Left-Handedness, Autism, and High Steroid Levels In Utero

Being left-handed, I have done a bit of reading on the topic. So I have known for a while that one of the causes of left-handedness is the presence of higher than normal levels of testosterone in utero. If there is a high level of testosterone during certain stages of brain development, hemisphere dominance can change, and left-handedness can be a result.

A new study by Simon Baron-Cohen shows high levels of steroid hormones in utero for children who later show signs of autism. Testosterone is, of course, a steroid hormone. This made me wonder if there is a correlation between left-handedness and autism.

Not only is there, but we have known about it since 1983.While the general population shows 37% non-right handed dominance (meaning left-handedness or various forms of ambidexterity; left-handedness alone is about 18%), that number is almost twice as high in people with autism: 62%. This is pretty much a complete inversion of neurotypicals’ handedness. More recent papers all suggest people with autism may be three times more likely to be left-handed.

Of course, autism is not the only condition strongly associated with left-handedness. Dyslexia is as well. And so are many mental disorders. Equally, about half of lefties are clearly neurotypical (not autistic, dyslexic, etc.), so it’s important to understand that while the presence of left-handedness may indicate non-neurotypical neural architecture, it does not necessarily do so.

Still, the correlation between high testosterone levels and left-handedness and the correlation between high steroid levels (including testosterone) and autism points toward Baron-Cowan’s theory of autism as a more male brain. Now, given that I subscribe to the “intense world theory” of autism (at least for myself and my son), I have to wonder if there is a relationship between these high steroid levels and neurohyperactivity.

Now, here’s a fun fact

Both autism and left-handedness are found more often in males than females. Yet, left-handedness results in a 50% larger corpus callosum, and autism is in part caused by a more active brain. Women also have a 50% larger corpus callosum than men, and their brains are more active than are men’s brains. So, ironically, more testosterone to such a degree that it causes left-handedness and autism makes those male brains more like female brains in certain ways (but in other ways, very obviously not–such as the lower connectivity in autustic brains). Either way, these differences may explain why there’s a great deal more gender fluidity among autistics (and more homosexuality among left-handers as well). These differences may contribute to the greater creativity seen in both groups as well.

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Nietzsche’s Autism and (Possibly) Learned Greek Sexuality

I recently read two biographies of Nietzsche, and to someone who is himself on the spectrum, it seems abundantly clear that Nietzsche had autism. Of course, neither of these biographers see it, and as a result they come up with explanations of Nietzsche which would make Freud proud.

I’m not going to go into all of the evidence I see for Nietzsche having autism. He had a speech delay — he didn’t speak until he was three (like my son, Daniel) — but then rapidly learned how to read and write. He was socially awkward in ways that sound familiar, and yet he also had a dominating personality (again, in ways that sound familiar), especially his writing persona, while often seeming soft-spoken and unassuming (we learn to be unassuming as we learn nobody cares about our obsessions, but become dominating under the right conditions). He also didn’t exactly know what to do with himself around women. This one of the biographers, Joachim Kohler, interprets as Nietzsche being a closet homosexual, but Nietzsche seems to have been a disaster around women in exactly the same way I was (thank goodness eHarmony had been invented in the meantime!).

But what I want to note is the degree to which Nietzsche seemed to have learned how to behave from books. I cannot emphasize enough the degree to which I have learned how to behave around people from the books I have read. Where neurotypicals have a variety of instincts that allow them to learn how to behave from the most casual of observations, autistics have to be taught almost everything. If one reads Kohler carefully, one can see that Nietzsche learned about love and sexuality from the ancient Greeks in a way that makes sense from my theory that autistic are explicit social learners.

