The Autistic Perspective: Passion vs. Ambition

John Hagel has a paper in which is discusses the difference between passion and ambition. I don’t want to go into all of the differences he raises between the two. You can read the article for that. But his distinction immediately made me think of myself and of those of us on the spectrum.

People on the autism spectrum do not have ambition. But we do have passion. Equally, I think the farther away from the autism spectrum and the closer you are to the solipsistic end of the neurotypical end of the neurodiversity spectrum, the more likely you are to be ambitious rather than passionate. This would imply that the more top-down your thinking, the more strategic a thinker you are, the more likely you are to be ambitious rather than passionate. The more bottom-up, the more analytical a thinker you are, the more likely you are to be passionate rather than ambitious.

Naturally, these things are on a spectrum. But we have to wonder in what ways ambition and passion are really opposite things. We hear of ambitious politicians, but rarely truly passionate politicians. We hear of passionate scientists and artists, but rarely truly ambitious scientists and artists. Is it any surprise to learn that there are plenty of people on the autism spectrum in the latter group, but few if any in the former?

If we think about the dynamics involved in, say, a business, we can see what might happen. The passionate will be happy working at whatever they are passionate about. Meanwhile, the ambitious will move up the company, get raises, etc. And they will do so on the work of the passionate. Worse, many who are passionate at their work will often be viewed as not worth promoting precisely because they are perceived as not having enough ambition — which often really means, “We don’t perceive him as caring as much about the company.” But that is wrong. The passionate worker is the one who cares more about the company, while the ambitious worker cares more about himself. Of course, since it is the ambitious who are at the top of the company more often than not, they will naturally relate to others’ ambitions. Thus, rewarding the ambitious over the passionate is institutionally reinforced.

People need to come to understand that the person quietly working over in the corner, from whom you hear little or nothing, but who is working constantly, is the one who cares about the work, who cares about the job, who cares about the company. Those are the things that ought to be rewarded more, rather than personal ambition.

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When Your Work Is Who You Are

My wife has observed that my work is deeply intertwined with my identity. It was not the first time she observed it, but sometimes the Nth time you hear something is when you start to think about it.

I hadn’t really thought about it before because she was and is right. It seems so natural to me. I am a poet/playwright/interdisciplinary scholar/spontaneous order theorist. When I wake, those things are on my mind; they are on my mind throughout the day; they are on my mind when I go to sleep. My mind is always active, thinking about my various projects.

Asperger’s has been called the “Little Professor Syndrome,” and I certainly fit that description. When I was obsessed with dinosaurs, I could have held my own with a paleontologist; when I was obsessed with sharks, I learned everything I could find on sharks; when I was obsessed with plants — and later narrowed that obsession to orchids — I learned everything I could find on plants and, particularly, orchids. That obsession later turned into molecular biology in college, then economics, then quantum physics (at least, to the degree one can learn about it without math), then chaos theory and complexity, then fiction writing, then poetry, then play writing. The older I have gotten, though, the more I have retained past interests. I remain curious about molecular biology, and I often think with the concepts of biology; I have increased my interest in economics, combining my interest in complexity with economics into Austrian economics and spontaneous order theory; I still write plays and poems.

One of my more recent obsessions is learning about autism. When I learned my son had autism, I did the autistic thing and became obsessed with the topic and learned everything I could about it. My familiarity with molecular biology and neurobiology helped. It was in dong this research that I learned I had Asperger’s.

It turns out that those with Asperger’s deeply identify with the work they do, with the work with which they are obsessed.

If the person with autism can find a place that will indulge his obsessions, he will be a great worker and will do great work. If the person with autism cannot find such a place, he won’t allow that job to interfere with his “real” work. One can perhaps imagine what the outcome of that is likely to be.

For autistics with advanced degrees, like me, the logical place to work is a university. And if universities were primarily interested in research, scholarship, and teaching, they would be the ideal place for autistics. Unfortunately, universities are primarily interested in more fully developing their bureaucracies, playing university politics, and engaging in all sorts of social games at which autistics are terrible. If universities were places where a professor could see that something was not working, and the next semester change the way he taught classes based on his observations of what worked and what did not, they would be ideal places for autistics. However, universities are now places where professors are pressured into teaching the same way as everyone else, no matter what the educational outcomes may be.

It seems, then, that there are no places to support people with autism. There is no institutional support; the institutions we have are structurally opposed to both the strengths and weaknesses of autistics, while thoroughly supportive of both the strengths and weaknesses of neurotypicals.

