Autism and Our Anti-Hierarchical World

One of the main features of autism is the lack of a foreground/periphery differentiation. This is particularly noticeable in hearing, since we can become overwhelmed by background noises which we cannot filter out in order to focus on the foreground. For most people it is an automatic, natural thing to filter out the background and focus on what you want to hear—typically whoever is talking to you. However, people with autism get everything at once.

However, this is also true with vision. We are easily distracted by things in our peripheral vision, causing us to look around, glance at everything. This is easily taken as attention deficit, but what it is in fact is attention to too many things at once. At its worst, it can be overwhelming. And it’s at least annoying to anyone you’re speaking to, who is expecting you to look at them the entire time.

What this means is that on the sensory level, people with autism do not differentiate between the center and the periphery, the foreground and the periphery. That is, we quite literally do not create a hierarchy in our hearing or our vision.

This inability to recognize hierarchy extends beyond the sensory. I believe that people with autism are naturally egalitarian in nature precisely because we simply cannot create the hierarchies in the first place. One result of this is a refusal to recognize work hierarchies — people on the spectrum are infamous for treating their bosses like their coworkers. This makes sense if there is something about the autistic brain that refuses to either create or recognize hierarchy.

If this is true, it makes sense of some comments that were made about some characters I had created for a novel I was writing for a novel writing class. I had a husband and wife in the novel, and people — both men and women — complained that they couldn’t tell who was “in charge” in the relationship. Consider the fact that this was a graduate level novel writing class, meaning pretty much everyone in there was left of Stalin, and you can see how deeply ingrained the typical person’s thinking is in hierarchy. I created a truly equal relationship, and egalitarian leftists objected! My thinking was able to create a truly egalitarian relationship, and nobody liked that fact.

In fact, I can think of any number of times when my refusal to recognize hierarchies of any kind created problems. Yet, at the same time, it means I refuse to treat women as unequal to men in any way, and it means I refuse to differentiate among races, ethnicity, etc. The poor and the wealthy, the weak and the powerful are all the same to me. Perhaps it is because I simply can’t differentiate among them.

Of course, this equally suggests that neurotypical people simply cannot help but to differentiate among people, to place people into hierarchies. It is a struggle for neurotypicals to recognize scale free networks, to think of men and women as equal, to not think in racial and ethnic terms, of people as unequal by any number of measures. This explains why they think social orders can be turned into hierarchical organizations, and why they think it’s desirable to do so.

Human Universals and Autism

There are many myths out there about people on the autism spectrum. A recent one I experienced involved an argument that because people on the spectrum aren’t naturally social, being social isn’t a human universal (since “universal” means everyone does it — more on that, momentarily). One could make the argument that, because people on the spectrum tend to have opposite tendencies to neurotypicals, the existence of autism either proves that human universals are, at best, only quasi-universal, or people on the spectrum should not be properly considered “human.”

The latter option is nauseous, and the former option I reject. And I reject it because the assumption regarding people on the spectrum is wrong. People with autism are not naturally anti-social. Quite the contrary. There is a strong desire to be social — only, there are extreme difficulties in actually being social, in doing the right things, in communicating (literally, or properly). If the human universal involves wanting to be social to any degree whatsoever, then sociality is a human universal, since people on the spectrum do in fact want to be social to at least some degree.

Another example one could raise is the fact that neurotypical humans tend to engage in top-down thinking. Is this a human universal? Probably. Does the fact that autistics are dominated by bottom-up thinking disprove this universal? Not at all. Neurotypicals can in fact engage in bottom-up thinking, and autistics can in fact engage in top-down thinking. There is a range of which tendency dominates. It is a natural variation, and there is no one who cannot do both, even if one or the other is preferred.

I leave aside the fact that when dealing with complex entities, you have to have a somewhat fuzzier definition of “universal.” The fact that there are people who are born without legs does not mean humans are not universally bipedal, and the fact that there are people born without a moral compass (sociopaths) does not mean humans are not universally moral or share a universal moral system. To avoid the problem, one could perhaps argue more for “cultural universals” rather than “human universals,” but this really says practically the same things, since humans are always already social. Even sociopaths most of the time pretend to abide by the morals of the society into which they are born. And sometimes pretending is enough.

Indeed, people on the spectrum spend a great deal of time learning how to pretend to act “normal.” But this normal is really just part of a spectrum of behaviors and ways of thinking that lie outside the existence of the kinds of universals of which I speak. Indeed, some things — like rituals — are even more strongly desired by autistics than neurotypicals. No one would argue that ritual isn’t a human universal because neurotypicals are less attracted to them than are autistics.

How to Catch a Moth

There is a moth in my house.

It’s a small, brown moth, flutters slow and awkward–and last night, after getting up to complain he couldn’t go to sleep, Daniel decided he wanted to catch it.

Daniel, by the way, believes that if a moth touches you, it’s lucky.

I have no idea where he got that idea.

