Bottom-Up Thinking In the Autistic Brain

I recently read The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin. It is a fascinating book that really draws your attention to what is known and what is unknown about autism — and some of the problems with autism research that are caused by the fact that most researchers into autism are not themselves autistic, and the fact that there is a strong bias against self-reports, meaning there is too much focus on external expressions and not enough on what someone with autism is experiencing. It seems odd that autism research is, in this sense, a final holdout of behaviorism.

It should not be surprising that Grandin, being autistic herself, focuses on how autistics experience the world. But she also points out that autistics think about the world in a different way. Specifically, she notes that neurotypicals think in a top-down fashion (big picture before details), while autistics think in a bottom-up fashion (details before big picture). This has an interesting result. This means that neurotypicals tend to develop ideas from fewer sources, then take that theory and go back to the facts, where as autistics collect far more details and develop a theory from the details, from the facts. This also, coincidentally, is what allows autistics to see and understand patterns better and in more detail.

Also, this bottom-up thinking might help autistics to understand bottom-up processes better. By bottom-up processes, I am talking about self-organizing scale-free network processes like economies and other social systems, developmental biology, ecosystems, etc. They are created by having more and more things interacting with each other. Which is much the same way that bottom-up thinking works. Which brings us to issues of epistemology, specifically how concepts are formed..

With top-down thinkers, one needs very few examples of something to create a concept. If you see two or three cats, that can be enough to develop the concept of cat. However, bottom-up thinkers require many more examples before the concept is fully developed. Ten, fifty, or a hundred cats may be required. But once that concept is formed, it is well-formed. This can of course create problems with language acquisition, insofar as there is a correlation between words and things, actions, and qualities in the world. But it can also prevent one from developing new ideas before the situation is fully understood — a quality that could come in quite helpful if you are a scientist, for example.

It is also likely true that a more bottom-up, pattern-based thinker is going to see and understand bottom-up processes with complex patterns better than neurotypicals, meaning they will tend to understand spontaneous orders in general better than neurotypicals.This is because similar complex systems better model each other. Top-down thinking views the social world as hierarchical organizations; bottom-up thinking views the social world as spontaneous orders; the former thus make for better business people, while the latter make for better economists.

5 Deficiencies of Non-Autistic People

According to the Autism Quotient (AQ) scale, which goes from 1 to 50, 16 is your typical neurotypical, and you likely have autism if you score above a 32. 26-31 is the “Asperger’s” range. I have taken the AQ test a few times, and I score around 35. My early speaking, though, means I have Asperger’s rather than autism (though the DSM-5 codes it all as autism). If you have an AQ of 1-25, you do not have autism.

Since the majority of people are low AQ, they are the ones who get to define good and bad, normal and abnormal, special and deficient. But let me provide you with another perspective.

To me, people with low AQ are really deficient in the general ways in which they think. Sure, I understand there are a number of strengths that come along with having a low AQ—it’s easier to be social, due to the existence of social instincts weak or missing in us with high AQ; it’s easier and natural to look people in the eye; it’s easier to change your mind; etc.—but let’s be honest about the fact that there are a number of clear deficiencies in low AQ thinking.

  1. People with low AQ waste a lot of time and breath on small talk.

They rarely have anything interesting to say. Perhaps this is because low AQ people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about things and trying to figure things out. Two or three data points, and we have a conclusion! Hardly. We have the first of a dozen errors and false leads. This is fine in the physical sciences, where experimentation will prove you wrong, but it’s proven disastrous in the social sciences. In the meantime, a high AQ person will have looked at a hundred data points before coming to a conclusion—but you can go to the bank with it.

  1. As a result of the above, low AQ people have a tendency to be really certain about things when they have very little to go on.

A correlation of this is that they seem to think controlling complex processes is possible. High AQ people are never completely certain of anything, but when we do express certainty, it’s because we have researched the topic in great depth. At the same time, that certainty does not extend to a belief that we can control complex processes. It is part of our understanding to understand that that is impossible. But this is only true among those who study complex processes. Sadly, those not obsessed with this topic continue to believe nonsense about someone, somewhere, at least, being able to control them.

  1. Low AQ people are obsessed with superficialities.

There are so many things that do not matter in the least that low AQ people obsess over. Many mountains are made of many, many molehills. Outcomes don’t seem to matter compared to fitting a number of criteria while doing what you’re doing. For example, when it comes to teaching, what is more important? Students learning? Or my teaching style? I would consider outcomes more important than how I look doing it, but that is apparently not what matters most to low AQ people—at least, based on their actions. And I tend to look at people’s actions. Indeed, I tend to look at outcomes over intentions. But good intentions seem good enough for most low AQ people. I, rather, care that intentions and outcomes match.