Worse, because people like me are so personally identified with their work that that there is little differentiation between the work and person (please note I said “the work” and not the ideas, as particular ideas will be chucked if they prove not to work out), we tend to take it quite personally that nobody wants us or wants us to do what we are good at. We resent the fact that we cannot make a living being who we are, because of the prejudice against us built into the institutional structures of society. I do not know if there was ever a time when things were better for those with autism; however, I suspect that before the growth of bureaucracy as a fundamental institution in all areas of life, life for high-functioning autistics, at least, was much easier.

Institutional Discrimination and Autism

Institutions matter.

The structures of our institutions  matter a great deal. The structure of our property rights, for example, can be the difference between widespread wealth and the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few who are politically powerful. Those structures affect whether or not we are playing a positive sum game, a zero sum game, or a negative sum game. Inevitably, the structures of our institutions influence who is successful and why.

Thus, the Left’s complaints about “institutional racism” or “institutional sexism” are not wrong. It is likely there are structural elements to various institutions in any society that make it easier or more difficult for a particular race or sex to succeed.

But I have discovered another kind of institutional discrimination.

I have come to realize there is widespread institutional discrimination against those with autism. I know this because I have experienced it. In fact, I have been experiencing it for a long time now, only I did not know or understand this to be the case because I was unaware I was autistic.

For example, there is perhaps nothing more anti-autism than bureaucracy. Bureaucracies reward those who socially conform the most, who are socially most clever, who know how to brown nose the best and play office politics the best. They do not reward hard work, innovation, or insight. In other words, bureaucracies are an autistic’s worst nightmare.

To some degree it would seem that the 50s and 60s, during which there was little bureaucracy, were more tolerant of autistic traits. Many of the things we hear people complain about the working conditions of the time — repetitive work, cubicles, etc. — were the conditions under which people on the spectrum would have done well.

The real irony is that the rise of the personal computer was both a benefit to those on the spectrum and a benefit to the creation of bureaucracy. People on the spectrum continue to do well in low-bureaucracy, high-tech (and high work-demand) conditions, such as we find in Silicon Valley. Other places where our strong analytical abilities should be of great benefit — in research, including universities — can sometimes drive us off precisely because of the increasingly dominant and dominating bureaucracies. Yet, it is not uncommon for high functioning autistics to have advanced degrees. If that advanced degree is a Ph.D., that means working in a university more often than not.

Yet there are few places more bureaucratized than universities.

While being a university student actually plays into many of the strengths of those with autism — which is why so many get advanced degrees — the work environment is anti-autistic. And this, as Geoffrey Miller observes, includes the work environment of colleges and universities.

More, among neurotypicals, HOW something is done is just as important — sometimes more important (especially in places with large bureaucracies) — as the outcome. To take something with which I am familiar, it should matter more whether or not the students actually learned the material than whether you are teaching those students the same way as everyone else. But it turns out that student learning per se is not what is important to anyone in any school’s bureaucracy; rather, what is important is that you are conforming everything you do to how everyone else is doing things. And if you are doing even one small thing differently, you have to defend what you are doing to more and more and more people — until you just give up on it just to get people to leave you alone. Nobody cares if what you are doing works; they only care that they aren’t doing it, or that they hadn’t heard of it before. For the autistic person, none of that stuff matters. The only thing that matters is what works. Show me it doesn’t work, and I won’t do it. But if I show you it does work, you should leave me alone to do what works. Perhaps you ought to try doing it yourself. But ego gets in the way of neurotypicals adopting things others have developed.

Neuroptyicals typically won’t adopt something new until and unless they are made to do so — either by a boss or by circumstances. This also works in reverse. You are expected not to adopt something new until and unless the boss makes you. You are not supposed to just do things on your own. Yet, this is exactly what you can expect people with autism to do. We care only about what works, and ego or hierarchy or anything like that does not come into play at all (although we are typically interpreted by the much more egocentric neurotypicals as being egocentric for insisting on doing things “our” way).

Bureaucratic hierarchies play into the strengths of neurotypicals, but outright punish autistics. One could almost define neurotypicals as political animals and autistic as poetic animals. The poetic person wants to simply make or do (this is the origin of the word in ancient Greek), while the political person wants to be social and to interact with other human beings. Most of our modern institutions are political in structure, rewarding those who engage in politics. It is not hard work that gets rewarded, but whoever is the most politically savvy. More, the more autistic you are, the more difficult it will be to succeed in a job, as most jobs reward social intelligence over other kinds of intelligence. And social intelligence is precisely where autistics fall short.

