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.

To Disclose or Not to Disclose, That Is the Question

When, if ever, should you disclose to an employer that you are on the autism spectrum? Should you tell them in the interview? Should you tell them after they’ve hired you? Should you tell them only if a problem arises? Should you never tell them?

I have tried them all. If I tell them in the interview, I haven’t been hired. If I tell them after they hired me, whether or not a problem arises, I have been let go. And if I never tell them, well, I’m still on the spectrum, and I still experience the world as I do and behave as I behave, so then I just end up thinking everything is going just fine, and then suddenly I’m unemployed.

In my experience, people are extremely prejudiced against people on the spectrum. When I disclosed at Lockton Dunning, my supervisor immediately got the ball rolling on getting rid of me, and told me on the day that they did get rid of me that they had no intention of accommodating me. When I disclosed at Dallas ISD, I ended up in a race against the administration on whether or not I would get the accommodations I needed versus whether or not the administration would get rid of me by putting me on a plan, etc. They won.

The decision of whether or not to disclose is a personal one. Some don’t think they should have to hide who they are (that’s my position), while others have the position that it’s better to have a job and to not cause any problems of any kind. But because people think of autism only as a set of problems rather than a combination of problems and advantages, it seems that people shy away from keeping us around.

And let’s face it, there are a number of social problems involved in our employment.

We have a rather egalitarian outlook, and are likely to treat the cleaning people the same as the CEO. Even if we know better, having observed others, we still end up treating everyone more or less the same. While everyone else gives treating everyone the same lip-service, the fact is that if you do treat people the same, you will find yourself in a great deal of trouble in life.

We have trouble prioritizing. The ability to prioritize is very important for most work nowadays.

We have a tendency toward literalism. So even if we are helped with prioritizing, we will prioritize in exactly that way. If you have some complex way of prioritizing, you had better make sure you’re specific if you want us to do it that way. And that’s only the beginning of the problems that can arise with our literalism.

Of course, we are also good with attention to detail, strong concentration on our task, and tasks that require very creative thinking. You won’t find an autistic yes-man, though this is either good or bad, depending on the boss.

I suspect there are jobs in which disclosing isn’t a problem—tech jobs especially—but for most jobs, in my experience, the worst thing you can do is disclose. Only when we change people’s attitudes toward the autistic will our prospects improve.