  1. Low AQ people are too obsessed with hierarchy.

The worst are those who most protest hierarchy. They are the same people who support the growth of bureaucracy. And I really don’t understand what the obsession is with bureaucracy. It’s nothing more than the institutionalization of responsibility-avoidance. It’s primary function is to prevent anyone getting any work done.

  1. Hypocrisy is a standard way of thinking and behaving for low AQ people.

Does everyone really have to be a hypocrite for there to be strong social bonds? I suppose one does if one gets offended at any sort of criticism rather than taking criticism as an opportunity to grow. Taking offense seems to be the favored pastime of low AQ people of late, too. Not much offends me.

My point in writing this post is to point out that autism should not be understood as a deficiency that happens to have some gifts associated with it. Rather, autism is, in many ways, a different—and often opposite—style of thinking from low AQ people’s thinking. Those styles are genetically encoded and environmentally affected, and each can, to a limited degree, learn the strengths of the other. But people with high AQs are in many ways no more deficient than are people with low AQs—the deficiencies are merely different, just as the abilities are different. This hardly means there aren’t high AQ people who have severe disabilities, of course. But in contemporary American society, many of our differences are made disabilities. And it’s important to understand both that and the fact that many of our strengths are your weaknesses. But this only becomes clear if you view things from our point of view.

Learning to Act Human, Part II

After I learned my son had autism, I learned that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and so I have actually taken it upon myself to read some things that might help me.

One book I have come across is the Asperger’s Syndrome Workplaces Survival Guide. The first page and a half pretty much described my work history: problems keeping a job over the long term, problems with the fact that I actually want to get my work done and don’t want to be bothered with all this nonsense that seems to fill the work day and prevents me from getting anything done, problems with the fact that I’m not all that social, problems with the fact that (until I became aware of it) I would sometimes say inappropriate things. The author asks the question all of us on the spectrum ask: “What is more important: chatting in the lunch room or getting your work done?” People on the autism spectrum (apparently mistakenly) think it is the latter. Worse, those with AS can appear to be rude, hard to get along with, or bullheaded, when in fact none of these are true. Those with AS don’t have the same internal censors — we have to learn those. We are easy to get along with; we may just not understand social cues we haven’t consciously learned yet. We aren’t bullheaded; we are open-minded and adjust what we believe based on facts and information — we just insist you provide facts and information.

The book is all about helping those with AS understand what is expected of them, to learn how to navigate the workplace. One could ask, “Why is it I have to do all the adjusting?” Well, because the neurotypicals offer most of the jobs available. More, even if you are entrepreneurial, you will still have to interact with neurotypical people. At the same time, a very high percentage of people with AS have college degrees, including graduate degrees. Businesses are missing out on a huge pool of talent because they are excluding a lot of people just because they “don’t get along” with others — when in fact it’s not that they don’t get along, but rather that they just want to get their work done. Businesses are too often getting second best people because the first best don’t have great social skills. And — as I can certainly attest — those with AS are as a result misallocated human resources.

Another book I ran across is The Partner’s Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. I read the Foreword, and (though I subscribe to the Intense World Theory of AS and autism — at least for my son and me — rather than the less-competent-Theory-of-Mind model presented in the book) I recognized a great deal about me as a husband and father there. In short, everything I read about AS behavior and the social consequences of those behaviors has been a mirror. There is practically no doubt in my mind I have AS. It explains many of my actions, my thinking, my social interactions, my attitudes, etc. The good thing is that in knowing this about myself, I can actually know what to do to fit in better. I have done so over time as it is, without knowing I have AS. When people are bold enough (or asshole enough, depending on their attitudes) to point out my eyes won’t focus on them or that I primarily look at their mouths when I talk to them (leading me to working on looking people in the eyes — a real cognitive effort, I assure you) or that I cannot engage in small talk or that I sometimes say inappropriate things (which I have gotten much better about, being made conscious of it), I can change those things.

So now you know why I’ve acted weird around you, if you’ve ever gotten to interact with me personally. Just remember: if I’m working, for the love of God, don’t interrupt me! 🙂

When when Daniel was 5 and Dylan was still 2, I noticed something about the way each would eat.

When Daniel would eat, he would pile food on the spoon and then uses his hands to try to put the food in his mouth. He would also pick up food from off the plate. As a result, there was typically a big mess where he was eating. Rice is the worst. It gets scattered everywhere. And he loves rice.

When Dylan would eats, he would carefully stab the food with his fork or scoop up the food with his spoon. All in all, there is minimal mess.