Thus we can see that our current institutions are discriminatory against those with autism.

Honesty, Loyalty, and Autism

Two of the positive attributes attributed to those with Asperger’s/Autism are loyalty and honesty.

People with autism are very loyal. I have always felt strong loyalty toward my employers (although none have ever returned the favor). I am fiercely loyal to my wife (though my fierce honesty does sometimes make it appear otherwise — though I promise [Sweetie] that in my mind the two do not conflict). I am loyal to all my friends and family. It’s part of my nature. But it appears that it is in the nature of any with autism.

Now, the issue of honesty is an interesting one. It’s not that someone with autism cannot lie. I can lie. Daniel can lie. I’ve caught him. But he’s easily caught out, primarily because when he’s accused of lying and he’s not, he has a huge meltdown over it. So if he’s calm after you accuse him of lying, he’s lying. And as for me, when I lie, it really, really, really, really, really bothers me. It’s like a deep brain itch I can’t scratch. So I don’t lie. It just bothers me too deeply, and I’d rather not be that uncomfortable all the time.

At the same time, people with autism are known to believe pretty much anything anyone says to them. This is perhaps attributable to the fact that with theory of mind, one attributes others as having the same mind as oneself. I don’t lie, therefore others don’t lie. Except that’s not true. People lie all the time. And when you reach the level of self-awareness I have about who I am, especially in regards to my high functioning autism, you come to realize just how much people lie all the time.

I’m still prone to believe you in the moment, but I can at least now look back and see I’ve been lied to.

For example, when I tell you I’m going to do something, you can go to the bank on it (unless my terrible memory makes me forget). I remember things better if I write them down; if I write something down, you can guarantee I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter what it is; it doesn’t matter how small it is; it doesn’t matter if I’m tired or if something else comes up. If I say I’m going to do something, I’ll do it. However, this is absolutely not true at all when it comes to neurotypicals. I have noticed neurotypicals will tell you they will do something, then change their minds or come up with some excuse for why they can’t, etc. And this is assuming they ever intended to do it at all, and weren’t just trying to make you feel better or shut up at that moment.

This is where conflicts between those with autism and neurotypicals can arise. Two neurotypicals will lie to each other without a second thought about doing something together, and then blow it off when minds are changed. Do that to someone with autism, and they will say, “Nope, that’s what you said. You said you were going to do it.” Thus, those with autism tend to “call out” neurotypicals on their small lies with which they fill the day. And let’s face it: people don’t like to be called out on their b.s. But since autistics don’t like to lie, and therefore don’t like to be lied to, they have a tendency to point it out when you lied to them. Thus, a source of our “social awkwardness.”

Indeed, people want to be lied to all the time. They want to be told they look nice when they don’t. They want to be told their project is good when it isn’t. They want to be told they’re good people who don’t lie all the time just to get through the day. But you know what you won’t get from someone with autism? Any of those things. They’ll tell you you don’t look nice in that dress. They’ll actually critique your work. And they’ll write blog posts telling you that you are all a bunch of petty liars. And that, too, is a source of our social awkwardness.

Of course, the tendency to believe others when they say things can get someone with autism in trouble. Suppose you have two people, one (A) with autism, another (B) who is neurotypical. They are working on a project together. B is working on something that must be finished before A can work on his part. A asks B how things are going. B says he ran into a problem, but he was working on it and would let A know when it was ready for him. Do you know what A will do? A will believe B and not bother B ever again. Three weeks later, when the boss asks A about the project, A will tell the boss about the conversation he and B had — and guess who will get in the most trouble? It will be A, who knew there was a delay, but didn’t come forward sooner. A of course won’t understand in what the problem is or why he’s suddenly in trouble. If someone points out to him that he should have come forward sooner, he will reply that that make sense, but in reality it doesn’t make that much sense to him. Didn’t B say he was handling it? If this happens to A enough times, he’ll end up fired, but be completely clueless about why he was fired.

Now, I can point all of these things out, but all of this comes about from reading and from thinking through past experiences. I have a head-knowledge that this takes place, but it is unfortunately only intellectual and not useful knowledge. I know I will continue to make these mistakes, and it’s frustrating to know that you will and also to know that in the moment, you will “forget” all that you know.

About the only thing I know to do is to beg those who have to deal with those with autism on a daily basis to please always say exactly what you mean and mean exactly what you say. If you say you are going to do something , please do it. It’s extremely frustrating for the autistics in your life if you don’t.

