A Literature of Autism for Empathy-Creation

On one of my other blogs, Interdisciplinary World, I wrote about a CNN article that discusses some of the more recent work that has been done on the connection between fiction and empathy-creation. This connection suggests several things to me regarding the gulf between autistic and neurotypical people.

One of these is perhaps very obvious, which is that autistic people need to read more fiction, and neurotypical people need to read/view more fiction with autistic characters. What is perhaps less obvious is that autistic people don’t actually seem to read much fiction or be all that interested in it (perhaps because too many works of fiction do not have many characters to which they can connect). Further, there is probably not a lot of fiction out there with explicitly autistic characters.

This means that autistic people cannot create the anchor needed to become interested in fiction and thus be exposed to other minds than theirs, and neurotypical people cannot delve into the fictional minds of autistic characters to develop empathy for them.

Meaning, we need a literature of autism. Or, at the very least, a reading list of autistic authors and fiction with autistic characters. Anyone care to contribute to creating that list?

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Daniel’s Nomination Speech

The entire 2nd grade class at Arapaho Classical Magnet is going to elect a president for the entire 2nd grade class. Each class has nominated a person, and next a second round of speeches will result in all the 2nd graders voting for a class president. Any student who wanted to participate could do so.

Daniel came home very excited. He said that he had an opportunity to give a speech to his class and he wanted to give a speech on sharks. It was a few days before we found out that the speech was to get his classmates to vote to nominate him for their class. When we told him what the speech was really about, and that he couldn’t just give a speech about anything he wanted, he lost all interest in giving it.

Fortunately, Anna pushed him to write and give his speech anyway. He had been so excited to give it, and we were excited that he wanted to do it, but Daniel didn’t want anything to do with the speech afterwards. So Anna proposed that Daniel could make his platform about getting his teachers to teach more about sharks during 2nd grade.

Naturally, this would seem to be the perfect solution. But equally naturally, nothing is going to be quite as clear-cut with Daniel. “What if the teachers show a video about a shark eating a dolphin? Then they’ll just hate sharks more!” I managed to persuade Daniel that it wasn’t likely they would show a video like that if they taught more about sharks. Satisfied, he agreed to write a speech encouraging people to vote for him on the platform that he would get the teachers to teach more about sharks.

Anna sat with him and helped him with the speech. It was a negotiation between informing people about sharks and trying to get people to vote for him.

The teacher recorded Daniel giving his speech.

It will probably not surprise anyone that he didn’t win on an all-shark platform. However, we are very proud that he actually wrote his speech–the longest thing he ever wrote–and gave his speech in front of the class. It was no small thing for him to do.

Daniel Wins the Fantastic Falcon Award for Exhibiting Compassion

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Today Daniel’s teacher awarded him the Fantastic Falcon Award for Exhibiting Compassion during the 3rd quarter. Every quarter each class at Arapaho Classical Magnet gives out non-academic awards to students for things like helpfulness, compassion, and resilience. In the past the awards were less specific, meaning the teachers could interpret the awards however they wanted. This time, they gave out two, with the specific criteria of compassion and resilience.

I’m guessing one would have a hard time convincing Daniel’s teacher that he doesn’t have empathy!

A Pathological Look at Neurotypical Behavior

When you read about autism, you typically read about it as a pathology. Autistic people are viewed as being normal people with pathological deviations from the norm. Every so often you will come across an article that delineates a few of the special abilities of people on the spectrum, but even in doing so, it comes across as “well, at least there are a few positive things that come out of this tragedy.”

Autism is a structural variation in the brain’s architecture that gives rise to differences in processing and in different abilities. One may even argue that it gives rise to a different kind of mind. The vast majority of those people are in the “mild” end of the spectrum, though a great deal of focus is on the “extreme” end, with those who often cannot speak and seem to be particularly mentally disabled. This focus further pathologizes the spectrum precisely because it does not fully or even properly represent the reality for most people with autism.

To fully understand my point, I want to treat those not on the spectrum as though autism were the norm and what we now call neurotypical behavior were the minority. That is, I want to treat neurotypical people the way they treat people on the autism spectrum, from the perspective of someone on the spectrum. Because, from our point of view, you are full of deficits.

