Goosebumps at the Dallas Children’s Theater

We love attending the sensory-friendly performances at Dallas Children’s Theater. We have attended since their very first sensory-friendly performance, and though we don’t go to every show, we try to attend at least several times a year.

This time we watched “Goosebumps, the Musical: The Phantom of the Auditorium.” It was probably the most complex play we’ve seen at DCT, with the possible exception of “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.” We have noticed that by taking Daniel to the theater that his theater etiquette is improving considerably, and was very well-developed this last time so that he’s sitting and quite the entire time (a few humorous asides aside). He was even annoyed that others were interrupting the play (it being a sensory-friendly performance, he was hardly the only autistic child there).

Many of the plays we have watched recently have involved magical and fantasy elements. “Goosebumps” has a ghost, “Mufaro” has several magical elements, “James & the Giant Peach” of course has the magical peach, and of course “Jack & the Beanstalk” has magic beans. These are all very troublesome to Daniel, who typically has a hard time with magical/fantasy elements because they are of course metaphorical, not literal. And he’s hyper-rational, so magic is right out.

His trouble with these elements is most obvious when the magical elements are introduced later (Mufaro) rather than being woven into the story from the beginning (James). He is always of the opinion that since this or that can’t actually happen in real life (like the singing trees in Mufaro), why would they show them on the stage, in the story? Along these same lines, his literalism tends to make it so he has a hard time understanding joking and silliness, though he is learning to understand these things through watching plays Mufaro, James, and “Frog and Toad.” Also, I am relentless in my joking and silliness with him, so now he asks me, “Are you joking?” when I am in fact joking, and then seems to (more or less) accept it when I tell him I am.

The good thing is that he seems to be getting better at accepting these elements within stories, as part of the storytelling process, as symbols for something.

While as recently as Mufaro (which we saw last Spring), Daniel was still asking questions throughout the play about what was happening, it was clear Daniel understood quite well what was happening in Goosebumps. In Goosebumps, the story is that there are these high school kids putting on a play with their theater teacher–a version of The Phantom of the Opera. Daniel immediately leaned over to his mom and said, “This is a play about another play.” He laughed, acted spooked at all the right times, and he absolutely loved the Phantom. And he’s beginning to understand how a play actually works.

Daniel and his brother and sister have a long history of putting on “plays” for their mother and me. Naturally, most of them are a collage of silliness; this last time, however, Daniel actually created a small story, did voice-over narration to set the story up, and prevented it from going on and on and on. Afterwards, he and his siblings told us to come to the living room and to bring our programs to them so they could sign them. At DCT, after each show the actors all come out and sit for pictures and signatures. The kids all get signatures and pictures; they replicated that experience here at the house.

This past performance was a real breakthrough for Daniel. He was excited to go, his stamina at the play was much better (and this was a 2 hour play), and his theater etiquette was much improved. True, he was annoyed that he could actually see the people moving the props–but this time he just leaned over and whispered about it to his mother rather than yelling out (as one child in the audience did, saying, “Hey! Where are all the actors?” during a brief scene change, which we thought was cute and funny, but which we are happy Daniel no longer does, no matter how cute and funny it can be).

And Daniel is now going even further and expanding his understanding of how theater works to understanding how films work. He understands that there has to be a writer and that the actors have to memorize the lines. He recently told me that he wants to write a future Star Wars movie, and he then went on to point out that the writer writes the words, the actors say the words, and it’s all put on film and then shown to people. This he mostly figured out on his own. As fine a summary of how to make a film as any 8-year-old could put in words.

Also, Daniel was excited to learn that there are many Goosebumps books, and he asked me to get him some. Considering the fact that he has said in the past he doesn’t like reading fiction because he doesn’t see the point in it, this is a major coup. And it’s all thanks to the theater.

Civil Rights and Mental Differences

Differences in thinking is the next area in which there needs to be social reform. We insist that people accept women, racial and ethnic minorities, gays, transgendered people, and cultural differences, but people continue to insist that everyone think exactly the same way.

I am not talking about ideology here (though there is a case to be made for more ideological heterogeneity in many situations, such as the social sciences and the humanities). No, I am talking about truly different ways of thinking — what we all too often call mental disabilities.