Autism as Strong Explicit Learners (and Weak Implicit Learners)

I recently discussed the idea that we need to differentiate between learning and acquiring; imagine my excitement to learn that it was recently discovered that there are two different brain areas for implicit and explicit learning. What I was calling “acquiring” they are calling “implicit learning.”

Things that are implicitly learned have instinct modules attached to them — this is what allows for the rapid acquisition of implicitly learned knowledge. Spoken language falls into this category. So do morals.

Things that are explicitly learned do not have instinct modules attached to them, and thus are learned with more difficulty. Reading and writing fall into this category. So does driving a car. Of course, each of these make use of areas where instincts are at play — it should be obvious that written language is strongly connected with spoken language — but these are a step removed from the instinct, made more conscious.

It seems, from the research I have done on autism, as well as my own experiences (as someone with Asperger’s/autism) and observation of my son, Daniel, who has autism, that people with autism have difficulty with implicit learning/acquiring, and thus have to rely more on explicit learning. This would go a long way to explaining why so many with autism have language delays, as explicit learning takes longer than does implicit learning. The fact that general purpose artificial neural nets can learn to recognize language without the presence of a language instinct points to a way the human brain could learn language without the ability to acquire it. In fact, if we accept Steven Pinker’s argument from “The Language Instinct” that in evolution explicit learning precedes implicit learning because anything that is learned and needs to be learned quickly will soon develop into an instinct, then we can perhaps understand that it is not only possible, but necessary, that language be learned explicitly.

This would also explain the “social awkwardness” of those with autism. And coordination problems. What is naturally acquired by neurotypicals must be explicitly learned by those with autism.

Of course, this raises any number of questions. What are the connections between implicit and explicit learning? Is the implicit learning module(s) weakened in those with autism, or is the explicit learning module strengthened in them? Or both?

Given that implicit learning is in fact going to be multi-modular — social learning is a different module(s) from language learning — one would expect variations in what instinct-based modules are affected. Some (such as I) are unaffected in acquiring language, but affected in acquiring social skills. My son has delays in both.

If we combine this idea with the Intense World Theory of autism, we might be able to make the argument for stronger explicit learning — perhaps even to the extent of hijacking some of the implicit learning hardware. This would also help us make sense of some of the mental abilities of many with autism. Things like mathematics and playing a musical instrument are explicitly learned, and these are two areas often associated with autistic savantism.  I learned how to read by the time I was 2.5 (as noted above, I did not have the language delay; also, reading is learned explicitly).

A more hyperconnected brain, as found in those with autism, is a brain that more closely resembles the architecture of artificial neural nets, and artificial neural nets (ANNs) are general use explicit learners. If you feed enough information into an ANN, it will create concepts and thus learn patterns. ANNs are excellent at finding patterns. I do not think it a coincidence that this also describes how autistic minds learn and behave. While neurotypicals can extract concepts from a handful of examples — perhaps even only one example — autistics need many more examples before a concept can be formed. The result is a more fragmented world, but also more accurate to reality concepts that do not have to be modified nearly as much once formed.

In all of the things I have read on autism, I have yet to come across this explicit theory.

“Autistic” as a Slur

I have recently run across a few people who have used the term “autistic” as a slur against others. It’s being used to accuse people of not being self-aware, of being “socially stupid,” and/or of showing a lack of empathy. I have see free markets referred to as “autistic,” and there is even a movement in economics called post-autistic economics.

I don’t want to get into a discussion of economics as I don’t want to get into those kinds of “political” issues that have nothing to do with autism per se. I simply want to point out that it seems fairly easy for many to use “autistic” in a way that is clearly intended to be derogatory. (The Atlantic reports a way in which autistic people may in fact be better at thinking like economists, or at least more rationally about money.)

Calling someone “autistic” who isn’t is much like how adolescent males use the word “fag” to question the masculinity of other males their age. It’s used in a derogatory fashion and is intended to create offense. But of course offense can only be taken if the person agrees that the term being used on them means they are “less than” what they are. In the past, the closest thing would be to call someone “retarded,” only that merely suggested something along the lines of “you’re stupid,” while calling someone “autistic” is more specific, denoting not just general stupidity, but a specific kind.

The problem is that when you use a word like “autistic” in a derogatory fashion, that denotes how you feel about such people. It says that you think autistic people are less than you, that their value can be expressed in the fact that you can insult people with the term (which doesn’t speak well for those who can be insulted by it, either). How you think about us affects the way you treat us. If you think less of us, you will treat us as less. So yes, it does matter what words you use, how you use them, how you think about us.