Neither my wife nor I directly taught either child how to eat with a fork and spoon. And neither have most parents. Dylan learned how to eat mostly through trial and error — and observing others eat. He learned the proper way to eat because he has the instinct to copy what others are doing. To him, human actions have meaning. This is instinctual, so that when he copies what we are doing, meaning is immediately attributed to those copied actions.

Daniel, on the other hand, does not have a strong instinct to copy what others are doing. He does copy people, but his copying does not have social meaning, like Dylan’s copying does. It is social meaning which has to be taught to Daniel, and which his mother and I have to teach in regards to how Daniel feeds himself. In other words, we have to directly teach him how to eat with his spoon and fork and not to eat with his hands and make a big mess. This means repeatedly telling him how to eat properly, until he gets it.

Here is how to understand the difference. Dylan acquired his ability to eat properly because of his social instincts that allow him to copy our actions, which he sees as meaningful. Language is acquired the same way. We have a language instinct, but the specifics are acquired in context, which is where meaning is also acquired. Daniel, on the other hand, cannot acquire these social skills; rather, he has to learn them in a more direct fashion. Reading is learned the same way. There is no reading instinct on which to rapidly build one’s reading skills;l this is why learning how to read takes so long.

Now imagine that your social skills were more learned than acquired. That’s the situation with Daniel. That’s the situation with autism.

Coincidentally, Daniel is almost 8, and he still piles food on his spoon. But he’s at least a bit less messy.

Learning to Act Human

In my research into my son’s autism, I came to realize a great many things about myself. For example, I have in many ways spent a great deal of my time “learning to become human” — or learning to “fit in” with normal human beings.

Most of the time, when I talk to a person, I am either looking all over the place or looking at the person’s mouth. I have had enough people complain about these things that I have trained myself to look a person in the eye. However, to do so takes quite a bit of concentration. If I think it is important to keep eye contact with you, I can, but it requires mental work to do so. As a result, though, I am almost certainly not paying as much attention to what you’re saying as you would probably like, and I’ll probably have to ask you several times to repeat yourself. Maintaining eye contact is, of course, natural for most people.

In one of his stand-up routines, Chris Rock observes that when you first start dating someone, you are not actually dating that person, you are dating their representative. This is not just true of dating, but of any initial social interactions. Again, this comes natural to people. Everyone understands you are supposed to present an edited version of yourself to others. This is innate. But not for me. I literally had to read somewhere that you should not put forward all aspects of who you are when you first meet someone, because it’s off-putting. This was seriously news to me. I saw the validity of what the person was saying, and put it into practice. My dating life improved considerably — as evidenced by the fact that I am now married. That this took a while is evidenced by the fact that I am 46 and I only got married 11 years ago. My first actual girlfriend? When I was 26. Who knew that you shouldn’t present yourself exactly as you are when you first meet someone? Well, most people, apparently.

I am sure there are many more, but these are the ones that stand out to me.

I still haven’t figured out how to engage in small talk, though economist Peter Boetkke’s observation that in order to get tenure you have to subtract what he calls the “lunch tax” — which is any off-putting (typically, political) discussion — has benefited me greatly of late (keep all political views on the down-low, at least until you feel out the person you are talking to; keep any controversial beliefs to oneself; etc.). This is really a variation of the previous observation, just applied to work. But, again, I had to have it explicitly pointed out to me.

What this suggests to me is that there are a set of behaviors that are more natural for others that simply have to be learned by me (and, I would guess, others like me). I have often not even realized there is something atypical in my behaviors until they are pointed out — either directly, by friends (or people who don’t like me), or indirectly, by reading. Or perhaps, these behaviors are all learned by others, only my tendency to separate myself from other people resulted in my missing those lessons from life. This would be consistent with the intense world theory of autism.

In any case, there are a number of aspects of life which I have had to learn, which were not instinctual for me. The problem is that one cannot learn anything about which one is fully ignorant. I cannot know to learn about gene regulation proteins, for example, until I learn that there are gene regulatory proteins. There are obviously a great many facts like that which we all must learn — and learn about to know we need to learn them. Now imagine that that included social behaviors. Most people learn social behaviors like we learn language — we learn the specifics of a given culture, but we learn then innately because we are born with a “language instinct.” But I do not. I learned most of my social behaviors like I learned molecular biology. Well, that’s the story of my life.

Learning social behaviors only after I have had people point out that I was not doing them. Since such things are instinctual for most people, the assumption is that they are instinctual for me as well, meaning when I am not doing them, I am being rude, a jerk, etc. However, when I learn what I was doing was wrong, I have typically tried to change, to normalize my behaviors. It’s not that I don’t want to engage in typical social behaviors — it has typically been that I didn’t know about them in the first place.