Of course, we once considered homosexuality as a mental illness. Sexual orientation has since been normalized. We need to do the same with a variety of mental differences, and ceasing to call them mental disabilities is a step in that direction. Of course, mental differences result in differences in behavior, the same way that differences in sexual orientation result in differences in sexual behavior. A person who has autism is going to behave differently from someone who is neurotypical, yet everyone expects people with autism to behave like everyone else, and to respond in the same way as everyone else. But those are completely unrealistic expectations.

Of course, there are degrees of autism. There are people you may not suspect of being on the spectrum (I present myself as Exhibit A), but who clearly are if you fully understand the features of autism, the behaviors that result, and the interactions with others as a result (which very few do). These — people with Asperger’s or who are mildly or moderately autistic — are people who could contribute in fantastic ways to society if just given the chance. But too many are not given the chance. Or, given a momentary chance, find themselves without a job without understanding why. Because who wants to work with the “weird” guy who (because you don’t know he’s on the spectrum) you just know can help his behavior — he just doesn’t want to, or whatever people tell themselves about people they find “strange.” And given all of the barriers our governments create to prevent people from starting new businesses (and given the fact that people on the spectrum are easily discouraged), alternatives to working for others are all too often far out of reach.

I understand this first-hand. I have had a difficult time keeping a job. On paper I look great (except to those who do not understand what they are seeing when they view my C.V.), and yet I have a hard time keeping a job. I never quite understood why, until I read a book about work and having Asperger’s. That book was practically a catalog of all the problems I had in every job I ever had. All to often I found myself without a job without understanding what happened. But now I know.

Now, you would think that knowing would help, but as it turns out, knowing you do certain things and being able to do something about it are quite different things. Imagine if in order to keep a job, it was very important that you never, ever make eye contact with anyone, and if you do, you will get a mark against you, and ten marks will get you fired. Only nobody tells you how many marks you have. This is what it’s like trying to do something unnatural, even knowing the rule. And this is why it’s important to have workplaces where people are prepared to deal with and interact with people on the spectrum.

This is important not just because only about a fourth of people on the spectrum are even working and only a fourth of those working are working full time or because people on the spectrum are almost twice as likely to get fired from a job as anyone else, but because they bring traits that ought to be of great value to a business.

People on the spectrum have a lot to offer the world, and it’s a real shame that the rest of the world is almost completely unaware of that fact. Part of it is because people are truly afraid of people who think differently than they do. It is the last allowed and allowable prejudice — to such a degree that if you tell your boss you have something like Asperger’s, you can find yourself let go. And the person won’t think anything of it. They would never fire someone because of their sex or race or sexual orientation, but if they find out you are on the spectrum, you could in fact get fired. But at the same time, if you don’t say anything, you could end up getting fired anyway because of your differences in social behavior, learning, and thinking.

We hear a lot of lip service about the importance of different kinds of thinking, of creative thinking in the work place. We need more “diverse” work places to ensure we have a more creative environment. But in fact the vast majority of businesses want nothing but identical ways of thinking, so they hire people who will fit in perfectly, provide the same ways of thinking, and not rock the boat at all. This would be fine if we did not have laws on the books that enforce this prejudice throughout society. That they target what could be some of the most intelligent, most creative people in society — in no small part because they are too often labeled as mentally disabled — is all the more shameful and harmful to society.

While I have talked mostly about autism, since I know most about it, this is also applicable to many other mental differences, from dyslexia to bipolar to schizophrenia. Many such people could be contributing members of society, if only people accepted their eccentricities more. True, at the most extreme, help (like medication may be needed by many of the kinds of people I’ve discussed here, but at the same time, one has to wonder how much better many of these people’s lives would be if we simply accepted them as they were and accepted them into society, cherishing their different ways of thinking. How many of their problems with living in society would disappear if the stigma associated with their differences in thinking were no longer stigmatized?

This is a civil rights issue. And we who are heterogeneous thinkers need to make it a civil rights issue. Like others who were Others before us, we need to stand up for ourselves and insist that we be treated like fellow human beings — albeit differently-thinking human beings. We have much to offer, and there is nothing more shameful than the fact that practically everyone keeps rejecting the gifts we offer.

