Penguin swimming

Autism Is A Disability; Penguins Can Fly

First, I should explain 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.


 

A landscape of mountains and valleys

The Autism Landscape

People don’t know squat about autism. Heck, even autistic people don’t know squat about autism. To my view (for now, and until I encounter the sort of evidence that might change my mind) I think a big part of the problem is that autism is like a landscape, with isolated and highly salient extrema — peaks and valleys — which by nature draw the eye and appear to announce to the naive observer “see, this is autism”, so that any other point on the landscape appears to say “this is not autism”.

But really this is wrong — as naive theories usually are. What appears to be right, however, is that it’s the whole landscape that is autism, and if your own particular phenotype (your DNA working in combination with your own idiosyncratic life experience) lands you anywhere on that landscape, then you are autistic — you “have” autism.

Another part of the problem is that this autism landscape is itself part of a much larger landscape — the human landscape — and the boundary between this larger human landscape as a whole and the particular patch that is the autism landscape is essentially arbitrary. There is no clear geographical feature — river, rock formation, altitude, etc. — that obviously and without controversy separates the human landscape at large from the particular patch we’re calling the autism landscape.

But again, and arising out of this uncertainty, it is the reassuring peaks and valleys of the autism landscape that draw the eye and appear to announce to the naive observer “see, at least we are certain that this is autism”.

But don’t be fooled. That is still wrong — as naive theories usually are. It is the whole landscape that is autism.

(I think, for now, and until I encounter the sort of evidence that might change my mind.)


Image Credit: Pixabay

Skepticism, Knowledge and Malingering

Man looking skeptical

Image found here.

Never confuse skepticism for knowledge. If I claim to have a disability and you are skeptical of that claim, that does not somehow magically imply that I am faking or exaggerating something.

Of course your skepticism is entirely rational and legitimate, and kudos for that. But simple skepticism is not evidence of anything other than some brain’s rational hunger for actual evidence. If you think otherwise you are badly confused. And especially if you happen to work as a disability-insurance claims investigator, then you are dangerously confused and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near such an insurance claim.

Skepticism is just a first step toward actual knowledge, and a refusal to take the next one — to scrutinize the real evidence — is the most reckless kind of foolery.

Those Arrogant Scientists!

two_scientists_looking_through_microscope_315x210

Two arrogant scientists behaving disdainfully. Image found here.

Scientists are so arrogant! They always think they know what’s probably true within some margin of error based on the best available evidence, preferably obtained by conducting carefully controlled experiments published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals!

 

Skepticism as Curiosity

Little boy looking at the ground through a magnifying glass

Image found here.

Although I see myself as a skeptic, I’ve never liked that term. It always has a taint of disparagement, and I always feel like I need to explain it, or make jokes like “Don’t worry, it doesn’t seem to be very contagious.” It often seems to be used like a synonym for disagreeable, or party-pooperstuffy, stodgy, closed-minded, old coot, etc.

For me, skepticism is quite the opposite of all that. To my view the word skepticism is more like a synonym for curiosity — an urge to push past my current knowledge and understanding of the world. As I see it, to be a skeptic is nothing like being closed minded. On the contrary, it means to open one’s mind to alternatives, to free oneself from excessively rigid or mindless ideological over-commitments, and to stubbornly refuse to clutter up one’s own nervous system with a tangle of complicated, contradictory, and unnecessary opinions — what we might call belief pollution.

But that doesn’t mean I have no beliefs or opinions, of course. In fact, I seem to have so many of these that I’ve even created this blog as a place to document them. But my blog isn’t just a place for me to put my opinions. As I experience it, writing is actually a better way to think, and the process of a writing a blog post is also the process of formulating, scrutinizing, testing, reformulating, re-scrutinizing, revising, and in general indulging my often relentless curiosity regarding the way my own mind works.

In this way I am skeptical of even my own beliefs.

 

 

#MeToo Madness

So, first of all, yeah, me too.

But in my opinion this #MeToo campaign is totally unscientific, which means that whatever we think we’re learning from it is most likely wrong, if not trivial.

It also means there’s an excellent chance it will all backfire and lead to more sexual abuse, not less, so there’s that too.

On the upside, it certainly took the heat off of Trump for a few days, allowing him to relax and focus on his golf game.

And of course, all of our good intentions no doubt fixed a few potholes on the road to Hell.

Am I Right, Or Just Truth-Lucky?

silver coinSuppose there are three of us — you, me and some fella named Jake. And suppose you flip a coin and then cover it with your hand so neither neither Jake nor I can see whether it came up heads or tails. Then you very carefully show just Jake the result — which we will assume was heads — and you ask us both to announce simultaneously what we believe the result to be.

Now, of course Jake knows what that the coin came up heads, but I don’t, so I just make some guess. And on the count of three, and just by dumb luck, suppose that both Jake and I announce simultaneously that we believe the same thing — that the coin came up heads.

Now, it’s common in situations like this to say that both Jake and I are “right”, because we both believe that the coin came up heads, and the observable fact of the matter is that the coin did, indeed, come up heads. But is this really accurate? Am I really “right”, or at least “right” in the same way that Jake is right?

I don’t think so. I think these are two radically different ways of “being right”, and I also think that when we use the same word to describe them we risk causing confusion in the minds of listeners who haven’t yet taken the time to think these things through. And having done this sort of thinking ourselves, I think we have the opportunity to accept the responsibility for inviting others to do so too, and a good way to do this is to use two different terms for these two different kinds of belief, one grounded in direct observation of facts, and the other floating on a gust of luck, either wholly, or in some cases, only partly.

But what term to use for the latter? I’m open to suggestions, of course, but I’ve recently started using truth-lucky.