The Pathology

Irrational behaviors are one of the primary aspects of neurotypical people. Very often decisions are made without a great deal of thought or, certainly, research. This is especially true when it comes to their opinions. Whereas a sensible autistic person will do a great deal of research before developing an opinion or coming up with a proposed solution, neurotypicals have been observed to have an immediate opinion on things without, apparently, knowing the first thing about the topic. This is different from the kinds of errors autistics make from managing to miss something in their extensive research; rather, the neurotypicals carelessly won’t do any research at all before making a decision. And if they do any research, it will be at best a truncated version, as if they are impatient to come up with any answer at all rather than to make sure they have the right one.

It seems that a strong reliance on emotions is a typical reason for this immediate, almost knee-jerk, way of making a decision. As a result, it is not uncommon for them to agree with a solution that sounds good, sometimes regardless of the overwhelming evidence against the proposal, rather than something that has a track record of actually working. This seems to especially be the case in the areas of economics, the social sciences, and government. While this same tendency does allow them to respond more quickly to others, sometimes that is done at the expense of properly assessing the social situation. Fortunately, they do seem to have a particularly strong ability to make that proper assessment, so we must admit that in this particular case their pathological tendency toward immediate conclusions is often beneficial.

Having said that, there are some very strong negatives of that ability that seem to be combined with a kind of empathy that makes them more likely to identify more with people like themselves than with different people. While we autistics have a tendency to not be judgmental or biased, neurotypicals are terribly judgmental and biased. They judge people on things like race, sex, gender, deviations from the way they themselves think, culture, religion, and pretty much any difference one could possibly imagine, often to the point of hating members of other groups. Some autistics who have been raised with these people have learned these behaviors themselves, even though they are not typical to us. This makes associating with neurotypicals potentially dangerous, unless we remain on our guard against their biases.

This note on this particular moral deficit brings me to the topic of the large number of moral deficits commonly associated with neurotypicals. They have an under-developed sense of loyalty, and many do not seem to show any degree of loyalty at all. Further, they seem willing to lie about just about everything. The primary use of language for them seems to be to lie to each other. They will tell each other they look nice when they don’t; they will say one thing to one person, and another to another; they will backstab; they will tell their friends they are right when they know their friends are wrong. I could go on and on with the ways they lie to everyone.

They will also exaggerate and say things they don’t really mean. They will sometimes use words to mean completely different things. For example, I recently heard one of them say, “Give me a smack.” Which seems an odd request. But then I saw their neurotypical partner give them a kiss in response. How strange to ask for the opposite of a kiss and then to get a kiss! As a result, it can be very frustrating to deal with neurotypicals. You never know if they really mean what they are saying, you do not know if you can ever really trust them, and if you make the mistake of thinking they think the way you think, you will too often find yourself screwed over without your understanding what just happened.

Another odd behavior neurotypicals exhibit is their habit of “small talk.” From what we can tell, small talk appears to be talking just for the sake of talking. A “how are you doing” results in the same non-answer of “fine.” It seems unlikely everyone everywhere at all times is truly “fine,” so it seems that that is a non-answer to what is in fact a non-question. It has been observed that if you give an actual answer to the question, the questioner gets frustrated and impatient, as though they are annoyed that you would actually answer them. A whole conversation can actually go on like that, with general questions giving rise to pat answers so that you could actually change out any pair of people and you would end up with the same conversations each time. The vast majority of their conversations are not about anything of any substance, and, again, they seem positively annoyed if you try to engage them in such a conversation. As a group neurotypicals seem positively frivolous most of the time.

This frivolity extends to their work. They treat work as a social experience rather than as work. They don’t seem to treat work seriously or to engage in it with the kind of attention we autistics do. How any of them can keep a job is a mystery. Perhaps their ability to lie to their bosses and to pretend deference to them is what keeps them employed despite their inherent laziness. They also do have a tendency to do things exactly as they are told to do them rather than to find new ways of doing things. While one could view this as a lack of creativity on their part, in many cases it is useful to have a group of people who will unquestioningly do what they are told. If you can keep them from wasting their time socializing, businesses could make good use of this tendency to conform and engage in groupthink.