Why So Many on the Autism Spectrum Are Creative

Why aren’t you a creative genius? Is it because you’re not smart enough? Perhaps you’re not crazy enough. Perhaps the problem is that you’re neither smart nor crazy enough.

According to Dean Simonton, “The most important process underlying strokes of creative genius is cognitive disinhibition—the tendency to pay attention to things that normally should be ignored or filtered out by attention because they appear irrelevant.” But that’s hardly enough. This describes the mentally ill as well, and anyone on the autism spectrum. What differentiates the inability of the merely mentally ill to filter out things from creative people is that the latter also have high I.Q.s that allow them to filter the world in a more conscious way. Of course, this also explains why so many creative people are also bipolar, schizophrenic, etc.

Given that an inability to filter out information from the world is a trait of autism, it is perhaps not surprising that so many people on the spectrum are creative. Even if high intelligence among those with ASD had the same distribution as the general population, the ASD population would have a much higher percentage of creatives, since the general population has a low percentage of people with cognitive disinhibition.

I’m a good example of this phenomenon. Little things I see, little things I hear spin out into stories and poems all the time. A fragment of conversation, an odd thing noticed out of the corner of my eye, random things which pop up in my mind, into my consciousness. I have to consciously filter out these things. Things others, apparently, filter out unconsciously.

This lack of filter means I am bombarded by sensory information and mental concepts. I can get easily distracted by them. They keep my attention. I could be mistaken for having ADD, but perhaps that’s not a mistake. Perhaps ADD is a manifestation of cognitive disinhibition — perhaps enough to create an attention deficit, but not enough to make mental illness. Again, intelligence makes the difference. Intelligence is the filtering device, what turns the noticed things into something new. The instinctive filterer is replaced by a more conscious one. But that means one has to learn how to do it.

How does one create the discipline necessary to turn one’s cognitive disinhibition into creative genius? Intelligence is not enough, though it is a necessary element. What is needed is the right environment, one which praises and values creativity. Not in an abstract way, but directly, to you, in your life. Parents telling you that your picture you drew is awesome. Teachers praising your art work and writing skills. Encouragement is positive feedback, driving you to want to turn all those little details you’ve noticed into something new for others to see. This encouragement can turn internal, acting as a self-selector, a way of concentrating those noticed bits and pieces into creative works.

The difference between madness and creative genius can often be the difference in environment, in the encouragement of others. A support network can make you become your best; the lack of one can drive you mad. The example of John Nash is apt: he was at his most creative and least mad when he had a supportive network.

Does our current culture support the creative genius? Or does it drive them underground, into the shadows, attempt to medicate them all away? Such people are disruptors of the status quo, keep the world off kilter, challenge preconceptions. Conformists cultures such as ours (being a collective guilt culture, our culture is doubly conformist) despise disruptors, challengers, creative geniuses. This is why the genius is in retreat. It is culturally rejected, denied and medicated away when possible. But without it, society will meet with stagnation, merely maintain without creating nearly as much value and wealth in the world as it would with them. Only if a creative genius happens to have the right family support can he or she develop and create. But our institutions increasingly do not support such people. In fact, too often, they actively discriminate against them. Because they do, there is less value, less wealth, less beauty in the world than there could be. All exchanged for the sake of the kind of comfort one can only have in an impossibly unchanging world.

Intense World Theory of Autism and Problems With Understanding Metaphors

Given what I have read here and there about mirror neurons, I was somewhat interested in reading Gregory Hickok’s “The Myth of Mirror Neurons.” However, after this excerpt in which he discusses autism, I am definitely going to have to get the book.

Hickok provides evidence against the idea that autism is a deficit; rather, he argues, autism is an excess. People with autism are too sensitive to sounds, touch, others’ emotions, etc. We look away from others’ eyes because the emotions there are too intensely felt by us. Indeed, I have always felt people’s presence quite intensely, and it gets to be tiring, overwhelming after a while. Of course, if you’re looking away, if you’re paying attention to everything else as much as you are paying attention to a person’s face, you are bound to miss any number of social clues.

So the Intense World Theory of autism seems to be gaining support.

