Welcome To My Own Little World: Autism And Delusions of Priority

Priority Delusions and Autistic Meltdown

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This picture represents what autistic meltdown is like for me — what I call my “thought-furnace”: the shuttle represents my thought(s), and the exhaust blast represents the furnace. The gist of the idea is that my thinking becomes intensely focused and goal directed, where the goal is to resolve the crisis that provoked the meltdown. Image Credit: Pixabay

As I’ve explained elsewhere, and again without pretending to speak for all autistic people, (for me, at least) autistic meltdown always begins when I perceive myself to be trapped in some sort of hopeless jam — a true, high-stakes, predicament or “rock-and-hard-place” kind of scenario; damned if I do, damned if I don’t; where all available options clearly lead to failure; when there appears to be absolutely nothing, nothing, I can do to avert some sort of disaster; where it really seems to me as though I am simply doomed sooner or later to endure some manner or other of harsh punishment. For me, that general kind of scenario is the ignition-switch to what I call my thought-furnace. The moment I perceive myself to be in that kind of situation, that’s when meltdown’s countdown ends and blast-off begins.

Colorful imagery aside, what happens next is that I begin to ruminate relentlessly about how to resolve the crisis at hand. In a sense I become quite delusional, actually. Not in the traditional sense like I believe I’m Napoleon or that random coincidences are messages from extraterrestrials — but with respect to my beliefs about what’s important. We might call these priority beliefs — beliefs about what takes priority over what, about what matters and what doesn’t. Basically, whenever I’m undergoing meltdown it’s like I believe with all my being that the absolutely most important thing I can do is find a workable solution to the predicament that provoked the meltdown. Nothing matters to me more than that. My whole world — the very meaning of my life — becomes about solving that and only that problem.

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For me at least, autistic meltdown happens mainly up in my head, where I become intensely fixated on figuring out what to do with some high-stakes, rock-and-hard-place dilemma. Image Credit: Pixabay

I say this is like being delusional because when it happens I seem to be the only person in the galaxy who really gets that the crisis at hand is in fact a genuine crisis, and especially to the point that I believe it to be a crisis. And I also seem to be the only person who believes that resolving the crisis is the most important use of my time and resources, and everyone else’s too. Furthermore, I am never able to persuade anybody else that I’m right about the significance of the crisis, and believe me I always try with great exuberance.

But my utter failure to convince anyone in no way changes my mind about the crisis or how important I think it is. I am definitely not one to just believe things because everybody else does. In that sense I’m a true “free thinker”, but with the result that my priority beliefs during meltdown appear to be quite stubbornly impervious to all evidence and argument, which is to say that they appear to be wholly unreasonable.

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This picture of a donkey standing alone in a field captures something of how I feel during meltdown, when my priorities become stubbornly rigid and incompatible with those of everyone else in my life. Image Credit: Pixabay.

I should clarify this: to my view these priority beliefs are absolutely not delusional in any sense. During meltdown, I definitely do not see myself as being out of touch with reality in any way. From my own perspective during these episodes, these beliefs actually do seem totally reasonable. Not only do they make perfect sense to me, but I am quite sure they would change in response to evidence. The problem is that the people who disagree with me and who try so hard to change my mind are simply unable to provide that evidence. They just seem to want me to believe them arbitrarily. But that makes me think they’re the crazy ones. How can they expect me to do that? Would they? But judging by their reactions to the kinds of decisions I might make during meltdown, it is quite clear to me that to them I seem like I’m the nutcase.

Priority Delusions and Autism-in-General

Another thing about meltdown for me is that it’s really just an especially extreme version of how I am even when I’m not having a meltdown. That is, autistic meltdown (for me) is not some extra way of being during which I am somehow “not myself”. Rather, for me meltdown is just an especially intense way of being how I am all the time. During meltdown I become very intensely fixated on one particular idea: how to cope with the particular rock-and-hard place crisis that provoked the meltdown. But the fact is that I am always more or less obsessed with something. It’s just that when I’m not having a meltdown, my faculties of attention become a lot more like binoculars that I can control and redirect at will.

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Even when I’m not having a meltdown, I am always more or less obsessed with something, but I have much more executive control over my attention. It becomes much more like binoculars that I can redirect as I wish. Image Credit: Pixabay

However, an actual meltdown episode is so very, very extreme for me, and so very much more problematic, that in my opinion it just makes sense to parse it out and talk about it as if it actually were some totally different way for me to be. And although I hope it’s useful to do that, in the end, during an episode of meltdown, I am still just me — me in crisis mode.