Campus Speech Codes Target the Neurodiverse

There is a fantastic piece by Geoffrey Miller on The Neurodiversity Case for Free Speech in which he makes the argument that Isaac Newton wouldn’t have been welcome on today’s university campuses.

Ever since the Middle Ages, universities have nurtured people with unusual brains and minds. Historically, academia was a haven for neurodiversity of all sorts. Eccentrics have been hanging out in Cambridge since 1209 and in Harvard since 1636. For centuries, these eccentricity-havens have been our time-traveling bridges from the ancient history of Western civilization to the far future of science, technology, and moral progress. Now thousands of our havens are under threat, and that’s sad and wrong, and we need to fix it.

Now universities actively run off such people. They’ll revise your evaluation until they get the low score they’re looking for and even claim you weren’t “properly hired.” Anything to make sure everyone is the same, non-threatening in any way, and completely institutionalized.

The issue is that this then actively discriminates against anyone on the autism spectrum who has a difficult time regulating certain behaviors because we have a weak executive function. And many of the rules seem to us to be arbitrary. And we tend to make the mistake of thinking that if we would like you to say something to us in a certain way (because we prefer not to be ambiguous or have people be vague and ambiguous when they speak to us), then you would prefer it if we were straightforward as well. Often we just need to be told that what we’re doing or saying is strange, and we’ll do our best to try to stop doing it. But if you interpret everything we do through the lens of neurotypical behavior and understanding of the world, you’re never going to understand us, and everything will seem wrong.


Inside Asperger’s, Part 3

Patterns, patterns everywhere. I can see patterns immediately. I can quickly learn anything that matches a previous pattern I already know. And these are very complex patterns I see everywhere, in everything. New patterns excite me.

I want to tell you everything I saw and thought that interests me. Now. When you’re in the middle of telling me something. Before I forget. And I will forget unless I tell you now. But then, I’ll never forget. No, I never forget. My long-term memory is incredible. I remember things I last studied or thought about when I was a child. My children are now into dinosaurs, and I remember those dinosaurs’ names, though I had not thought about dinosaurs since I was nine or ten. Daniel is now into sharks, and I remember all the sharks I knew about when I was young.

And yet, I forget everything. My short-term memory is terrible. I can forget something I was told within moments. But I will remember it, at some random time, days later. It will end up in my long-term memory, but barely register in my short-term memory. Also, my working memory is quite large as well. I can hold a dozen or more variables in my mind all at once, manipulating them to see the relations among them.

I love showers. I can think in them, with the white noise. When the falling sparkling water doesn’t fascinate me.

Nature walks give me the silence and visual complexity without overwhelming me into fascination I need. I used to take them all the time growing up. When I go to a park I want to disappear into the trees where I’ll be comfortable and relaxed.

The world is exhausting. Especially the social world. Bureaucracy is the greatest evil ever created. It is the social world gone rabid. I just want to work. To work and be left alone. The world won’t let me be, won’t let me be who I am. I’m exhausted. So very exhausted.


Inside Asperger’s, Part 2

I am full of sensory sensitivities.

  • I prefer overcast days to bright sunshine; the bright sunshine bothers me, is too intense
  • I cannot stand for anything to touch my wrists
  • Food textures matter for taste
  • I hear background noises over foreground noises; I cannot filter out the background noises
  • I have to have the T.V. turned up very loud when the children are awake; I can turn it down very quiet and still hear it when the house is silent
  • If I am talking to you, I sometimes cannot hear you over everything and everyone else

It often seems like I’m not paying attention—especially when I ask you to repeat yourself. But I really am trying to pay attention. And the fact I’m not typically looking you in the eye adds to that perception. My eyes wander all over the place; I look distracted or like I’m looking at someone else. It takes a lot of energy to look you in the eye, so if you want me to really hear what you’re saying, don’t insist on it.

If you touch me, it takes about 20 seconds for the feeling to finally dissipate. Right now I can still taste the lunch I ate over an hour ago. Images linger and sometimes travel with me. When I walk the dog at night, I often see images of characters I had just seen on T.V. standing in the darkness.

All of this is overwhelming at times. Some days are better than others; other days are much worse. It’s all cyclical. I’m moderately depressed, moderately manic, equally cyclical. My interests ebb and flow. I cycle between scholar and artist.

