Sheep Go To Heaven, Goats Go To Hell

What constitutes the “social awkwardness” of those with autism? I have discussed how autistics’ discomfort with lying can lead to socially awkward situations, but there is another thing I have noticed by observing my son and reflecting on what I know both through experience with and through reading about autism that definitely leads people to consider autistics as socially awkward.

Neurotypicals are naturally social, and the reason they are naturally social is that they are uncomfortable unless they are conforming to the group they are in. If you are a Catholic, you would feel uncomfortable not kneeling to pray when everyone else is. Or pick any social situation and refuse to do what everyone else is doing — that anxiety you feel is how people with autism feel in pretty much any social situation. Neurotypicals of course know how to solve the problem: conform. Conforming does not solve the problem for autistics.

More, autistics don’t feel the need to conform. We will join in if we want to join in — or we will not join in if we don’t want to join in. How is this going to be perceived by neurotypicals? As socially awkward behavior. Neurotypicals think everyone should conform because, after all, if they are uncomfortable not conforming, then others must be as well. This feeling gets transferred into a social rule (sometimes into an explicitly moral rule), and those who do not conform are at best perceived as socially awkward, at worst as not being a member of the social group at all. Yet, this failure to conform may be a source of a great deal of social change. How many cultural changes have been made because someone with autism did something different? Perhaps more often than we realize.

Someone with autism is going to only do something if he or she wants to do it. There is no social pressure felt by them. They may try something everyone else is doing, simply to see what it’s about, and if they like doing it, they will continue doing it, but if they don’t like doing it, they simply won’t do it. Like everyone else, though, they aren’t likely to merely say they aren’t doing it because they don’t want to; rather, they are likely to rationalize it after the fact, declare it “stupid” or “irrational.” It’s likely neither irrational nor stupid (from a cultural standpoint), but rarely do people allow you to say outright that you don’t like something because you simply don’t like it. They demand a reason, and in the end, you will get one — though it may be expressed in a “socially awkward” fashion.

So it seems to me that autistics’ tendency to not conform would be interpreted by neurotypicals as being “socially awkward” behavior. However, it might be the very behavior that makes us question what we are doing, and which can sometimes lead to cultural changes and social transformation.

Social Awkwardness, Bottom-Up Thinking, and Learning

If you really understand the difference between top-down and bottom-up learning and thinking, you can begin to understand much of what is happening with people with autism. And the more bottom-up the learning and thinking, the slower learning is going to take place.

Those who are top-down learners and thinkers typically only have to experience something once or twice before they “have it.” For example, a top-down thinker only has to experience a social situation once or twice for that social experience to be generalizable to other, similar social situations. However, bottom-up learners have to have many more such experiences before they can become generalizable. Thus, oftentimes, a social situation is experienced as being completely new, even if it is similar to other social situations experienced in the past.

Let us say that we have a bottom-up thinker for whom 10 similar social experiences are needed before those experiences can be generalized into similar experiences so that the 11th experience is familiar enough for the person to have a proper response to that experience. If it is a common experience, such as a daily school routine, those ten experiences will accumulate fairly quickly, and the person in question will soon know how to properly respond to that situation. If this person is fortunate enough to have someone around who can point out that certain social situations are in fact similar, he might even be able to learn more quickly (since bottom-up thinkers are also more explicit learners). But if the social situation is a rarer one, the bottom-up thinker might not learn how to negotiate such situations for a decade or more. And, of course, if some situation is spaced out enough, it might take more than the typical ten times for the patterns to become apparent.

Worse, imagine this same person is working at a job, and he has the social experience of someone failing to do their job in a timely manner, which is required for him to do his job. The top-down thinker will maybe get burned by this situation once or twice before they learn the proper thing to do in such a situation. The bottom-up thinker will, given the one we have posited here, get burned ten times before he learned the right thing to do. What are the odds he will have gotten fired before then?

Many top-down thinkers will have learned most social rules by their early twenties. However, bottom-up thinkers may take years or decades more to learn those same rules. The former will thus be more likely to keep their jobs for long periods of time; if not the first job or two, certainly the second or third. The latter, however, will be faced with the same situations in more and more jobs, and fail to understand they are really facing the same situation each time. Thus you can end up with someone in their forties not understanding a social situation that they “should have” learned by the time they were twenty. How stable will that person’s work history be? Not very.

The most extreme bottom-up thinkers are those on the autism spectrum. The more bottom-up a thinker is, the more severe that person’s autism will be (or vice versa). All learning will be slower, but social learning will be particularly slow, because social situations cannot typically be repeated as often as can facts. Learning language is going to be equally slow, because words have to be associated with concrete reality, and words have to be repeated in their proper context, for the autistic person to learn those words. Learning words is, after all, a negotiation between the empirical world and mental abstractions. More, grammatical structures being learned more explicitly than implicitly is going to slow down language learning for those who are bottom-up language learners. This style of learning — bottom-up, explicit learning — is what makes social learning so slow and difficult for people with autism. Without accommodations for that, people with autism are going to continue to have problems in life and work.

Questions, Questions, Questions!

Daniel loves to ask lots of questions. Especially when we’re in the van. That’s when there is an almost constant barrage of questions.

