An Open Letter to A Certain EEOC Deputy District Director, Part 8

Please Don’t Mistake Skepticism for Knowledge

Dear EEOC Deputy District Director,

[Continued from Part 7] …

If one knows anything useful about autism, one knows that as many ways exist to be autistic, as autistic people have, do now and will exist. Although I personally avoid endorsing the idea that autism is a “spectrum” thing – because it saliently and quite uselessly suggests that we autists can be ordered like a rainbow lineup of colored pencils

Row of colored pencils

However useful it might be, I don’t love the “spectrum” model of autism because it suggests that autistic people can be lined up from least to most autistic like colored pencils in rainbow order. That seems implausible to me. Image Credit: Pixabay

from least to most autistic – it appears that for better or worse we are stuck with this notion, for now, and in any case it does at least somewhat redeem itself by making the critical point that being autistic can mean something quite different for any two given human beings “on the spectrum”. ” One commonly used maxim that conveys this idea states, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”[19].

My own preferred analogy compares being autistic to being a bird. If one had no knowledge of birds, one might be astonished to learn that despite their radically different appearances and behaviors, a penguin and a cardinal, say, actually have so very much in common that they can be rationally viewed as the same general sort of thing – they’re both birds. This surely once surprising conclusion no doubt followed from the same sort of autistically painstaking scientific scrutiny that especially in the last three hundred years has overturned so many superficially obvious but profoundly false ideas regarding the way the world actually is and works. Countless examples could be listed such as that the Sun revolves around the Earth, or that heat is a substance, or that learned behaviors are transmitted to offspring, or that heavier bodies fall more quickly than lighter ones, or that disease is caused by witchcraft, etc. All of these and many more[20] otherwise intuitively plausible ideas have been debunked by scientists and replaced by the sort of verifiably true ideas that form the modern scientific world-view.

With respect to autism, I’m guessing that before reading Part 1 of this letter, you likely believed erroneously that autism is some sort of intellectual disability. To the extent that anyone believes that particular autism stereotype[21], he or she would be at risk of erroneously concluding that an autist like me – which is to say one who clearly has no intellectual disability – must therefore have no disability at all.

But nothing could be further than the truth. I am definitely disabled. I am disabled in the same way that your own ability to see is disabled when you open your eyes under water;

dolphin_looking_315x210

Dolphins have special ocular adaptations that allow them to see clearly underwater. We humans lack these adaptations, so we are quite blind underwater, unless we wear goggles. Image Credit: Pixabay

in the same way that your own ability to write with a pencil is disabled when your hands are stiff from being out in the cold too long; in the same way that your own ability to walk is disabled when you wear ice skates. I am disabled in ways like these, not because of abilities that I lack, but because I am continuously forced to exercise the abilities I have in disabling, one-size-fits-most environments – environments that were designed by and built for neurologically normal people, which I am not.

The upshot here is that everywhere I go, whatever I happen to be doing, and whomever I happen to encounter, I always feel like I don’t belong there – like I’m at a crowded party where everyone has known everyone else since the first grade, but nobody knows me; like a fish flopping around in the bottom of a boat; like a lost walrus, lurching and heaving down the middle of a city street, questing after enough water to swim in. Wherever I happen to find myself is where I am also lost. In this way I am disabled.

But perhaps you are skeptical, and that would be fine, of course. You certainly wouldn’t be alone in your skepticism. Since receiving my ASD diagnosis in November 2016 I have met more than a few skeptical non-experts – ranging from a forgivably naïve 23-year-old family member, fresh out of college; to a professional forensic psychiatrist on staff as Senior Psychiatric Director at the XYZ Insurance Company; a man who really ought to know better, but who probably gets paid too well to pretend that he doesn’t. The latter is an impressively educated individual indeed, and has not just an MD but also a JD credential – meaning that he’s not just a “Jack” of both the psychiatric and the legal trades; he is also a master of both, or at least makes a tidy living posing as such. I’m also pretty sure he’s a member of Batman’s Justice League Gang, so I will refer to him going forward as Dr. Fate. But whatever Dr. Fate’s expertise truly is, it has nothing to do with autism. With respect to Autism Spectrum Disorder, the man is as ignorant and confused as my 23-year-old family member, fresh out of college.