If someone’s in pain, I’m overwhelmed with empathy; I feel the pain, mental or physical. I feel it deeply, intensely. When my father lost part of his left arm in a mining accident, my own left arm became racked with intense, throbbing pain. It is so much, I typically avoid situations in which I would feel empathy toward others. I have to switch it off, because if it’s on, it’s too much. This intensity of feeling can come about with the right song, the right emotional situation. It’s either on, intensely, or kept well at bay. Well at bay is preferred.

If you tell me you’re going to do something, that we’re going to do something—if you make me a promise of any kind, direct or implied—I will think about it and think about it until you do what you said you would do. You have to do it, or I get very upset. The problem is that changing mental direction may be easy for most people, but for me it’s like turning the QEII completely around. What doesn’t seem like a big deal to you in changing a plan (perhaps you’re too tired, which is perfectly reasonable), is a very big deal for me. I can understand why you want to change plans on one level, but on another the change is unavoidably upsetting to me.

Inside Asperger’s, Part 1

There is a great short piece on 10 Symptoms of Asperger’s that everyone should become familiar with. However, this list tells you what it’s like to view people like me from the outside. What’s it like from the inside?

When I wake in the morning, it takes a long time for me to get started. I slowly wake, my eyes can take a half hour to focus correctly, processing the world is slow, thinking is slow.

The chaos caused by three children is confusing. I would often forget things I was supposed to take to the babysitter’s on the days I worked. The chaos of traffic overwhelms me and I simply cannot think about anything. I don’t even try. I just listen to the radio. I feel a need for time to myself, time I rarely ever get.

Everything is distracting. I notice every little thing. My mind jumps from one thing to another. I think about

  • Papers I need to grade
  • Papers I need to write
  • Things I need to read for class
  • Books I need to read to write book reviews
  • An upcoming conference, make that two conferences
  • I have to pick up the kids by 5
  • What am I going to make for dinner?

The heck with all that—I’ll just browse Facebook. I need to grade papers. Looking through Facebook instead. Facebook changes. I can jump from one thing to another; you never know what you may find. I have to find distractions so my mind doesn’t distract itself. If I need to write, I need enough background noise to allow me to concentrate. Nothing I can actually listen to—no T.V., which I’ll watch, no radio, which I’ll mentally sing along with—something approaching white noise.

I love going to Starbucks for that reason: enough low noise I cannot differentiate to allow me to concentrate. Without it, as I read or write, I am thinking about other papers, poems, short stories, plays. I am making notes, thinking about new things. I cannot work on the thing I have decided to work on. But I also need quiet to come up with these new ideas to work on later. I stack up notes and notes and notes. Some of them actually get turned into papers or stories or poems. Everything’s distracting, and I even distract myself.

Constant demands on my attention are exhausting. I’m always thinking of things, ideas, but rarely ever people. It’s not that I don’t care about people—especially certain people—but ideas and things are what my mind is focused on almost all the time. I’m always thinking about something:

  • Spontaneous orders
  • A play I’m working on
  • All the papers I need to work on
  • The nonfiction book I need to work on
  • The novel I need to work on

I think of my writing all the time. I do not and cannot relax. I am tense, but not stressed. I am very focused on my interests, and I cannot focus on anything that does not interest me.

Different, Not Worse

Autistic people are different from neurotypical people, not worse. Yes, there are some autistic people with some serious behavioral problems, that any fellow autistic person would recognize as serious. If you cannot speak and/or if you are engaged in self-harm, then there are some serious problems.

But the overwhelming majority of people on the spectrum not only can speak and do not engage in self-harm, but are fully capable of getting very well educated (I have a Ph.D., after all), working, and living fulfilling lives with spouses and children. When people think of autism, they all too often think of the minority with severe autism and forget about those of us for which it’s a hidden condition. Hidden, that is, until you interact with us.

The problem is that people are treating autistic as inferior rather than different. By doing so, they can legitimate discriminating against us.

We of course are hardly the first. People of different races were considered different, when in fact they weren’t in any sense that mattered–not in abilities, to be sure. And for most people, different means inferior.

This is no doubt why, although there is overwhelming evidence for neurological differences between men and women, those differences are rejected by most feminists. But when you reject those objectively true differences, you are buying into the argument that different means inferior. Nowadays, when you say women are different from men, you will get accused of sexism–ironically, by those who actually accept that different means inferior (or else, why object?).

I am on the autism spectrum. I have Asperger’s. I am different. Daniel has autism. He is different. I say “have,” but in fact we don’t “have” it, like we can get rid of it. No, we are autistic. It’s a fundamental aspect of our being, and we cannot be separated from it. It affects the minds which emerge from the neurological differences, if affects the way we behave and interact and think and understand, it affects the way we feel, it affects our morals and world view. We are different. But we are hardly inferior. And we shouldn’t be treated as such.