But does the IWT explain things like autistic literalism and a tendency to fail to understand metaphors? Obviously, there is a logical connection between literalism and failing to understand metaphors. Even if one takes everything literally, one can eventually learn to understand metaphors — but it’s a learned skill rather than a natural one, as occurs in neurotypicals. But this still doesn’t tell us why autistic people do either one.

However, if we look to why those with autism experience an intense world, we may see why.

One feature of autistic neural structure is the overabundance of synapses. This creates a hyperconnected network with more inputs. One result is increased sensory processing — which is why many with autism don’t like being touched or are sensitive to sounds or smells or tastes. Another is that other kinds of information are processed in a way that more closely resembles how artificial neural nets (ANNs) process information and produce outputs. ANNs tend to be “hyperconnected” relative to the way real neurons are connected to each other. As a result, ANNs take longer to turn inputs into concepts, but once they do so, those concepts are much more concretized.Things are put into pretty solid categories, without much if any overlap.

To understand — and create — metaphors, there has to be conceptual overlap. At least a certain degree of it, anyway. For the neurotypical, “Achilles was a lion” evokes notions of fierceness and nobility. For an autistic, “Achilles was a lion” evokes an image of a large tan member of the cat family named “Achilles.” That is because “lion” and “a person named Achilles” are two completely separate conceptual categories. A person can’t be a cat.

This would also explain why people with autism tend to think more concretely and less abstractly. However, if one can learn certain abstractions, connections among various concepts become much clearer. Clear categories also make patterns more obvious because one sees patterns when one sees all of the distinctness of each category. Those with autism may have difficulty with metaphors (this is on some level literally that), but similes (this is like that) are another thing entirely. A simile notes both the difference and the similarity — the latter being the shared patterns. “Achilles was like a lion.” signals there is some sort of pattern shared between Achilles and lions.

Of course, all of this is conjecture. I’m noting a number of similar patterns and concluding similar things may underlie them. But I’m not sure what else makes sense if we reject the theory that autism is a deficit and, rather, is an excess of neural connections — inputs and processing.

Coincidentally, it has been suggested that Kafka had Asperger’s. The fact that he never used metaphors is highly suggestive that he indeed may have.

Empathy, Morality, and Autism

While I generally disagree with those who claim that people with autism do not have empathy, when it comes to moral decision-making, empathy not only may not be necessary but, according to Jesse Prinz, may in fact get in the way.

I have read in various places that people on the spectrum tend to be very moral. At the same time, people have tended to think of empathy and morality as being closely related. How can one be highly moral and have low empathy? That was the conundrum those who argued that autistic have low empathy had to try to work out.

While I do not agree that people with autism lack empathy, I would agree that we/they have impaired empathy. Why that is is up for debate, though I’m of the opinion that a too-intense feeling drives us away from people, impairing its proper development. It may also be possible that we engage in some degree of avoidance so we are not overwhelmed by others’ feelings.

But if Jesse Prinz is right, we might have an explanation for why it is people on the spectrum tend to be extremely moral in their actions. If empathy is not getting in the way of our moral decision-making, that would make our decisions more moral.

Of course, this separation between empathy and moral decision-making is likely to be read as cold. But if the highly empathetic morality of the inquisitioners is any indication, perhaps we need more cold morality and less warm morality in the world.

Autism is Literally Not Self-Centered

fMRI scans show striking differences between people with autism and neurotypicals.

Most notably, neurotypicals’ “thoughts of social interaction clearly included activation indicating a representation of the “self,” manifested in the brain’s posterior midline regions. However, the self-related activation was near absent in the autism group.” That is to say, the autistics did not put themselves into the given scenario. Say “hug” to a neurotypical, and they will imagine themselves getting a hug from or hugging someone; say “hug” to an autistic, and they will think of the dictionary definition of the word or envision others hugging.

This actually goes along with much of what I have written about on this blog about people on the spectrum being more external-focused. We think more about objects and ideas rather than people, because we don’t think that much about ourselves. This also makes sense of the fact that solipsists are the mental opposites of autistics; solipsists cannot differentiate the world from themselves, while autistics radically differentiate the world from themselves. At its most extreme, the latter is outright debilitating. At the same time, solipsism at its most extreme is the person so hyper-empathetic that you cannot reason with them at all. Everything is based on their feelings, or nothing.