And even when I’m totally calm and comfortable with my world, my priority beliefs still seem quite delusional, in the sense described above. Even during these periods most of what I wrote above remains true, although in a far less intense and problematic way. Even when I’m not having meltdowns my judgments of what matters and what doesn’t are largely out of whack with what everybody else in my life seems to think. Although during these times in my life I might not seem like a total nutcase, nevertheless I am clearly still living in my own little world.

 


Image Credit (solitary man looking at mountains): Pixabay

I Think This Should Be A Word: Infosphere

Actually, the word infosphere already is a word, at least according to the Wikipedia, but here I wish to clarify what I will mean when I use the term, unless otherwise specified.

In my opinion, we need a single word that means, roughly, informational environment (context, situation, habitat, milieu, etc.) and I think infosphere is an excellent candidate for that job. To elaborate:

One’s infosphere is simply the sum of all of the information to which one has access in any given period of time.

This includes, of course, but is not limited to textual information, or even information conveyed by pictures, per se, or even that conveyed by speech. As I will be using this term, one’s infosphere is really all of the information to which one has access in some given period of time — literally any and every sort of data that can be detected by the senses and evaluated by one’s brain, and this includes even that brain’s own memories.

Now, to my view, this really seems synonymous with one of the meanings given by the Wikipedia:

“The term has also been used by Luciano Floridi, on the basis of biosphere, to denote the whole informational environment constituted by all informational entities (thus including informational agents as well), their properties, interactions, processes and mutual relations.[1] It is an environment comparable to, but different from cyberspace (which is only one of its sub-regions, as it were), since it also includes off-line and analogue spaces of information.”

And really the only reason I don’t feel comfortable about endorsing that particular wording is because the Wikipedia then goes on to explain that,

“According to Floridi, it is possible to equate the Infosphere to the totality of Being. This equation leads him to an informational ontology.”

And I am not at all clear on what that’s supposed to mean, and until I have a chance to read Floridi’s explanation I think it best to assume for now that the two definitions are somehow (and quite inscrutably) distinct, and especially to emphasize that I will be using my own definition of the word, at least until I have come to understand Floridi’s well enough to be sure they are the same.


[1] The Wikipedia cites this as a reference: Luciano Floridi (1999), Philosophy and Computing: An introduction

Context Matters: Disability As Environmental Rather Than Personal Attribute

I have recently shifted my perspective on what it means to have a disability. Whereas I used to see a disability as a personal attribute, I have begun looking at it more as an attribute of the environment or context in which some given person is wanting to achieve some outcome.

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In the same way that we can shift between seeing the jar half-full or half-empty, we can shift from seeing a disability as a personal attribute to an attribute of the environment. Image Credit: Pixabay

I’m pretty sure this is just the same sort of figure-ground perspective-shift at work in the old glass-half-empty-half-full illustration of pessimism versus optimism. And although in a strictly objective sense it really shouldn’t matter which perspective on disability one adopts, the fact is that we humans only rarely function so objectively, and I suspect each perspective will tend to impose a radically different sort of subjective framing effect on the kinds of choices one makes in order to solve the problem of a given disability.

[Note: Please forgive me if I’m reinventing the wheel here. I’m still quite new to all of this, and no doubt at risk of explaining to you something that you already understand better than I do. If that turns out to be the case, I hope you will excuse my armchair-philosopher ignoramusplaining and help me to enrich and elaborate my new perspective by sharing your own knowledge and experience with me in the comments below.]

In any case, the basic idea here is that in order to be functional, any given ability requires particular environmental configurations or situational properties — that is, a highly specific context suitable to performing the ability in question. When performed outside such a suitable context, really any ability is effectively disabled, which is to say that it becomes a disability. For example, have you ever realized that it’s virtually impossible to smell anything when you breathe out? Or consider that even a gold-medal Olympic sprinting champion trying to run chest-deep in a swimming pool would surely lose a race to a child who is running alongside on the ground. And finally, of course, nobody sings well with a mouth full of cheeseburger. In each of these examples, the given ability — smelling, sprinting, singing — is shown to be highly dependent on certain kinds of environmental attributes — inhaling, dry ground, empty mouth, respectively.