How It Feels to Be Made a Problem

I’m guessing you didn’t like the above description of yourself. You no doubt agree with many of the things listed, that they are all-too-often traits of the typical person. And no doubt many of you have made positive efforts to overcome those things—especially such things as racism and sexism. Indeed, we on the autism spectrum also make an effort to overcome what are perceived to be deficits. And yet, there are no doubt things I discussed above that you would argue are unusual, to say the least, interpretations of your behaviors. Well, guess what? That’s how we feel about many of the things we read about people with autism.

For example, we read that we do not have empathy or a theory of mind. That’s utterly ridiculous to us. We fully understand you have a mind—we just treat you like you have a mind like our minds, which results in a number of errors on our part. But guess what? You do exactly the same thing. You treat us as though we ought to have your mind, and when we obviously do not, you actually go so far as to declare that we don’t have a theory of mind! In the past people used to dehumanize others from other races and cultures using exactly this same logic. Since the person from the other culture does not act like us, they must not be human like us. We now know this to be untrue—and to be outright racist—but this way of thinking still manages to creep into studies of people with autism.

Yes, there are studies of young children involving hiding a toy, removing the child who saw where the toy was hidden, then moving the toy elsewhere and bringing the child back in where the young autistic children do not properly recognize who knows what, but where are the studies of older children and even adults? Why is it that we autistic adults don’t make this mistake? Could it be that the development of this ability is simply delayed rather than absent? Indeed, I see a great deal of evidence that people with autism have a tendency to have to learn through direct instruction many more things than do neurotypical people, who seem to have a large number of instincts that allow them to learn certain things more quickly. This is a difference in learning, not necessarily a disability or pathology. It is slower, but more accurate. As with anything, there are tradeoffs.

Finally, I want you to consider something else we autistic are always hearing. Given the negative aspects of neurotypicals listed above, what would you think of calls to fix you? From an autistic’s perspective, you would be much better people if you were more autistic. You would lie less, be less biased and judgmental, and be less frivolous. You would waste less time at work and get more work done. You would say what you mean and mean what you say. From our perspective, life would be much better for you if you were more like us. Now how does that make you feel? I can describe you as a pathology, as a problem that needs to be fixed. I am certain you didn’t like it one bit. Well guess what? Neither do we. If people would spend more time talking to us rather than studying us as some sort of black box that can only be understood by external observation of our behaviors, you may have known that by now.

Different Isn’t Worse

People with autism aren’t broken normal people. We are different. Our brains have different architectures, different biochemistry. It is driven by differences in our genes. All of which give rise to a different way of thinking and thus to different minds. Some of our minds are closer to neurotypical minds than others. It is a spectrum, after all. And some people with autism are definitely disabled when it comes to living in the neurotypical world. But then, there are extreme examples of the neurotypical mind as well—people who are pathological liars, people without morals, people who cannot seem to tell the difference between themselves and the external world. The difference is that they are closer to you, and thus seem more normal to you. To me, a man whose autism would be considered “mild,” those with severe autism seem more normal. I get how they are thinking. It is different, not wrong. And if people were more accepting of those differences, I would predict that many of our extreme negative traits would lessen considerably. We are frustrated, and that frustration comes out in a variety of negative ways. But then, consider what would happen if everyone treated you as a disease needing to be cured and not as someone who needed to be truly understood in the least?

Coming to this understanding between autistics and neurotypicals matters. Given the negative social consequences felt by pretty much everyone on the autism spectrum, we can only conclude that autism is one of the last ways of being human for which it is still completely acceptable by everyone to discriminate against. We are punished in the schools, discriminated against there, with the result that only around half graduate high school. Those who go to college don’t do much better. And even if, like me, one not only graduates from college but gets graduate degrees, one finds upon graduation that the work world is almost completely hostile to you. Not because we can’t do the work—because not only can we do the work, we will likely do it better than the average neurotypical person—but because we don’t interview well, we don’t acknowledge hierarchies, we are blunt, we come across as arrogant, and we aren’t social in typical ways.

I wrote this piece in order to help the average person understand what it’s like to be treated as a pathology. It can just as easily be done to you as it has been done to us. Does that mean you are a problem that needs to be fixed? Or does that mean we ought to be considered fellow human beings whose minds are part of the natural variation among human beings, whose contributions to society are vital for social health? We correctly recognize that acceptance of cultural, ethnic, racial, and sexual diversity results in a healthy society. Perhaps we can one day soon include different ways of thinking, different kinds of mind as well.