Of course, anyone who knows about the ancient Greeks on love and sexuality will immediately understand just how messed up this could make someone. Imagine that you are raised in home in which there are nothing but very religious women, where sex and sexuality are hardly discussed. This would make things hard enough for a neurotypical; the situation is almost impossible if you are autistic. The autistic person would grow up sexually ambiguous at best, not really knowing what to do or think or feel. He hasn’t been explicitly taught. Then, when he goes to high school — Schulpforta — he concentrates on religion and philology and, thus, on the ancient Greeks and Romans. Nietzsche reads works that rarely if ever mention women — and when they do, in strongly misogynistic terms. When love is discussed, it is between men, or between men and boys — teachers and students. Eros is the god of erotic love between boys — the offspring of Ares (War) and Aphrodite (feminine Love). And then, Socrates, with whom Nietzsche identifies because they both share the presence of a daimon¬† (something I have as well–a guiding voice or spirit–making me wonder how common this is in autistics), simultaneously expresses Eros while remaining chaste toward men and boys. It would be no wonder if Nietzsche had no clue what to do in areas of love and sex.

Kohler doesn’t just use this as “proof” of his thesis. He also uses the fact that Nietzsche, as a boy and young man, had very intense friendships with other boys and men his age. However, this is also a trait of autistics. A friend in a real sense becomes a “project” on which the autistic person spends a great deal of time and effort. It can be flattering at first, but it can also become intense and overbearing and, likely, weird after a while. The autistic will, of course, never notice the increasing discomfort of the friend. If the person is a love interest, this is often interpreted as evidence of how much the autistic is in love. And that’s not untrue. But equally, intensity of friendship is not evidence of erotic feeling in the case of friends. But it may easily be misinterpreted as such.

If autistics are explicit learners, including in social areas of life, what they see or read to get their information is going to be very important. It will mean that it’s important for parents to be open and clear about areas of love and sex and sexuality. Making sure the autistic person is reading and watching the right things is also important, as those will perhaps have the biggest impact. You probably want to make sure your autistic is not reading a lot of ancient works on sex relations and sexuality (nor a lot of the surrealists, who were perhaps a bit too influenced by the Marquis de Sade), at least, not early on in life.

My own experience of learning how to act more and more seemingly neurotypical by reading books and watching movies and T.V.¬† helped me to see that this was taking place for Nietzsche as well (though in his case, it was obviously just reading). I hope that this insight can be used to help my son — and perhaps others.

Those Crazy Innovators

I recently wrote about the fact that most people are copiers rather than innovators. This is of course hardly a condemnation of the vast majority of humanity, given that being strong social learners is what allows for our high levels of cooperation that make complex society possible at all.

But the fact remains that if everyone were strong social learners and, therefore, copiers of others, there wouldn’t be much social evolution at all. The occasional mistake will sneak in, and people will of course copy those mistakes that work out best, but such a system would be a relatively slow process.

Enter the innovators. You don’t want too many innovators, because such a society won’t hold together too well. You want fewer innovations of things that work well, and if you have a lot of innovators, you are likely to get people innovating away what works.

It is perhaps not surprising that when humans evolved ultrasociality — meaning we started undergoing far more group selection — a balance was struck between copiers and innovators. Copiers dominate by far, but there are just enough innovators around to innovate.

But who are the innovators?

In my last posting I mentioned that people with autism and sociopaths are good contenders for this role. To that one should add schizophrenics and bipolars, among others we label as “mentally ill.” Many artists, for example, are known to be at least slightly bipolar. The Nobel Prize winning game theorist John Nash was, famously, schizophrenic. Many cultural creatives are known to be autistic. More, autistic people tend to be more analytical than strategic (sociopaths, on the other hand, are far more strategic and, thus, more like neurotypicals in their thinking; they only lack a conscience, which can free them up to do quite a number of anti-social things).

Historically, human societies have needed a combination of less social individuals. Those individuals were needed for cultural creativity, technological innovation, and quite often ruthlessness in war. The latter is where the sociopaths come in.