Because Daniel wanted to catch the moth, he wanted to know what they eat. I told him, “Clothes. So if you wake up with no shorts, you’ll know what happened.”

Daniel looked down at his shorts–which is all he was wearing to bed–and then rummaged around in his pockets. The next thing I saw was Daniel following the moth around the living room, holding out a string.

Bonus points if you can figure out what he was trying to do with that string.

Executive Functioning, Creativity, and Autism

New research has shown that creativity mostly takes place in the cerebellum, while the executive functioning of the frontal lobe actually restricts creativity.

One of the features of autism (and ADD/ADHD) is impaired executive functioning. Among the things executive functioning does, according to Web MD:

  • Manage time
  • Pay attention
  • Switch focus
  • Plan and organize
  • Remember details
  • Avoid saying or doing the wrong thing
  • Do things based on your experience

When your executive functioning is impaired, you have difficulty with the above abilities. I recently wrote about the problems people with autism have with the last one on the list. The inability to make use of prior knowledge, then, is an executive functioning problem. While this seems to contradict my claims in the previous post, the place where concepts are formed — the hippocampus — is also a place where executive functioning takes place. And there are impairments with the hippocampus in those with autism — in particular, there are issues with oxytocin, about which I have written before. And as we have seen before, GABA is also involved. Those “unwanted” thoughts are the source of creativity.

All of this points to a brain that is structurally and biochemically different from more typical brains. And the connection between executive functioning and creativity also explains why autistic people tend to be very creative.

Increased Neural Connections and Autism

There’s more evidence that an increased number of neural connections is associated with autism. One wishes these researchers understood network theory better, because then they would understand that increased neural connections cause positive feedback; and if they understood positive feedback, they would then understand autistic behaviors a great deal better.

Also, children under the age of two have a great many more neural connections than do children older than two. That’s because, at around two, there is massive neural pruning, including of connections and cells themselves. May it be that autistics are essentially neurologically two years old? Or, sometimes, younger?

There is an evolutionary process called neoteny, which may go a ways toward explaining what is happening with the emergence of autism in the human population. It has been theorized that humans are neotenous apes. That is, we retain infant traits while sexually maturing. There’s a great deal of evidence for this, from the turn of toes to the slant of our vaginas to the angle of the neck entering the skull and the flatness of our faces. Could it be that autism is another neotenous step?

GABA and Unwanted Thoughts

New research shows that the neurotransmitter GABA, which has been connected to autism, is involved in the production of unwanted thoughts. Specifically, hippocampal GABA (would anyone be surprised to learn the hippocampus is also involved in autism?).

“Our ability to control our thoughts is fundamental to our wellbeing,” explains Professor Michael Anderson from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge. “When this capacity breaks down, it causes some of the most debilitating symptoms of psychiatric diseases: intrusive memories, images, hallucinations, ruminations, and pathological and persistent worries. These are all key symptoms of mental illnesses such as PTSD, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety.”

I have always had a hard time suppressing thoughts, and I have been known to go over and over and over and over and over situations, replaying them and thinking of everything I could have and should have said. You may note other typically autistic symptoms in Dr. Anderson’s list, most notably anxiety.

The inability to control one’s thoughts is likely related to the weak executive functioning we on the spectrum have as well. After all, weak executive functioning makes it hard to not only control one’s thoughts, but to control expressing those same thoughts. While they may be two different systems, would it be surprising if it were found they were connected?

Problems With Concept Formation May Be Central in Autism

From my reading and my own experiences, I have developed a theory of autism in which concept formation difficulties is central. I have discussed these things in various posts, including here and here and here. Now there is strong evidence for this theory in some recent research.

According to Zaidel, the new study provides support for the idea that people with autism are highly sensitive to incoming sensory information. Moreover, he suggests, they are predisposed toward relying more highly on external stimulation – with less use of prior knowledge – when interpreting the world around them.

“Our results suggest that people with autism may experience a deficiency in what are known in the scientific literature as Bayesian priors – the ability to draw on existing knowledge to understand what we see and to predict what we will see in the near future,” Zaidel says. “If you’re more heavily weighted toward perceiving the world bottom up – from stimulus to perception – and relying less on rules of thumb from prior knowledge, perception will be both more taxing, and more sensitive to sensory noise.”

In other words, those with autism are taking in information and trying to make sense of that information. If there is a concept available with which to relate the new information, everything is just fine. But if not, it creates confusion and frustration. Imagine being faced with what to you is “new information” all the time. Being presented with new information you don’t really know how to integrate can be frustrating — just ask any student learning new things. Now imagine that your everyday experience is like that.

The farther along the spectrum one is, the more difficult it is to create concepts — and therefore, the more severe the symptoms. It will be hard to verbalize what you cannot fully conceive. Thus language delays in non-Asperger’s autistics. And we must not forget that instincts are concepts with which we are born. Fewer instincts in those with autism would seem to point to a general problem with creating concepts, including those with which we are born.