Birds of A Feather: Stephen, Adam, Me and ASD

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Image Credit: Pixabay

As I see it, being autistic is something like being a bird.[1] The idea here is that despite the many striking differences between hawks, chickens, finches, etc., the various species, sub-species and varieties have enough in common to warrant grouping them all together into a single category: birds.

Furthermore, because of what they have in common, it’s entirely reasonable to study, say, parrots if you want to learn about turkeys, or maybe starlings if you want to learn about ducks; provided you remember that big differences exist between these various kinds of birds – only some don’t fly, only some eat meat, only some have long necks, and only some can mimic human speech.

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Many birds can fly, but not all; and some critters that can fly aren’t birds. Analogously, many autistic people are good at mathematics, but not all; and some people who are good at mathematics aren’t autistic. Image Credit: Pixabay

I’d like to know what you actually think of this analogy, but for now I’ll consider it useful. In any case, the idea here is that much like birds, those of us with Autism Spectrum Disorder (“ASD”, “autism”) have enough in common to make it useful to think of us as a particular group; but if you pick any two of us for a closer look, you shouldn’t be surprised to see significant differences in the way ASD manifests symptomatically. For example, my own ASD seems to manifest in a great deal of writing (philography);

a fascination with foreign languages (especially Spanish, these days); and a personal arsenal of knee-jerk defense mechanisms wired into my nervous system from decades of David-vs-Goliath-style showdowns, and which can make me quite unlikable under some conditions.[2]

I don’t imagine that philography is an especially common ASD symptom (although Isaac Asimov, believed by some to have had ASD, published over 300 books in his lifetime), but I’m somewhat relieved to know that I didn’t invent “autistic irritability”. Also, I don’t seem to have the sorts of sensory issues that many with ASD have to struggle with; nor do I instantiate the stereotype that those with ASD are humorless and blind to sarcasm, as debunked by the many posts I have in my jokes category.

Like anything, ASD must have its norms and outliers – white swans and black. A famous example of an outlier is London artist Stephen Wiltshire, who can draw an entire city from memory after having observed it during a 20 minute helicopter ride.

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Image Credit: Pixabay

Now, I find that astonishing. I know I could never do that or really anything quite like it. That sort of behavior is just so far out on whatever measuring scale you want to use to measure it. I have gone through a drawing phase, even achieved a few minor successes, but eventually abandoned it. But even if you could normalize the scale to make it content independent – calculate the standard deviation, so to speak – I really don’t think I’ve ever done, nor ever could do anything that approaches his media-worthy, black-swan sort of deviance. You’ll never see an article about me in National Geographic, is what I’m trying to say here.

And yet Wiltshire and I are both “birds”, right? — that is to say, we both have ASD. Perhaps he is a macaw and I am an egret, but we’re both birds. And as a matter of fact, as different as he and I appear to be, I can actually recognize something of myself in his behavior. “It takes one to know one”, perhaps. I’m not saying I could ever quite do what he does; even if I logged the so-called 10,000 hours of deliberate practice it supposedly[3] takes to achieve world-class expertise in anything. But I absolutely recognize and live on a daily basis the same kind of fanatical commitment I know he must have to his art. I too am relentless in this way, as I’m sure he is, “like a locomotive” is how I sometimes describe it to others, and in a way that really most people are not, no matter how passionate they may otherwise be.

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Image Credit: Pixabay

My own routines and rituals (reading, language study, exercise, eating, etc.) are for the most part daily activities, and rigidly so, regardless of the day, including vacations, holidays and birthdays, and regardless of what else is going on in my life, who died or happens to be visiting. To illustrate: on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, after learning about the atrocities in New York (I was living in Montreal at that time), I warded off an anxiety attack by getting back to my rigorous actuarial exam preparations. “Stay the course” I told myself, “can’t get distracted”. While the rest of the world wept and grieved, I deliberately practiced calculating probabilities and summing infinite series.I think the sensationalist appeal of cases such as Wiltshire’s can be misleading however, and may explain much about how my own diagnosis could have been missed for decades.

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Who couldn’t love this face? Doesn’t he look like a great guy?Image Credit: Stephen Wiltshire

It would appear that Wiltshire’s own story is a happy one. He has a warm, friendly face and a huggable good-guy weirdness that appeals to the general public – a redeeming genius, or “claim to fame”. He’s the sort of autistic person we can all love and be proud of. People (even doctors, apparently) look at him and think “oh, so that’s autism…”, and then they look at me and think “…and that’s just some ordinary a**hole who can’t hold down a full-time job; goes bankrupt, destroys his credit rating; who burns social bridges and ultimately alienates every woman who tries to love him; who will go jogging through the streets of Montreal during a blizzard; and who wakes up at 5 AM on Christmas morning to memorize the principal parts of German irregular verbs, or perhaps the entire German text of the Grimm brothers’ Snow White.”

Yeah, because that’s so what ordinary a**holes do, if you can pardon my sarcasm.