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Because my ability to read is so heavily dependent on certain specific environmental attributes (the position of my glasses relative to my eyes, the available light, which language the book is written in, etc.) we can quite sensibly view my reading ability or disability as an attribute of the environment, rather than an attribute of me. Image Credit: Pixabay

But we can also reason like this in the other direction, beginning with the sort of conditions that have been traditionally viewed as disabilities. For example, when I take off my prescription eyeglasses, I abruptly lose my ability to read. Or when removed from her wheelchair, a woman paralyzed from the waist down loses her ability to roll. And when a toothless man removes his dentures, he can no longer chew solid food. In these kinds of examples the eyeglasses, the wheelchair and the dentures are all environmental attributes which enable the respective abilities of reading, rolling and chewing. Although we most commonly frame reading, rolling, and chewing problems in terms of poor vision, paralyzed legs, and missing teeth — all attributes of the person having the difficulty — we can equivalently frame these difficulties as being caused by a lack of eyeglasses, wheelchairs or dentures, respectively, which are all attributes of the environment.

To summarize: whether we see something as an ability or a disability heavily depends on environmental attributes. With the right environmental attributes, it becomes an ability, and with the wrong ones, it’s a disability.

And why is this important? Well, without pretending to pronounce the last word on the subject, I think one principle advantage to this shift from seeing disabilities as personal attributes to environmental ones derives directly from the fact that environments are much easier to change than are the kinds of personal attributes that are usually seen as disabilities.  People who are blind, deaf, paralyzed, autistic, etc. tend to stay that way permanently. If these people are to have any hope of participating fully and consistently in their own lives, then they simply must not take their disabilities so personally, and should rather shift their focus to the environments in which they live — toward finding and/or building environments that enhance their abilities rather than disable them.


Image Credit (amputee soccer): Pixabay

Penguin swimming

Autism Is A Disability; Penguins Can Fly

First, I should explain what I mean by disability. The way I see it (for now, and until I encounter the sort of evidence that could change my mind), the idea of disability is best conceptualized as a comment on the context in which some particular ability is being exercised. Think “fish out of water” here, or better “penguin out of water”. Penguins are graceful and highly capable swimmers, as long as they’re actually in water; not so much while on dry land. On dry land penguins look just ridiculous — totally lost.

King penguins on dry land looking lost.

Don’t these King penguins look totally lost on dry land? Image Credit: Pixabay

We human beings are just like that, in that whatever abilities we may have as individuals, each of these is only functional under certain specifiable conditions; outside of these conditions these wonderful abilities somehow transmogrify into disabilities. For example, at the moment you can read, but without sufficient light this reading skill is utterly worthless to you. Likewise, if you have two healthy legs and can walk on a dry sidewalk, you will find that these same legs are just a burden if you’re standing in four feet of soft snow. And of course, what about your ability to fly?

Fly? Yes, fly — and I mean literally, just like a bird, a plane, and of course Superman — just not in the sky, of course. But you can fly in water. Hey, what do you think penguins do? Or we might say that eagles swim in the air.

An eagle in flight.

An eagle out for a refreshing dip in the morning sky. Image Credit: Pixabay

Note that I didn’t put the words fly and swim in scare-quotes. I left the scare-quotes off because I’m really not using these words figuratively. To my (admittedly autistic) view the verb fly is just a synonym for the verb swim. As I see it, the only real difference between flying and swimming is the density of the medium in which the given activities occur. With respect to what we normally call flying, air functions exactly like a very low-density fluid, and with respect to what we normally call swimming, water functions exactly like a very dense gas. Other than the spelling, little difference exists between the sciences of fluid- and aerodynamics. In fact, physicists consider aerodynamics to be a sub-discipline of fluid-dynamics and use exactly the same differential equations to describe swimming and flying, but with different density constants.

But these density constants are critical with respect to the organism doing the actual flymming (should be a word, if you want my opinion). And this basic principle is true for any ability.

Now, I do understand that autism is not necessarily a disability, in the same way that a penguin’s swimmability (yeah, that should also be a word) is not necessarily a disability — unless of course the penguin is trapped on land and cannot use his ability to swim! And it is in that sense that autism is really a disability, although perhaps not for all autistic people — in particular those who have managed to find niches for themselves in our world which has been designed primarily by and for neurotypical human beings.

As an example from my own life, although my 80-year-old father has yet to be formally diagnosed, I would be shocked if he didn’t easily fulfill the modern DSM V diagnostic criteria for Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). To my view, he is your stereotypical aspergian, but he has also done an amazing job of making himself utterly useful to pretty much everybody that he knows, and this is as true in his personal life as it was in his professional life before he retired. My dad is a gifted problem solver — for pretty much any kind of problem involving the physical world. I have yet to see him encounter an object or a device — electronic, mechanical, or electromechanical — that was broken in a way he couldn’t fix with with some tool or gadget or bit of plastic or piece of rubber tubing or a clip of some sort that he found in his vast personal collection of what my saint of a step-mother refers to has his “junk”, and which he accumulated incrementally over the decades of his life and stored, neatly organized, in countless boxes and shelves in his garage and home office.