Heck, even I was skeptical at first, and for the same reason – because I was ignorant and confused about autism. At that time, everything I knew about Autism Spectrum Disorder I had learned from watching two popular Hollywood portrayals of autistic people, and by reading one book by an internationally known autism research pioneer. Somehow from that limited exposure to autism I had it in my head that autistic people had no sense of humor, and they didn’t feel empathy; and because I have a great sense of humor and feel a good deal of empathy – because I don’t really fit the autism stereotypes I had innocently assimilated from my own autism-ignorant and -confused culture – I found it quite unbelievable at first that I myself might actually be autistic.

But autism is not diagnosed on the basis of such rigid stereotypes. In particular, the humor and empathy aspects are definitely nothing like diagnostic deal-breakers. What is core to at least my own ASD diagnosis[22] is what’s known as the basic “triad of impairments” – “impaired communication; impaired social skills; and a restricted and repetitive way of being-in-the-world”[23]. Those criteria I meet easily. Also, as discussed in a footnote to Part 4, co-morbid with my own idiosyncratic variety of autism, I also suffer from periodic and often protracted anxiety attacks, which in the extreme I describe as “autistic melt down”, even though during such a meltdown episode I actually retain a high degree of executive control over my overt behavior, which does not appear to be the case for many autists.

During such episodes, which always begin with my realizing that I’m trapped in some impossible no-win situation, followed instantly by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and vulnerability, and while this anxiety does not lead to any sort of irresistible compulsion to perform any particular overt behavior – e.g., scream, cry, flap my hands, etc. – it absolutely does cause me to lose quite completely control over my own mind. I “lose my marbles”, is one way I describe it, by which I mean I become obsessively fixated on finding good solutions to one particular problem: the problem of how best to respond to the threat posed by the no-win, damned-if-I-do-or-don’t situation in which I realize that I’m trapped.

Smiling pitbull

This pit bull represents my brain’s autistic ability to obsessively fixate on a problem until it’s either solved or becomes obsolete. Image Credit: iStock by Getty

To convey figuratively what these anxiety attacks feel like for me I also sometimes use the term thought-furnace, or say that it’s like I have a pit-bull in my brain – once that brain-dog clamps its jaws around a problem, it will not let go until that problem has been solved or become obsolete.

In any case, it’s really okay, I think, to be skeptical, if indeed you are – completely understandable, at least. And I’d go so far to say that your skepticism is even healthy, provided it leads you to curiosity – an essential prerequisite to knowledge and understanding. But I think it’s far too common for folks to use their otherwise healthy skepticism as an excuse not to be curious – to shut down inquiry, and to close their minds around some cherished or more comfortable belief, and this regardless of how false that belief may be. In general, I think, one must never mistake skepticism for actual knowledge. It is not because we scowl at some proposition that we have somehow magically refuted it. Actual refutation requires a certain amount of effort, and the goal of that effort is to find at least one solid and otherwise inexplicable counter-example – a counter-example such that its most likely explanation is the falsehood of the proposition under scrutiny.

I will now demonstrate what such a refutation might look like…

Continue with Part 9


[19] Attributed to Stephen Shore. I am still trying to track down the source.

[20] For more examples, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superseded_scientific_theories, last accessed Jan. 25, 2018

[21] According to the CDC, nearly half (44%) of all autistic people have normal to superior intelligence. Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet “Data & Statistics”. Last accessed Jan. 24, 2018.

[22] Please remember that I am nothing like a true autism-expert and certainly not a trained diagnostician. I am describing here my own lay-person’s understanding of how I in particular fulfill the DSM V diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder – an understanding that could quite possibly be a significant mis-understanding. Also, it’s quite possible that other autistic people might fulfill the criteria in very different ways.

[23] Cashin A, Sci DA, Barker P, “The triad of impairment in autism revisited“, J Child Adolesc Psychiatr Nurs. 2009 Nov;22(4):189-93. Last accessed Jan. 24, 2018.

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