit. In their attempts to place a scientific patina on top of Nietzsche, Dawkins, Hernstien, and Murray each fails in the test of modeling reality with their assumptions. If you are going to discuss autism, lets talk about what it really is.
In the first case, I reject Dawkins because I do not think individual genes as units are associated extensively with species survival in that one gene is an expression of superiority over another. On the micro-scale, some genes are fatal; for example, a gene combination that prevents lungs or a brainstem to form. On the other hand, this sort of fatal before birth genes are actually quite rare. They are edited to the farthest corners of the human genome and do not last for very long. On the other side, Dawkins faces an impossible task in answer the question, if genes are selfish, why are we not a very narrow species, having lost most of our diversity through the cutthroat fight of genes murdering each other in the crib.
The answer is; genes are not selfish. Dawkin's book can be relegated to the parlor reading of the effete.
In the case of Herrnstein and Murray, I reject their thesis on the idea that any group of protohumans would develop in a flawed manner given the wide transfer of genes among the human race. Race as far as I can see, is an ethnographic construct rather than a truly genetic idea, except in the most basic sense and in the most limited scope.
Line up a group of Chimps and a group of Men. Write down what makes a creature better than the other and then test each group. In the end, you have defined your own bias and not the fitness of either species to survive.
Which brings me back to Autism? Autism to me is a pattern of brain growth that can lead to a range of symptoms that can have significant effects on the autistic person's social interactions. If autism were a complete negative, it would be rapidly removed from the species and only present in extremely rare conditions. Sickle-cell disease for example should be self-limiting enough that it would work itself out of the human genome in a dozen generations or so. Sickle-cell though is a natural way in which the human organism protects itself from malaria. Sickle-cell is not perfect in doing so and is a negative when malaria is absent, so natural selection carried out on a village or large community scale leads to a genetic blood disease that lurks in carrier populations. If the malaria threat rises, the resistant part of the population assures that the entire community is not slaughtered by the disease. Thus, the sickle cell genetic bit is only partially selfish, and only on the scale of whole populations. I am sure that we will someday find that genetic diseases that last for hundreds of generations all have some relationship to the extended survival of the species prior to the advent of technology.
Left handedness is a similar proposition. Imagine a group of ancient hunter gatherers. When traveling, they usually form single columns to remain in contact with each other, and to allow easy passage through the country side. Most of the village fighting stock carries a weapon, and if their bones are any indication, they did so in their dominant right hands. If attacked they would prefer to turn right to face the danger, since this presents their dominant hand and weapon into prominence.
10% of the population will be left handed though. This is not a simple genetic trait that can be washed out of a population in a few generations; it is a complicated one that hides in all human populations and would take tens or twenty generations to remove if it were a true negative. Instead, it is a conditional positive. If everyone else in your tribe turns right when faced with danger, and you naturally turn left, you are more likely to save the entire tribe by being able to defend it until the right handed warriors reorient. Being left-handed may not be an advantage to you, as Dawlkins would need to have happen if his theory worked, it need be only an advantage to your genetic community, which would allow it to continue, even if recessive and not immediately visible. To you it could be a negative, and indeed all that would be needed was that when left handers were required that a few would be around to add to the community diversity.
Autism is not a simple condition like left handedness, but instead is a wide series of brain wiring patterns that can result in a wide range of mental effects. The basic wiring conditions may be triggered by a wide range of things, from food and disease in the mother during gestation, to events post birth in the development of the young brain. The end effect though is a brain that exceeds human norms in one of a wide range of ways, although not all those norms being exceeded can be called an advantage to the individual. When that exceeding of norms is an inability to communicate, frustration leading to temper tantrums over restrictions placed on daily actions, repetitive behavior verging on self injury, and fixed cognition styles that are inflexible and unbreakable, then autism indeed looks as though it must be a handicap. It is not though. Each of these strange symptoms increases the diversity of the group which it is born, and can have profound consequences on the ability of that group to survive.
Although with a world stage and society interlocked together into a global community it can be harder to see this, we could identify people who carried any of the classic symptoms of autism, and thus likely had brains whose structure and function were different from their peers. Issac Newton, for example, had the classic signs of inflexibility in some parts of his life that some autistic people develop. If Newton had not landed in the right place and right time, his inflexibility, and focus would have seen him die on the street penniless. Instead, his traits were accepted because his work was so extraordinary. The tribe benefited from the presence of these genes even if Newton himself may have died for possessing them.
So autism, in the theory of the author, is a range of brain conditions that cause a series of similar symptoms. Newton and I may be autistic, but our autisms may be caused by significantly different brain conditions, each of which reoccurs because they are good for the mass of human society, if not good for the individual.
Often, I am asked to help others understand autism, and this is very difficult and leads to another story. A friend of mine has been an open homosexual since I first met him the year after high school ended for me. Closely questioning him allowed me to discover a number of things. He did not become gay, just as I did not become autistic.