A group with sociopaths is likely to have someone who is willing to kill and otherwise exploit others to get what he wants; such a person might be a good leader in a war, especially given their strong strategic abilities. As we move more and more toward a global civil society, we are finding we need our sociopaths less and less. But that doesn’t mean we have gotten rid of them over time. Sociopaths, with their charm and strategic thinking, often end up in government or as CEOs — when they don’t end up in prison (and sometimes that is their path to prison). Places of power are highly attractive to sociopaths, and their charm and strategic thinking make them attractive to neurotypicals, who typically swarm in the direction of the person most determined to go in a particular direction. And sociopaths are quite determined people. Thus we should not be surprised if the highest concentrations of sociopaths are in government. In fact, sociopaths make bad CEOs, because they tend to run far less productive companies (due to their arrogance and tendency to try to subvert the system to their advantage, traits which are rewarded in government), so there are fewer sociopathic CEOs (as a percentage) than elected officials.

At the other end are the autistics — creative, analytical types who are more interested in their obsessions than in other people. Your nerds and geeks, technological innovators and socially awkward artists. They don’t seek to rule anyone. They just want to be left alone to do their work. But of course, their work, being creative and innovative, tends to be socially disruptive, so they are further treated as social outcasts by neurotypicals (and their tendency to be socially awkward anyway doesn’t help). Only if they create something that is adopted by the early adopters — that group of people who are adventurous enough to try things out, but not creative enough to innovate — can they become “accepted” into polite society. And then, not really. Nobody is dying to hang out with Bill Gates; nobody was dying to hang out with Steve Jobs. But most people deep down never fully trusted them. Their products made our lives better, but they did so only by disrupting our lives. And disrupting others’ lives is anti-social behavior (no matter how good the outcome).

And then there are the outliers labeled as “mentally ill.” This can often include people with autism, who are more prone than the regular population to being bipolar or schizophrenic. It is perhaps not surprising that such people tend to be cultural innovators more than technological innovators. Artists and religious innovators are well represented here. A few of the greatest scientists as well. They see the world in unusual ways, making them mad to the general populace. Once upon a time, hearing voices was proof positive that one had a strong connection to God or the gods (or to demons); now it is proof positive you have schizophrenia. We are too rational for such religious innovations, and so we tend to hospitalize such people. Unless they can prove their worth in the arts or sciences. John Nash could hear voices all he wanted, so long as he controlled himself and produced game theory.

What percentage of the population are we looking at here? It is estimated that, worldwide, about 1% of the population are sociopaths (2% in the U.S., whose history of open borders attracted the more adventurous, a group with includes a large number of sociopaths). The percentage of people with autism is closing in on about 2% of the population. The mentally ill might be another 1-2%. We can cut this in half by removing the extreme outliers — the sociopaths in prison, the autistics and mentally ill so severe they cannot contribute their creativity and innovations to society. Thus, our 4-6% outliers becomes about 2-3% innovators in any given society/culture. This is probably about the maximum number of innovators a society can have and still hold together. And we must keep in mind that much of that innovation is killed off by the sociopaths in government, whose policies are very often anti-innovation. Thus, we probably see innovation at about 1% of the population. Given that fact, it is quite impressive what human beings have accomplished in only a few tens of thousands of years.

Innovators and Copiers

I recently finished Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel. My official review of the book is in Politics and the Life Sciences, so I’m not going to go into a lot about the book right now. But there is something Pagel points out that I think is very important, and which I have been thinking about a great deal since I read it.

Pagel observes that (despite pop psychological narratives to the contrary), the vast majority of people are neither creative nor inventive. Rather, the vast, vast majority of people are ultrasocial — they copy what others do exactly as those others do them. This is known as social learning, and it is what allows human beings to live in such huge groups. In fact, if most people were creative or inventive, that would undermine ultrasociality (237).

Yet, it seems obvious that humans are inventive and creative. Look at all the technology we have around us. Look at all of the art and scientific discoveries.