Now, this literally has nothing whatsoever to do with the issue of free speech. There is a difference between “you shouldn’t say that” and “you shouldn’t be allowed to say that.” If you use autistic in a derogatory fashion, “free speech” is no argument for its use; I can use my free speech to point out that you’re a rude jerk for using the word that way.

Nor is this a matter of my being “overly sensitive.” I find it strange that people think that objecting to bullying and abuse is being “overly sensitive,” and that defending yourself is somehow a show of weakness. Neither is true. You are being overly sensitive if you object to someone who, out of honest curiosity, asks you something about being autistic, but not if you object to their referring to someone who isn’t autistic as being autistic simply to belittle them.

In the end, there are real, negative consequences to using “autistic” in a derogatory way. It belittles us, treats us as inferior, and that treatment gets expressed in actions just as much as words. When those actions are expressed as explicit prejudice against autistic people and the firing of autistic workers, then it’s affecting lives in ways that really matter.

On the Varieties of Styles of Thinking, Part 2: From Solipsism to Autism

Last time we talked about the differences between top-down and bottom-up thinking. Each have benefits and each have shortcomings. However, the most typically bottom-up thinkers have been pathologized by the majority (primarily top-down thinkers) into Asperger’s and Autism. But what if things are more complex than that? Although there are certainly problems — from a neurotypical’s standpoint, anyway — with those in the autism spectrum, one ought to acknowledge that if the most extreme end of bottom-up thinking is problematic, then the most extreme end of top-down thinking is problematic as well.

What would you expect from an extreme bottom-up thinker? That the -up part is gone, that the world remains fragmented and that the pieces can therefore not be brought together at all. I think this would go a long way to explaining the behavioral situation of those with the most extreme forms of autism. Equally, then, one would expect from an extreme top-down thinker that the -down part is gone, that the world remains an undifferentiated whole. This would mean there is no difference between the person and the rest of the world — which is solipsism. The solipsist, however, can function in the social world, whereas the extreme autistic cannot. However, the solipsist believes he has the answer to everything, that everyone is the same as him, and that to question his ideas is to insult him personally, as there is no differentiation between him and his ideas. The extreme autistic sees infinite variety; the solipsist sees infinite sameness. The solipsist would then be expected to support egalitarianism, to think wealth disparities are terrible, that differences in opinions from his own are terrible, and thus would seek to create a society that conformed to him and his ideals. The extreme autistic is a problem only to himself (and those who have to take care of him); the solipsist is a problem to society.

Let me now relate all of this to Gravesean social psychology. It seems to me that the more collectivist levels — purple (tribal), blue (authoritative), green (egalitarian), and turquoise (holistic) — are going to develop out of and in turn encourage more top-down thinking. Individualistic levels — red (heroic), orange (entrepreneurial), and yellow (integrationist) — are going to develop out of and in turn encourage more bottom-up thinking. The more one is able to switch from one style of thinking to another, the easier it will be to move through the levels; extremes of either side will find such emergence more difficult, since switching styles is more difficult. Difficult does not mean impossible, of course; life conditions can certainly give one a strong nudge, to say the least. But if we take the fact that most people are in fact predominantly top-down thinkers, while those with a more balanced style of thinking are relatively rare, we can perhaps make sense of the fact that there are relatively few of the most complex psychologies, even within even the most complex societies.

We would also expect top-down thinkers to prefer to “settle in” in the more collectivist levels, where they are comforted by top-down organization of society, whereas we would expect bottom-up thinkers to prefer to “settle in” in the more individualistic levels, where they are comforted by less hierarchical, more scale free social orders. At the same time, we would expect many business owners to be top-down, strategic thinkers, while we would expect analysts and scholars to be more bottom-up, analytic thinkers. All of which clearly problematizes any simple political divisions. Still, it would probably not be surprising if one were to learn that there is a positive correlation between dominance of bottom-up thinking and support for libertarianism.

All of this points to the fact that when it comes to understanding any social order of any sort, you are dealing with very complex situations. The dominance of a style of thinking is going to affect the structure of society and of the culture as well. It also suggests that we need to be careful pathologizing ways of thinking. As a style of thinking comes to dominate in a society, that society will itself shift into being a society more open to that style of thinking, but not to another. Today’s pathology might be tomorrow’s norm. But if we pathologize, we don’t really have to even try to understand; we can simply get such uncomfortable thoughts such as that there are people out there who do not in fact think like us well away from us so we won’t have to worry about it or even deal with it. But that impoverishes both ourselves as individuals and society itself as a whole.