Boston waterfront

Being Autistic Feels Like Touring Boston with a Map of Albany (Sort of, and for Me at Least)

“A map is not the territory it represents…”

Alfred Korzybski

Google Map of Albany, NYSo, this is not totally right, but I think it’s the right place to start:

Suppose you’ve come to Boston for a summer vacation, but you’ve accidentally brought a map of Albany to guide you. Because most cities have much in common with one another, your map of Albany is not totally useless. Every now and then there is, say, a Maple Avenue in Albany that happens to have a museum on it much like Boston’s own Maple Avenue has a museum on it.1 Ok, ok, so, the museum in Albany is an art museum whereas the one in Boston is for the whaling industry, but heck, they’re both museums and they’re both on Main Street, and whaling sounds kind of interesting so you go with it.

But let’s face it, Albany ain’t Boston, and you quickly discover that however useful it might be just by chance in some cases, your map of Albany is a constant source of frustration. You are constantly getting into misunderstandings with others about how to go from point A to point B. Or sometimes you might, for example, walk into a Police Station and order a dozen donuts. Or occasionally you sit down for a nice picnic in the middle of a parking lot. And then there are all the crazy looks you get from people when you ask them simple questions like “What happened to the New York State Museum? It’s supposed to be right here!” [Pointing at a hardware store.]

I don’t want to speak for all autistic people; and even though I have accumulated 5+ decades of experience living with my own particular, idiosyncratic manifestation of autism, I am really nothing like a true autism expert (in case you didn’t realize that), but for me at least I can say with great confidence that autism is a lot like touring Boston with a map of Albany — sort of.

The above scenario is the right place to start, I think, but I have one more hefty detail I need to add which is that for me it’s really more like I actually am in Albany, with a map of Albany, and it’s really everybody else that has a map of Boston.

See, I actually (sincerely, truly) believe that I’m the one with the right map, and that I’m living in a city full of people all of whom are stumbling around with maps of some other city, and not necessarily the same city at that. So, it’s not quite the same situation as the first one I described, but it winds up causing similar problems: a great deal of frustration and mutual misunderstanding. It can also make me extremely stubborn, because I am quite sure that I really do have the correct map, and I cannot for the life of me understand why on Earth I would use a map that I am quite sure is the wrong one.

I hope that’s useful.

1 I don’t know if Albany and Boston both have a Maple Avenue with a museum on it, but let’s just imagine they do for the sake of the argument.

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-pooper,¬†stuffy, 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.



Without Luck, We Cannot Hope To Solve A Problem If We Don’t Understand It

Light bulb

Image found here.

One of my favorite problem-solving or solution-finding heuristics was articulated by Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon as follows:

“…solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make its solution transparent.” — Herbert A Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial.

To the extent that understanding a problem and representing it are more or less the same thing, and taking luck into account, I think Simon’s core principle can be reasonably and more colloquially paraphrased as:

¬†Unless we get lucky, we cannot hope to solve a problem if we don’t understand it.