Yes, and look at all the outrage over the latest discoveries. Look at all the outrage over the latest styles in the arts. Look at all the complaints about technology. Most people are reluctant adopters of anything new, and are in many ways Luddites at heart.

Thus, we see the same patterns for science, the arts, and technology. We have the inventor/discoverer. Then we have the early adopters. Then, when enough people adopt it, we have everyone else adopt it — once they see that it is good, they copy it.

The great innovations are rare. More common are social learning plus mutations, resulting in slow cultural evolution.And truly revolutionary innovations are extremely rare — and often result in the creator/inventor becoming social outcasts for their trouble. More strategic innovators will tinker on the edges of what we have so that others will accept the new things more easily. Poetic innovations go farther with more people if you introduce them in the context of poetic forms people like and know.

Humans are, overall, very good copiers, but very bad innovators (340). He observes that in game theory models, systems with many innovators tend to do far worse than those with many copiers. The systems that survive best are those in which almost all of the agents copy and there are only one or two innovators. The copiers all free ride off of the innovators, but if that did not happen, there would not be the kinds of complex societies we find in the world. To have spontaneous orders, you need mostly copiers, with few innovators disrupting the system.

I have primarily discussed artists, scientists, and inventors as innovators disrupting things, but there is another kind who also arises: political leaders. Political leaders emerge precisely because most people are strong social learners and, therefore, followers (362). As a result,

the cooperative enterprise of society is always finely balanced between the benefits that derive from cooperation on the one hand and the benefits that derive from trying to subvert the system toward your own gain without being caught or overpowered (363)

as all rulers in fact try to do. The difference between scientists, artists, and innovators and politicians is that the latter use their tendency to innovate to try to subvert the system and make it work toward their own advantage, while the former are not working so strategically, and are primarily interested in their narrow interests.

Coincidentally, there are two groups of people widely recognized as being unaffected by social pressures.

There are poor social learners, like those with autism — whose poor social learning may allow them to be more innovative, since they don’t feel the need to adapt to what everyone else is doing. Such people also happen to be rather focused on narrow interests. If this sounds like most scientists, artists, and innovators, it may not be entirely a coincidence.

Then there are the sociopaths, who are good social learners and highly strategic, like the vast majority of people, but who do not have a conscience. They work to subvert the system toward their own gain without being caught or overpowered. We see this in the cheaters of society, those who try to scam people, those who try to get power over others. Governments are full of these people. We elect them all the time.

People from either group lead the world. The rest of the world copies them and their innovations. In the case of the cultural innovators, the result is ever-more wealth for everyone. In the case of the sociopaths in government, the result is ever-more power for themselves.

Daniel Turns 8

Today is Daniel’s 8th birthday. He’s very excited. I’m sure he will be even more excited when he gets his presents, which are a couple plush sharks and some Star Wars toys he wanted.

Yesterday Anna noted that Daniel was talking a great deal more, and that he was sharing how his day went without being prompted. All last year, Anna made Daniel tell her three things that happened while he was at school and she made him listen to her as she told him about her day. It was often a struggle, as he didn’t want to say anything about how his day went. That, after all, smacks of smalltalk, and we on the spectrum aren’t exactly the biggest fans of smalltalk. We don’t much see the point of it.

But now Daniel is starting to talk more. He’s been telling us both a few things that have happened at school, though most of Daniel’s talk is really him asking me an endless series of questions. I’m guessing that in many ways, the average parent of an autistic child has it fairly easy when their child does this. Easy, you say? Let’s be honest, most people know a great deal about whatever it is they do, but almost certainly don’t know whatever obscure details their child wants to know about their obsessions. That means the child will have to do all the research on his or her own, and that also means they will eventually give up on asking their parents for information.