Neurotypicals Have a Communication Disorder

I generally disdain the very idea that ignorance is bliss, but I may have come across an example of where it is most definitely true.

It is one thing to have everyone constantly misunderstand you and misinterpret what you do or say, but it is quite another to understand that everyone is doing that while also knowing there is almost nothing you can do about it. How do you control unconscious behaviors? If someone brings your attention to them, you can practice not doing them, but even that will only get you so far when it’s a natural reaction to you.

It is remarkably easy for someone on the spectrum to get into the flow state. The flow state is one where you are mentally completely committed to what you are doing. The rest of the world drops away when you are in this state. And for me at least, it is a state of happiness.

Pop my bubble, and I can literally feel my brain cringe in annoyance. I may then immediately appreciate your popping my bubble (if, say, the house is on fire), but you’re still going to get a flash of annoyance from me. I cannot help it. And even having it pointed out to me that I flash annoyance at you probably won’t do anything to help me fix it. It’s a gut reaction.

In the past, if you popped my flow state bubble, that was guaranteed to result in me having a meltdown and chewing you out. The fact that I have moved from that reaction to a momentary flash of annoyance means I have in fact improved in my reactions. I am sure my wife appreciates the fact that I had stopped having the strong reaction years before I met her. But I’m equally sure I have annoyed her with my look of annoyance at being brought back to the real world.

The problem is that people don’t understand why I have the reaction I do, and they misinterpret it to mean that I’m annoyed at them. I’m not. I’m momentarily annoyed I was broken out of the flow state. If they did it to help me, I’m grateful and appreciative–and I try to let that be known. But all too often people care only about the nonverbal communication and not the verbal one. I cannot help the former one, and the latter one is always going to be honest. But people take it the opposite way.

Because of this, autism is considered to be a “communication disorder.” However, if I was in a flow state and I was brought out of it by someone on the spectrum, they would understand my look. And they would accept my expression of appreciation as honest. We would communicate to each other quite clearly. It becomes disordered when it takes place between an autistic and a neurotypical person. And the disorder works both ways. To me, neurotypical people have a communication disorder. They do not communicate well, or even honestly, most of the time. You think you’ve smoothed things over with them, and they are still harping on it the next day. I supposed they communicate clearly enough to each other, but to me, they can’t communicate jack squat most of the time.

If I weren’t completely aware of all of this, life would perhaps be less frustrating. I would go through life unaware of all of these things, occasionally confused about why something has fallen apart socially, but mostly being blissfully unaware that there’s anything wrong. I got by in that state for 40 years.

But now I know. I know, and there’s little I can do about it. Unless I manage to educate every single neurotypical about autism and the fact that there are a whole lot of people out there with whom they are constantly miscommunicating. But I supposed that’s the Sysiphian task set for me. The world is less because of this lack of understanding.

Non-Verbal Communication and Autism — Some Personal Consequences

Autism is considered to be a communication disorder. It is of course much more than that, and the definition of dis-order depends on one’s standard of order, but in a world dominated by neurotypicals, our differences are considered to be disorders. And given the consequences, we might as well call them that.

When we think of a communication disorder, we are typically thinking of language as communication. However, much human communication is non-verbal, and here autistic people face a number of hurdles as well.

It was a few years ago when I came to understand the degree to which this is true in a recent situation in which I was being correctly redirected to do something other than what I was doing. When the person redirected me, I realized she was right and that I should be doing something else, so I immediately complied. A bit later, though, she asked me if it annoyed her that she had redirected me.

When I am concentrating on something–as I was in this case doing–I tend to get “in the zone.” If you do or say something to get me out of the zone, I feel immediately annoyed. I cannot help it, but I can often get over is as immediately as I feel it. What I didn’t realize is that I also showed that annoyance on my face. Which is just as immediate and something I can’t help.

Now imagine that I have been doing this all my life. Which I have. Without realizing it. Which I have. How do you think people will react to me? Or think of me?

For my regular readers, you may remember that this is not the first time this has happened to me where my attention was drawn to the look I was giving.

But I do have to wonder how many times something has gone awry because I was giving a look that I was unaware I was giving.

This just ends up on my growing list of things I seem to have to tell people about me so they won’t misunderstand my words, actions, and now facial expressions. Meaning I’m almost certainly going to have to always tell everyone I’m on the spectrum just to create the conditions under which I’ll be less likely to be misunderstood. Meaning I’ll get all the fun and pleasure of being directly discriminated against when people know I’m on the spectrum.