He, like me, grew into an awareness of how his minds worked by comparing them to both the actual norm for people around us and the professed norm for people around us. And like me, he had to develop ways to understand people's reactions to him. The one main difference between us was that while I was internally empathic but clueless about what people thought about me, he was adept at reading facial expressions and body language and knew exactly how much contempt his sexual orientation caused among some people.
Of even, more interest to me was an incident that occurred to him and the learning process that surrounded it. In high school, he "hooked up," a euphemism here for having sex, with a member of the football team. The boy and he had several encounters, then he moved on to date a girl in the freshman class. My friend was hurt until he stumbled across this gleaming truth. Gay was not an either / or proposition. Gay was this huge range of hardwired preferences obscured by a patina of social conditioning. His own model of gay was significantly different and just as unalterable as another person's model of gay.
At this point, I should create some sort of summary of my thoughts on autism. Here is two hypotheses that should be tested, and if study fails to reject them and action item to consider when thinking about dealing with the autistic individual.
Hypothesis One: Autism is a complicated series of observable effects in the human brain caused by any underlying causes.
Hypothesis Two: Autistic individuals in a group are a net advantage to the group, even if it can be a net disadvantage to the individual.
Action Item: Thought should be given to the difference between curing autism and creating systems where autistic individuals can maximize their contributions to society.
Hypothesis one is starting to see some light among social scientists. Autism is now often talked about like a spectrum, a single measuring line onto which a person with this condition sits. Often, I get placed into the category of high functioning. I communicate effectively. My repetitive motions and need for order are controlled by a few simple behaviors. I have learned to hide or use drugs to conceal my quirky intelligence where it may cause a witch hunt reaction. However, when I meet others labeled as autism my own autism radar, quite well developed, does not always ring out the same way. Some people who claim the mantel of autism, usually using Aspergers as their self-descriptive, completely fail to be detectable by me as autistic. Many more though register in different ways. They have a fixed way of handling stress that is recognizable by me, even if I do not share the symptom. They have a social anxiety that plays itself out in movement. They say things at odd times, socially inappropriate things that should have been kept behind their teeth but were let to see the light of day with an impulsive explosion.
The question thought returns to how I advise dealing with people who have autism. Accepting my caveat that autism is neither a true disability (in that it is universally a bad thing that must be overcome) or that it is a single diagnosis with a single cure, my first advice for anyone dealing with an autistic person is to look for the damage they have taken. It is the same damage that someone has faced social punishment for being gay, or being small, or being fat, or being otherwise, different has faced. It is the damage that is caused by broken expectations of routes to success.
Consider an autistic person sitting in their first-class. They are fidgeting because they have no idea how to decode the emotions around them. So like many autistics, they begin to participate in a conversion self-therapy. They look at an object closely, or run the wood of their desks, or sort their pencils, or even fold in together.
The kids in the class, being normal kids, sense the weakness and the playground bully will rise up. When the autistic child is busy with his pencils, which are how he has found solace in his lack of social cues, the bully comes and smashes his pencils. "Pencil sorting allows me to concentrate," the child thinks, "but pencil sorting makes me a target." He has to sort, but now he is more nervous about it and conceals it, drawing himself further into a safety zone.
The longer that autistic kids are bullied by peers, the harder it is to break the defensive walls they build. Unlike a "normal" kid, itself a misnomer but used here in the statistical sense, the autistic kid lacks the flexibility of response to quickly recover. They are less plastic than their peers, more rigid, more precise instruments.
The concept of plasticity seems to be one of the few core elements of the autistic cluster of conditions. By building more rigid channels of thought and logic, autistic kids speed up the thinking and learning process. By removing channels of information like the ability to see facial expressions, their thinking processes is further sped up. In my own head, I think of it as my second channel, the thoughts that heterodyne below my main thinking process and allow me to consider a subject logically while doing things like walking and chewing gum.
The "normal" kid, and again I must beg the reader's pardon for using this word as normal is, as I said, a statistical rather than a practical concept, may have limiting factors in their creativity, objective thinking, or information processing, but they are more able to reconfigure their brains to take on new tasks, block out extraneous noise, and develop new modes of social expression. They are of course, constantly awash in social information denied the autistic child, which is both an advantage and a distraction. I often think of the plastic child as being like Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and the autistic child as Mumford Mime from Twice Upon a Time. Each shows advantages, Ralph from being able to change forms and Mumford because of his creativity.
If autism is not a disability but a diversity, then I think we will find OCD, ADD, ADHD, and even PTSD are all functional changes to the human brain to defend it and allow it to function in different difficult situations.
Eventually, I think social scientists will discover creativity is actually a brain process where information is handled in unique way, and that highly creative people have a close relationship to some form of autism. This is why the parlor diagnosis of Aspergers is so compelling for creatives to consider. Instead teachers, bosses, and leaders should generally start to recognize spectrum disorders as just another alternate system of cognition, and that colleges, schools, and nations benefit from this sort of diversity of thought.
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