Home, Where Autism Was the Norm

I’ve come to realize I was raised in a very autism-friendly home.

The house I grew up in was quite dark inside. There was dark brown paneling, brown carpets, and fairly dim lights. The “brighter” spots with lighter carpets and so on tended to have dark furniture that had the effect of darkening things.

My mother also didn’t put up with a lot of noise. The T.V. was kept low, the music, when played, was kept pretty low. We couldn’t run around and yell and scream. Mom didn’t put up with throwing fits. Everything was kept calm and quiet. And clean and orderly.

In other words, it was a place where, if you had sensory integration issues, you would feel comfortable.

Also, while there always seemed to be kids around at our house, my mom let me sequester myself in my room any time I wanted to get away from everything and everyone. She never insisted that I play with the other kids, even when people were over. I could always get away to my room, and my room was pretty much off limits to everyone if I wanted it to be.

There were also woods behind our house, and my parents would let me go out and walk around in them by myself. Dark, cool, and full of plants and small animals and streams–it was a perfect place for me to get away while still being outside.

I suspect my mother kept her house this way and was so understanding about my need to get away from others and have time to myself because I suspect she had Asperger’s herself. Unfortunately, she died in May of 2001 from mesothelioma, so she never found out I have Asperger’s and she never got to meet any of my children. I didn’t even know my wife at the time, and I suspect she wondered if I was ever going to marry and have children, seeing as I was almost 30 when she died.

I also suspect my mother’s father also had Asperger’s. He seemed to have all the traits, and in the same way that I can relate to my son best, he seemed to relate to me best among his grandchildren, and my mother best among his own children. He liked to keep things orderly and quiet, and he needed time to himself as well. And his job as Asperger’s perfect–he was a computer expert in the 1950s and ’60s!

It may be the case that my mother, because of all the inadvertent support and ideal environment she provided me, actually managed to mask most of my autistic symptoms from me and the world for a long time. The strange things I did weren’t considered strange. The home environment was ideal. Autistic behavior was practically considered normal. And I thrived.

Until after graduate school, anyway.

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Lists

Everyone is familiar with the autistic child lining up his toys or food or some other object. But did you know that making lists is a kind of “lining up”?

Well, list-making was the kind of lining up I did as a child. I made lists of sharks, drew pictures of sharks and fish in panels and labeled them (thus making visual lists), and I made lists of orchids. Whatever was my obsession at the time, I made lists of them.

But here’s the funny thing–I haven’t actually ever stopped making lists.

I have a collection of short stories I have written (only a few have been published). Half of those short stories either contain lists or are lists. More than that, today I realized that my tendency to list features or objects in my sentences is itself a form of list-making. That is, listing is part of my aesthetic!

Here are a few examples from a novel I’m currently working on:

“dressed mostly in browns, greens, grays, and black,”

“It seemed as though half the activity in the marketplace involved stealing, chasing, catching, or escaping.”

“The air was cooler than the morning before, and smelled crisp, clean and—temporarily, at least—not of manure, trash, and people’s waste.”

“They arrived at last, drawn in the last few yards by the smells of breads, sweet breads, sweet cakes, sausages, cooking meat, and spices.”

These are all kinds of “internal lists.”

So if your child likes to make lists–or if you love to make lists yourself–congratulations, you have an autistic trait. It does of course make perfect sense that listing would be one of those traits, since it is a form of lining things up. It’s just a literature lining of things up.

It might be interesting to consider the styles of certain authors and see how dominant listning is in them.

400 Distinct Autisms (and some ADD)

In complex systems, many causes can result in the same effect. This is true in social systems, neural systems, and biological systems. And we can see this in the fact that there are at least 400 distinct autisms, at least from the perspective of causes.

The above linked article also notes that one of the causes of autism is also a known cause of ADHD. It has been suggested by a friend with ADD that our daughter, Melina, might have it as well. If there is in fact a connection between ADD and certain kinds of autism, that would make sense, given my (obviously) heritable autism. There is a known protective effect from being female when it comes to autism, and it may be that ADD is what peeked out with Melina.

This points, too, to the fact that when it comes to multiple causes, we have to understand that those causes are all interacting with other causes, affecting effects. This is true in biological systems, neural systems, and social systems, equally. In other words, there could be and likely are a number of environmental factors that affect genetic expression, including degree of expression and thus severity of one’s autism.

We are fortunate that, as the above article as well as this one both point out, we are discovering just how heterogeneous autism is. What is equally interesting, though, is the degree to which that heterogeneity gives rise to similar enough outcomes that we would call them all “autism.” It will be interesting to see how the genetic differences cluster into varying behavioral groups and neural structures.

Tummy Trouble–Autism and the Gut

I read an article once that said Celiac disease is in part caused by having a leaky gut. Because I have an allergic reaction to gluten, but not full-blown Celiac disease (perhaps), I decided to look up what causes leaky gut and how to take care of the problem.

The problem: the pores are too wide.

The solution: probiotics and glutamine.

Glutamine is an amino acid related to the amino acid glutamate. For you chemistry types, the difference between the two is on the R-group. The OH on the glutamate is replaced by an amine — NH2. Glutamate is made from glutamine, and vice versa. However, it is possible for there to be a mutation on a gene that would result in an enzyme that prefers one over the other.

In some people with autism, there is very high glutamate in the brain. In fact, glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, which implicates it in IWT autism. As it turns out, such autistics not only have high glutamate, but low glutamine as well. If the body is preferentially making glutamate over glutamine, this could not only cause autistic behaviors, but leaky gut and potentially gluten allergy as well. And perhaps not just gluten allergy, since leaky gut can result in a variety of food allergies.

This glutamate-glutamine connection to autism explains why so many on the spectrum have gut problems.

The above linked article also notes that “levels of GAD 65 kDa and GAD 67 kDa proteins, both of which are involved in converting glutamate to GABA, are reduced in the brains of individuals with autism, resulting in increased levels of glutamate in the brain substrate.” Why is this important? Low GABA levels increase feelings of anxiety. Social anxiety is, of course, a main feature of autism.

Thus, a system that preferentially makes glutamate over both GABA and glutamine would, it seems, result in someone having autism. Also, it seems that eating things that could provide GABA and glutamine might reduce some of the negative behaviors associated with autism. Indeed, there does seem to be some research which suggests glutamine supplements could help.

In fact, my son and I now take glutamine if 1) our stomachs are upset and/or 2) if we anticipate eating wheat. And it works. Without it, my son will throw up when he eats wheat, but with it, he won’t even complain about his stomach hurting. Now, in case you’re wondering if there’s a placebo effect, once my son was complaining about his stomach being upset. I couldn’t find any glutamine, but found something else and told him it was glutamine. He threw up anyway. Every other time he had complained about his stomach hurting and I gave him actual glutamine, he was fine.

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.

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.