So those are the choices: open discrimination against me for being on the autism spectrum or have people decide they don’t like me because of my “attitude.” I’ve decided to take my chances with the former.

Reflections on Being a Student on the Spectrum

Having taught 2nd grade summer school Reading and Math, and now working as a sub, I cannot help but reflect upon my own elementary school education. I was always considered to be a very intelligent child by pretty much everyone, including my teachers. Any bad grades were considered to be laziness on my part.

One area in which I struggled throughout my years as a student was math. I particularly had a very hard time with word problems. I also had some problem with certain areas of multiplication, and fractions made no sense whatsoever to me until I took high school chemistry. I failed 8th grade math, made a C in Algebra 1 (Freshman), Cs and Bs in Geometry (Sophomore), a B in Algebra II (Jr), and an a in Calculus and in Trigonometry and Analytical Geometry (Sr). In college, I made a C in Calculus I, and I failed Calculus II so miserably that I managed to make a fairly low F even doing all of the extra credit.

Math in elementary school has now gone almost completely over to word problems. When I was in elementary school, tests would have almost all numerical problems, and only about 2 word problems. That meant I could miss the word problems (which I almost inevitably did) without failing the test. But today, the quizzes I have had to give involved nothing but word problems. Meaning there’s a very good chance that I would have been failing math well before 8th grade.

While there is no question that we need to teach children how to formulate problems (which is what word problems do), it doesn’t make a lot of sense to teach formulating math to children who cannot add, subtract, multiply, or divide. That is, you absolutely must have the mathematical skill in place before you can move on to mathematical reasoning and formulation of problems. The latter may be most important overall, but you cannot skip establishing the foundation.

Now it may be that this way of doing things is the best way for certain students. I won’t deny that possibility. But it’s coming at the expense of other children. And if this is true, then the way I was taught it came at the expense of the kinds of students who do well in the way math is taught today. There are trade-offs. In this particular trade-off, I would have been the one traded, from doing well enough in math to pass to failing very much earlier on.

Another thing I have noticed about education today is that it’s designed to be much more social. There’s more group work and “shoulder partners” and sitting together on a rug and so on. None of this is exactly inviting to anyone on the spectrum, and I certainly wouldn’t have liked school nearly as much if it had been run like it is today.

Indeed, though I was perhaps seen as highly intelligent but quirky (to put it nicely) as a child in the 1970s, I think there is little doubt that in the current school environment that I would have been identified as having something “wrong” with me. I would have been seen as refusing to participate and I probably would have had some quite negative reactions to a lot of this forced sociality (something perfectly fine for neurotypicals, who don’t find it forced at all). I would have likely been identified as having ODD, if not Asperger’s/autism. I probably wouldn’t have been identified as having ADD/ADHD, because I was never outwardly hyperactive (inwardly, I’m in a dead run almost all the time), but I would have likely been sullen and I wouldn’t have liked the classroom environment at all.

In other words, I think I would have done worse in school today than I did in the 1970s.

If it’s true that I would have done worse under the way teaching is done today, then we may have some explanation for why none of the education reforms we’ve tried have ever worked to improve scores. It’s because while the reforms help some children learn better, it ends up acting as an impediment to others. It also may explain the “rise” in ADD/ADHD and autism, since the way students are taught today seems to draw out many of their identifying factors.

But we ought to be a little disturbed that someone like me would probably no do well in today’s system. The system I went to school in put me on the path to succeeding in college and graduate school. I fear that this system would have had me identified as a problem student and perhaps even having the autism I do in fact have. That is a problem because even though there is a lot of rhetoric around people with disabilities being able to succeed, the fact is that nowadays we are put on a pathway to “succeed” outside of a college trajectory–mostly because we are left unprepared to go. My brother, who has dyslexia, was discouraged from going to college in high school–and he now has a B.A., an M.A., and an M.F.A. You cannot tell me that autistic children aren’t discouraged, directly or indirectly, from going to college.

What is worse is that, if I am right that the majority of advancements in the world were made by autistics, then we are doing a terrible disservice to the world at large by creating an educational system that educates perfect copiers well, but leaves reformers/inventors/creators on the sidelines.