Gosh, how much of Civilization do we owe to the world’s Steven Wiltshires, these heroically autistic, black-swan good-guy weirdos? According to the Internet, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein had ASD. I think I read somewhere that John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham had ASD. These observations are pregnant with generalization: autism is a good thing, useful even.

But other, less cheerful scenarios are possible. As a horrifically different type of deviance, recall that back in 2012 a 20-year-old autistic man (Adam Lanza) shot and killed 20 children and 6 adults up in an elementary school in Connecticut.

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Some autistic people can do some pretty nasty things, but the overwhelming majority do not. Also, most people who do nasty things are not autistic. Image Credit: Pixabay

Like Wiltshire’s case, Lanza’s is also astonishing, in a heart-breaking way. And of course, that is also something I could never do. Especially as a father of two young children, the whole affair is a monstrosity to me. I abhor violence and guns and the last time I was in anything like a physical altercation I was 16 years old and some random hooligan accosted me on a crowded street and punched me twice in the side of the head, to which I responded by blushing and weeping.

And yet, Wiltshire, Lanza and I, we’re all birds, aren’t we? We all have Autistic Spectrum Disorder (or had, in Lanza’s case – he is dead). And in the same way that I can see something of myself in Wiltshire’s case, when I am honest with myself (and you), I have to admit, and with no small discomfort, that I can see something of myself in Lanza’s case too. Let me be clear: I do not identify with the cruelty and violence. I’m much, much more likely to draw an entire city from memory than I am to commit some schoolhouse massacre. And yet…when I try to imagine what Lanza might have been thinking and feeling as he raged and blazed his way through that kindergarten…I’d be lying if I said (like I believe most would say) that I found Lanza’s actions utterly incomprehensible, because I don’t.

Yeah, Lanza and I are both “birds”, like Stephen Wiltshire; and I think I can see that fairly clearly. Yup, much like vultures, ostriches, and peacocks, we all have a lot in common, remarkable differences notwithstanding.


[1] This is just an analogy, of course, but I think it’s a good one, at least for now, and until I encounter the sort of evidence that could change my mind. That’s not just lip-service, by the way. If you disagree with me about the usefulness of this analogy, I invite you to explain why in a comment below.

[2] I always see myself as David in these scenarios, but I don’t think my Goliaths always agree.

[3] The so-called 10,000 rule, is quite controversial. For example: The ‘10,000-hour rule’ about becoming an expert is wrong — here’s why.

3 Comments

  1. It seems like every time there is a horrible thing that makes its way into the news, the person committing that horrible crime is “on the autism spectrum” or “suspected of being autistic”. It’s gotten to where I cross my fingers and pray really hard to whatever gods there might be that I don’t read those words in print or hear them come out of a newscaster’s mouth. Again. Because it’s hard to hear.

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    1. I totally agree. What I find especially annoying about it is that so many other possible predictors are simply ignored — that the perpetrator is a man, with brown hair, or blue eyes, or that his forearms were longer than 11 inches.

      I hope that the above post didn’t trigger these feelings for you. I know that a common response with such events is to deny that autism had anything to do with causing Lanza’s violence. To me this doesn’t just ring false, but dangerously so. Of course Lanza’s access to an armory was an extremely important factor, but I have to guess, based on my own experience with feeling alienated (by autism) from other human beings that Lanza must have been struggling for a long time with those kinds of feelings, and that it was the toxic combination of his autistic alienation from humanity along his armory, and no doubt other factors, that caused him to commit an atrocity.

      Although I’m quite certain that a minority of former acquaintances wouldn’t think twice to describe me as an a-hole, I have never in my life nor would I ever physically aggress against another human being — no matter how frustrated, angry, lonely, isolated or alienated I might feel. But I know this about myself because I’ve been tested, and more times than I can count. These kinds of feelings have always been a normal part of my experience, and this because I am autistic, and these feelings can be so dark and intense that even though I personally never have done and never would allow that inner turmoil to become a reason to commit violence against another human being, it really doesn’t surprise me in the least that someone might — someone like Lanza, for example.

      I think that the denial that autism can — however rarely — play an important causal role in atrocities such as Lanza’s can only backfire against the overwhelming majority of utterly peaceful and non-violent autistic people such as myself by minimizing the burdens we bear mostly in secret by struggling to cope in peaceful ways with our alienation from the rest of humanity.

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      1. No, it was fine. I’m used to hearing this kind of thing at this point and now I’m more like, “Seriously? AGAIN? JFC.” and I’ve had people ask me how violent my kid is or is going to be when they see him starting to go into meltdown mode. He’s not a violent kiddo though and any even REMOTELY violent actions (he likes to poke, when he’s having a meltdown or shove one finger in my face) are never directed at other people..only me or my husband. The closest he comes to being actually violent is slapping and stomping. And again..only towards Hubs or I. Never anybody else, though he has growled at his teachers before. But that’s as far as it goes. I LIKE to think (whether or not it’s actually true) that he’s not violent because he’s not prone to violence ANYWAY and because we try to deal with his outbursts and meltdowns in a calm manner in order to defuse the situation instead of ramping itup.

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