Thus, while many people accuse those on the high functioning end of the spectrum of being self-absorbed, we can see from this research that the opposite is literally true. We don’t think of ourselves at all. Or rarely. But because we don’t think of ourselves, we don’t think that much about others, either — at least, to the degree that one has to think of oneself to think of and about others. We are great with objects, and thus we tend to gravitate toward things like math, programming, engineering, and the sciences. Those of us interested in the social sciences tend to gravitate toward things like agent-based modeling.

Why this pattern of thinking comes about is what we need to try to understand.

Larger, More Active Amygdalas, Autism, and Altruism

Discover magazine reports that extreme altruists have more active and larger amygdalas. These people are more sensitive to “fearful faces.” This heightened empathy drives their altrusim.

We also happen to know that people with autism also have more active and larger amygdalas. While some researchers, like Simon Baron-Cohen argue that people with autism are less empathetic, the research reported by Discover would seem to argue that it is not that autistic people are less empathetic, but that they are more so — so much more so that avoiding faces becomes necessary to avoid being overwhelmed.

Does this imply autistic people are necessarily more altruistic? Not necessarily. At least, not from a neurotypical person’s perspective. I do suspect, though, that perhaps people on the spectrum are more likely to be effective altruists, an idea which I find extremely attractive. Why might I think that autistics might be more likely to be effective altruists? Because we tend to be more hyper-rational and research-oriented. Thus, if and when we are altruistic, we will be more likely to embrace the effective altruism approach.

NrCAM

Neurologically, we see both increased numbers of dendritic spines and increased excitatory activities. Now a gene linking the two has been found. It is, of course, only one of many genes that can result in autism, but every advance in knowledge is good.

A connection between number of spines (meaning, number of connections) and increased excitatory activity shouldn’t be all that surprising. The more links you have in a social network, the more active you are likely to be. Too many friends, and your life can become overwhelmed. It works the same with neural networks.

It is my hope that a way can be found to reduce severe cases’ problems without reducing benefits too much.

Two Interacting Neural Systems Affect If One Is Social or Antisocial

Scientists at Caltech have discovered that there are two systems of neurons that influence whether and at what time one is either social or antisocial. Specifically, the antisocial system induces self-grooming, or repetitive behaviors.

Each system inhibits the other, so that one switches from social behaviors to antisocial behaviors. Certainly we see most people switching between these two behaviors. However, people with autism seem to have the social system turned off most of the time.

As it turns out, the social system is also an inhibitory system. It inhibits neural activity. The antisocial system is an excitatory system. It increases neural activity. In other words, this discovery supports the Intense World Theory (IWT) of autism.

The IWT says excitatory neurons are working more strongly than are the inhibitory neurons. That is, positive feedback dominates. In very social people, inhibitory neurons dominate, meaning negative feedback, meaning equilibrium dominates.

Of course, these are likely not the only inhibitory and excitatory systems in the brain. And it is likely that there will be not only other alternating systems, but also co-dominant systems. But this research provides some pretty strong evidence for why it is that excitatory dominance would result in autism.

Autistic Characters on T.V.

Although the writers of the show deny it, everyone knows Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory is on the autism spectrum–certainly Asperger’s, since he spoke early as a child. And Jim Parsons has admitted that he made the choice of performing the character as having Asperger’s. Whether the writers intended to do so or not, Sheldon is everyone’s favorite autistic character–so much so that the spinoff Young Sheldon debuted this year.

There are those who complain that on The Big Bang Theory everyone is laughing at the autistic character when everyone is complaining about or making fun of Sheldon. I don’t remember, but I suppose there were those who complained about everyone laughing at the gay characters on Will & Grace when it first debuted. Yet, the social consequences of that show for gay people cannot be understated. There is little doubt in my mind that it was responsible for the shift in support for gay marriage shifting from a clear minority position to a (just barely) majority position. Sympathetic portrayals of gay characters–and laughing at them doesn’t mean we don’t sympathize with them–changed attitudes toward gays. And sympathetic portrayals of autistic people, whether in comedies or dramas, will change attitudes toward us as well.