I’m not so lucky. Did you know that, other than the bull shark, which is found worldwide, that there are several other species of river shark, mostly around India and Australia? I do. Did you know that basking sharks are called basking sharks because they swim slowly near the surface of the ocean and thus appear to be basking in the sun? I do. Did you know that basking sharks annually shed their gill rakers, which they need to feed on plankton? I do. I know that the shortfin mako is the fasted shark in the world and that tiger sharks give birth to live young and that there is a species of epaulette shark that can use its pectoral fins to walk short distances on land to get back into the water. So when Daniel asks me questions about sharks, I can answer them.

None o which prevents him from asking me to look up more information about sharks anyway, including anything I have given him answers to. So don’t think I get out of looking up the information with and for him. I don’t.

On the other hand, I don’t mind in the least answering his questions, though it can be a problem when he is asking questions from the back seat of the van while I’m driving, and I’m guessing he’s less annoyed than he might otherwise be precisely because I can answer most of his questions (I’m a bit of an information junky, so most of his questions about most things).

In any case, the birthday boy will be getting a gluten-free cake decorated with sharks. Or at least, that’s how I intend to decorate the cake when I make it this afternoon.

“Asperger’s” and “Other” Poems at Awe in Autism

Two of my poems have been published at Awe in Autism, a website dedicated to art created by autistic people (or by people writing about autism). My two poems are “Asperger’s” and “Other.” Since discovering I have Asperger’s (autism, according to the DSM-5), I have been working out how I feel about it. Yes, we do have feelings! We often just have difficulties articulating those feelings. For someone like me, poetry truly is an attempt to say the unsayable.

Of course, from a certain perspective all my poems are “autistic poems,” since they are poems written by an autistic person and thus are necessarily from an autistic perspective, but not all poems are explicitly about the experience of being autistic. But a few are, such as those mentioned above.

Here is a more recent poem I wrote on what it’s like to be autistic:

My Burning Heat, My Light

I do not mean to burn you out–my wife,
My friends, acquaintances are blistered, red
From my white coals–I’m meaning well, but dread
Is why I’ve bred from blackened soles and strife.
You dance around me–each flame feels a knife–
I only want a welcome warmth to wed
Your weary soul to mine–I find instead
I only seem to transform every life.

I cannot seem to follow, lead–I stand
Alone–too conscious, too oblivious–
I know each of the rules and cannot play.
You’re standing on the boat that you call land–
When I shine light, my flame’s called dangerous–
You’ll die of lies so long as I don’t stay.

You can find pretty much all of my poems at Thyme and Time Again.

What Kind of Blog Is This?

Most of the blogs you’re going to find out there on autism are going to be by parents of autistic children. Parents who are not, themselves, on the spectrum. For your average parent who is not on the spectrum but who has a child on the spectrum, such blogs are useful and even necessary, from an emotional standpoint.

But I would hope that many of those same parents would come by this blog and read things from my perspective as an autistic father with an autistic son. You’re not going to get a lot of emotional satisfaction here at my blog, I’m afraid. That’s just not my thing (which shouldn’t surprise you if you have an autistic child). What you will find here, though, is a combination of my own experiences as someone on the spectrum, my experiences as a father of an autistic child, my experiences as a father of two children not on the spectrum (but who have a few features), my experiences as a husband of a wife not on the spectrum, and my research and (hopefully) insights into that research on autism.

That means you’re probably going to find as many discussions of oxytocin as my autistic son’s obsessions with sharks (especially basking sharks of late) and Star Wars (most especially Storm Troopers). In fact, in the area of shark obsessions, he is particularly obsessed with the fact that people eat shark fin soup. He is very upset by this fact and keeps asking me why people who eat shark fin soup want to hurt nature. He doesn’t understand why anyone would ever want to harm a shark.

If there is a problem with this blog, it will be that I will tend to follow my own obsessions. Combine that with the way my memory works, where I have a tendency to forget a great many things when I need to remember them (including ideas for blog posts, all too often), and it’s more likely you’ll learn about the glutamine-glutamate cycle than Daniels’ dental obsession. But I do promise to try.

Also, if you have any specific questions you would like me to answer in a future post, please feel free to ask me!