On the other hand, my own claim-to-fame seems to be that I still don’t have a criminal record. To be clear, I have never physically injured anybody, nor wanted to, nor have I broken any laws more serious than the occasional traffic violation. But I have also never been able to hold down a full-time job; and largely as a result of that I have accumulated a mountain of debt. Perhaps more importantly, I have been a chronic disappointment in every conceivable kind of relationship that one person can have with another. I’m sucky as a friend, son, brother, uncle, husband, father, cousin, nephew, grandson, employee and co-worker. As much the antithesis of my dad (although people are always telling us how alike we are, which is also true), I have always proven to be utterly useless to pretty much everyone.

And why am I such a chronic failure in pretty much every area of my life? Well, as I’ve written elsewhere, I’m sure a few — a minority of the people who have known me, thank goodness — might say I’m just an “asshole” — a “fucking loser” or maybe a “total jackass”, and honestly, I really couldn’t fault them for that. Every so often my encounters with other human beings can go to an ugly and uncomfortable place, and I know that my own misguided choices play a significant role in bringing about that sort of outcome.

But I honestly believe most who have met me would describe me much more kindly — and this includes my own wife, who along with my children, has to endure my autistic symptomatology more than anyone else ever has. These saintly humans would probably tell you that I’m quite friendly, honest, witty, intelligent, sympathetic, with much to offer, but that I have perhaps never quite found my niche in the world. They might go so far as to describe me as a “a bit lost” — not unlike a penguin waddling around looking for water to swim in, but finding none.

Just over a year ago (November 2016) I sought medical attention for my chronic, life-long misfitery, and as it turns out, I’m actually autistic — I have Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  For me, learning this about myself has been a huge relief. Now I finally know why I’ve fucked up my life. I must admit that for as long as I can remember I have struggled not to accept the harsher judgments that people have made of me. Far too often have I seriously suspected that these critics may have been right after all — that I really am just an “asshole”, “fucking loser”, or maybe a “total jackass”.

But no — as it turns out, none of that is true. I’m not an asshole; I’m just autistic. And like a penguin forced to waddle around on dry land, yes, I guess I do look quite lost and a bit ridiculous. But I’m quite sure this is only how I look when I’m on dry land. I’m quite sure that once I do find my way to the water, I will show the world what I’m really good at.

Until then, and for me at least, autism really is a disability.

And penguins really can fly.

 


Hey, check out this cool YouTube featurette of Brandon Routh‘s preparation for his role in the 2006 film Superman Returns. Starting at about minute 2:12 you can watch him prepare for his flying scenes in a swimming pool! And don’t worry if you’re male and homophobic — there’s absolutely nothing at all homoerotically provocative about Routh’s lithe, muscularity.


 

I Think This Should Be A Word: Delusionist

Crazy looking man with blue wig and big, green-rimmed glasses.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

In the same way that an illusionist is a master of deception, I’m thinking it could be handy to have a word that means master of self-deception. I nominate delusionist for this purpose. For example,

“After eight failed marriages, he still talked of one day finding his ‘soul-mate’. The guy’s a delusionist.”

Autistickish Is Not A Trademark

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Image found here.

I just want to mention that I have no desire or intention to turn the word autistickish into some sort of trademark or even to be remembered as “that guy who started it all”. I like and use the term for purely practical reasons, and I would never want to hoard its benefits. I think it’s a great way to advertise the new DSM V spectrum model of autism without having to instantiate the Asperger’s technobabbler stereotype. (Not that there’s anything wrong with instantiating that stereotype, but it’s always nice to have a choice.)

So, please feel free to have at it as you see fit. Use it freely, or not, as you wish and will. And definitely do not feel obliged to tell anybody that you got it from me.

🙂

I Think This Should Be A Word: Philography

Vintage typewriter

Image found here.

Actually, according to the Wiktionary, philography is a word, but it’s not a word in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, and I had never encountered it nor even considered that it might be useful until last year following my autism diagnosis, when it subsequently dawned on me that my love of writing is probably symptomatic of my own idiosyncratic manifestation of autism. So I went ahead and coined it for myself based on the Greek roots in words like philosophy and caligraphy.

For my purposes it means, of course, love of writing.