Of course, it would help a lot if it were 100% clear Sheldon was on the spectrum. The show’s official denial that Sheldon is on the spectrum prevents people from forming the full empathetic tie and as a result we haven’t made the same kinds of gains as gays made through Will & Grace.

That’s why I have great hopes for The Good Doctor. I just saw the first two episodes, and from the perspective of someone on the spectrum who understand the transformative power of art–being a poet, playwright, and fiction writer myself, I am optimistic.

For one, I absolutely love how the show depicts most people’s attitudes toward someone with autism. Dr. Shaun Murphy is treated absolutely terribly by almost everyone. The president of the hospital believes in Shaun, but we do not yet understand why he believes in him to the degree he does. There’s a woman on the board who supports Shaun because she supports the president, but she otherwise seems neutral about him.The only other person who treats him well actually treats him with a great deal of pity. Pity is what you feel when you think yourself superior to another person (vs. sympathy or empathy, which are more egalitarian in nature). Pretty much everyone else either dismisses him at best or are horrified at the very though of Shaun being a doctor. The surgeon to whom he’s assigned refuses to allow him to do anything other than siphon. Almost everyone dehumanizes Shaun to a degree that, I hate to say, feels exactly right.

The show also attempts to help the audience understand Shaun’s thinking, using ghost images in the background and foreground. The funny thing is, I actually do have those experiences, of literally seeing things right in front of me and moving things around to figure them out. It’s why I did spectacularly well in organic chemistry–I could see the molecules in 3D and move them around in front of me to see how they were shaped, structured, and could interact and react. So, like Shaun, I’m a strongly visual thinker. But it also seems that Shaun is a pattern thinker as well–and also like me. My experience of pattern thinking is that a series of images comes rapid-fire, one after another, literally showing me the pattern through the series of images. Again, the show does a good job of showing that kind of thinking.

Another aspect of our thinking implied by the show is that our memories are highly contextual. Meaning, we can remember things well and quickly under just the right natural prompts, but not if we’re being pressured. Demand an answer, and I may not be able to draw the memory to the surface to answer you. At the very least, it might take a while. Also, depending on how complex the question is, it may take a while for the images to stop coming and for us to reformulate them into words to answer. Thus, the awkward pauses and long delays (seconds seem forever when you’re used to an immediate response). Again, from my perspective, the show does a good job of getting these things right and of creating scenarios that communicate those kinds experiences to a neurotypical audience.

Let’s face it, these shows are never going to make everyone happy. There are a variety of autistic experiences–some are more musical, some are more visual, some are more pattern thinkers, some are savants, most are not, most are high-functioning, some are not–so we shouldn’t dismiss what’s being depicted on the show just because it doesn’t perfectly match our own experiences. We should be surprised it that were in fact the case. More, the depiction of people different from us helps us to develop empathy for those others. And that can and should include depictions of other kinds of autistic experiences.

Speaking of savants, it is said in The Good Doctor that Shaun is a savant. But his depiction is, quite frankly, simply that of a rather run-of-the-mill high-functioning autistic. Due to his experiences, he became hyperfocused on anatomy and physiology and thus became a doctor. Becoming an expert in one’s obsessions is one of the primary traits of those with Asperger’s or who are otherwise high-functioning autistics. And the way his memory works seems rather run-of-the-mill autistic, as noted above. But then again, I have a Ph.D. in the humanities and I public peer reviewed papers on the different kinds of spontaneous orders, so what do I know about being run-of-the-mill? (Maybe more than most realize.)

To wrap up, let’s return to Sheldon Cooper. After all, there is a new show depicting the character: Young Sheldon. It’s pretty cute, and while there’s no mention of his being anywhere on the spectrum (there wouldn’t have been much awareness of it in 1989, when the show begins, since Asperger’s works weren’t translated into English until the mid 1990’s, meaning nobody could have diagnosed him with Asperger’s), it seems the writers are giving several nods in that direction. In one scene, there is a good depiction of Sheldon’s anxiety about being outside. In another, it is shown that Sheldon has perfect pitch. Why does that matter? Because there has been shown to be a strong correlation between having perfect pitch and autism traits. Some even claim a 100% correlation. If the latter is the case, then whether the writers intend Sheldon to be on the autism spectrum or not, Sheldon is on the spectrum.