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

hummingbird_violet_sitting_210x214

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.

duckling_bee_383x300

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.

egret_standing_in_field_210x211

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.

macaw_blue_yellow_315x210

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.

stephen_wiltshire

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.

adler_pouncing_on_rabbit_313x215

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.

But You Don’t Seem Autistic

Ostrich

Image found here.

It’s going to take some time for popular culture to digest and assimilate all of the progress that’s been made recently in the scientific and medical understanding of autism. In the meantime, those of us with so-called “mild autism”¹ will have to figure out good ways to cope with the well-meaning, but frustrating and inadvertently invalidating responses of all of the otherwise good people we know and encounter who have not yet had the opportunity to update their understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

And these people are not all neurotypical either. A few months ago I met a fellow aspie who quite sincerely thinks his autism was caused by a vaccine; and I know at least two individuals showing strong autistic traits who both think I’m being ridiculous even for suggesting they may actually be autistic. And I have to include myself in that group as well. Eleven months ago, just prior to my own ASD diagnosis, I had self-diagnosed and sought psychiatric help for what I was sure was some sort of Bipolar Disorder (BD). But following a full day of psychometric testing and clinical interviews, and after my diagnostician told me that that she didn’t really see BD, but what she did see was some version of autism — “what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome”, she said — I was quite skeptical. “But I feel empathy!” I objected; and “I have a great sense of humor!”

“Those are just stereotypes, ” she explained. “What they’ve found is that there is a lot of variation in the way autistic traits manifest in people.” Since then I’ve come to a much richer understanding of what that actually means. Having autism is something like being a bird, and when most people talk about birds, they probably have in mind one or two particular kinds of birds, like maybe sparrows and robins; and they really need to be reminded that ostriches and penguins are also birds, as are flamingos and vultures, even though they all seem strikingly different from each other, and especially so from sparrows and robins. Something similar is true of autistic people. If all someone knows about autism is what he or she learned by watching Rainman or Big Bang Theory, then his or her understanding is analogous to that of someone who learned about birds by studying just sparrows and robins. The first time such a person encounters a hummingbird or an ostrich, a response of “but you don’t seem like a bird” is nothing to scowl at.

Since being diagnosed with ASD, I have been confronted with this issue in various ways. I actually got fired following an attempt to obtain reasonable accommodation on my job; I have been accused of trying to shirk responsibility for my unruly behavior — of “blaming my diagnosis”; I’ve been accused of malingering; and I have been told that I don’t “seem” autistic.

I won’t pretend to have the last word on the topic or to have figured out anything like the “best way” to handle these kinds of frustrations, but I do feel confident that anything angry is a waste of time that will likely backfire in some way, making everything a lot worse. As I explained in a separate post yesterday, I believe rage has failed us in general, and I have utterly given up on any rage-based problem solving strategies. Needless to say, the next time someone tells me “but you don’t seem autistic”, I will not say anything like this:

Gosh, I'm so sorry I didn't fit your stereotype

Image found here. Meme generated here.

 


Notes

¹I put quotes around the phrase mild autism to signal that my own “mild autism” has had quite a non-mild effect on my life and relationships; a fact I believe would be readily confirmed by the many people I have shocked, worried, annoyed, frustrated, irritated, confused, infuriated and otherwise alienated over the course of my life.