“Why are basking sharks called basking sharks?”

“Do tiger sharks like people?”

“What’s the world’s fastest shark?”

You may have guessed that Daniel’s into sharks. As was I when I was about his age, perhaps a bit older. So when I noticed he was getting more and more and more into sharks, I got him a Sharks of the World, which I will have to admit was about 30% for me. Past obsessions are really never past.

Daniel never quite got as into dinosaurs as I did, but he’s definitely as into sharks as I was. And he’s also into plants. He has several plants filling his window sill, much as I did when I was, again, a little older than him. It seems that, having skipped dinosaurs, Daniel has followed my path of interests when I was a child. Yet, I’ve neither encouraged nor discouraged his obsessions (not that you can do that with someone who is autistic anyway). Are autistic obsessions heritable?

Asking questions about one’s obsessions–or sharing one’s obsessions with others, if one is confident enough in one’s knowledge–is a major way we on the spectrum connect with others. I happen to still remember a great deal about sharks, so when Daniel asks questions, I usually have answers. Also, there’s the internet, which acts as a bonding center. (Speaking of which, I’ll need to find time today to look up facts on basking sharks, since he’s been asking me to do that with him.)

Yet, as you grow older, you become more and more aware of the fact that asking incessant questions and giving lectures on your latest obsession is generally not socially acceptable. Even if you attend a conference on your obsession, it turns out that between sessions, most people want to chit-chat and gossip rather than to continue discussing the cool new ideas you just learned about. So what do you do? You mostly learn to just shut up. And then you’re in a situation where you desperately want to talk to people (about your favored topic), but you know nobody wants to hear about it, so you just end up standing around, awkwardly making people feel uncomfortable.

Think about what it would be like for you if, every time you came home from work, you wanted to talk about work, and your spouse told you that he or she didn’t want to hear about work, that it gets on their nerves every time you “obsessed” about work. After a while, you would just come home and not say much of anything. But since work is 8 hours of your day, it’s a major set of events in your life, and you want to talk to someone else about your experiences and problems and triumphs, so where does that leave you? What kind of relationship would you end up having with your spouse?

I don’t think we would call the spouse who wants to talk about his or her day at work “socially awkward.” Wouldn’t we instead blame the one who doesn’t want to hear about the other’s workday?

To someone on the spectrum, one’s obsessions are one’s “workday.” It’s what we think about, it’s what we care about, it’s what dominates our days and our thinking and likely whatever work we do (officially or unofficially). So while I couldn’t care less about Minecraft, I provide at least a little time to listen and look at what Daniel did. And not just Daniel of course–I also have two other children, and they (along with Daniel) love to draw or (in the case of the youngest, Dylan, and Daniel both) ask incessant questions about Star Wars characters.

We all do these things, but most people seem more willing to indulge in stories about how the workday went, but not in dissertations on sharks, orchids, or self-organizing network processes. If we were so indulged, you may find us to be a little less socially awkward.

Oxytcin and Autism

A recent finding on oxytocin is of great interest to many with ASD.

It seems that “A pair of researchers, one in Israel the other in the Netherlands has found that volunteers given oxytocin tend to be more willing to lie if it benefits a group they belong to.” Now consider the fact that there seems to be less oxytocin in those with autism than in neurotypicals. This would suggest that those with autism are less willing to lie, even if it benefits the group to which they belong. This would of course be interpreted as “social awkwardness” by those for whom it is natural to lie to benefit their group (such as their family). The neurotypicals in the autistic person’s group are wondering, “Why wouldn’t you back me up on that?” while the autistic person is saying, “But I was only telling the truth.”

Oxytocin is an interesting molecule. It is the trust molecule. It is a love molecule. And it is a divisive molecule. Specifically, it seems to be a strongly in-group molecule. The kind of trust it fosters, for example, is among those within your group. Those with autism are trusting — but they/we are typically trusting of everyone. We don’t in-group, out-group (that is, unless we are specifically taught to be, we tend to be naturally non-racist, non-sexist, etc.). Which, for all the benefits lost with lower oxytocin, is something I would consider a significant gain.

A Personal Tale of How the Intense World Feels from the Inside

I think there is little doubt that autism runs in my family, and that the kind of autism we have is best described by the intense world theory. The dominance of positive feedback in our neural systems goes a long way toward explaining a large number of traits, including my being mildly bipolar. Another thing that happens to me on occasion also now makes sense in the light of the intense world theory. Every so often my skin becomes hypersensitive. Some times it is more intense than others. Often, my joints and muscles ache and my mind is racing — I cannot remain asleep for more than a half hour at a time — and I become ravenously hungry, but then be able to satiate that hunger with, say, a handful of chips. Everything moves at top speed in me. After a few days, it will subside.

This makes perfect sense with the intense world theory of autism. When positive feedback dominates, the system in question cycles. This is true of any scale free network process, including neural networks. There are times when I don’t feel very much; but most of the time the cycles are subtle enough that they are not all that noticeable. However, sometimes those cycles run amok, and the intensity increases and increases. There is eventually a crash back to normal, but the period of intensity can be a bit much.