The Struggle With the Daemon

I recently finished reading The Struggle with the Daemon: Holderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche by Stefan Zweig. For someone on the spectrum who is himself a literary writer (or, at least, I try to be), this book very much felt like it ought to have been titled The Struggle with Autism, especially as each of the three artists’ sections felt like an aspect of my personality was being emphasized–albeit, much more intense versions of me (I’ve managed to avoid descending into a final state of insanity, and I’ve never felt suicidal–though it’s my understanding that the last is an all-too common feeling among autistics).

Holderlin would seem the hardest case to make among the three, except many of his feelings as described by Zweig seem my feelings as well. Getting caught up in an obsession, and feeling like the rest of the world is a terrible imposition on your work is a very autistic way of being in the world–at least, from my experience.

Kleist, on the other hand, just screamed “autism” from Kleist’s description. For one, Kleist wandered all over Europe, and autistics are known to be avid wanderers (which can be a major problem when the wanderer is a child). “He was reserved to excess, and kept everything locked up within himself. He did not express his passions either in looks or in spoken words” (158). Zweig says

he remained mute, not from dumbness or sloth, but from overpowering chastity of feeling; and this silence, this dull, brutalising, oppressive silence, which he would maintain for hours when in company, was his most salient characteristic–that and absence of mind, a confusion which obscured his clarity of intellect. When talking, he would suddenly break off and stare into vacancy (158)

He could not converse unconstrainedly in an exchange of the small talk of ordinary life. Convention and customary obligations were repugnant to him, so that many assumed there must be something “dour and sinister” in this unusual companion; while others were wounded by his harshness and cynicism and bluntness when, as happened now and then, pricked by his own silence, he threw of all constraints. (159)

“Those who did not know him intimately believed him cold and indifferent. His intimates, on the other hand, were afraid of the fires that consumed him” (160).

If you’re autistic, perhaps especially if you have Asperger’s, this may sound quite familiar to you. If you know someone with Asperger’s, this also may sound familiar to you. Zweig’s description of Kleist throughout the book only reinforce my original conclusion (based on the above quotes) that Kleist had Asperger’s.

I have already written about my belief that Nietzsche had autism, and Zweig’s description only confirmed my beliefs. However, there is something quite interesting that Zweig pointed out that sounded quite personally familiar–and I would be interested if my autistic readers have had the same experience.

What makes Nietzsche’s transformations so peculiar is that they seem retrogressive. If we take Goethe as the prototype of an organic nature in harmony with the forward march of the universe, we perceive that his development is symbolical of the various stages of life. in youth he was fiery and enthusiastic; as a man in his prime he was actively reflective; age brought him the utmost lucidity of mind. His mental rhythm corresponded in every point with the temperature of his blood. As with most young men, he began in chaos and ended his career in orderly fashion, as is seemly with the old. After going through a revolutionary period he turned conservative, after a phase of lyricism he became a man of science, after being prodigal of himself he learnt how to be reserved.

Nietzsche took an opposite course. Instead of aspiring to an ever more complete integration of his ego, he desired complete disintegration. As he advanced in years he became increasingly impatient, vehement, revolutionary, and chaotic. His outward aspect was in strident opposition of the customary evolution of a man. While his university companions were still delighting in the usual horseplay of undergraduates, Nietzsche, though but twenty-four years old, was already a professor, aspirant to the chair of philology at Basel, that famous seat of learning. At twenty-four, Nietzsche’s intimates were men of fifty and sixty years of age, sages such as Jakob Burckhardt and Ritschl, while his closest friend was the most celebrated artist of the day–Richard Wagner. (288-289)

Zweig goes on and on about the staid, scholarly Nietzsche, then notes that when he was thirty, he resigned from his position with a pension, went to live alone in Switzerland and northern Italy, and transformed himself into the writer of Zarathustra–a transformation that ended with Nietzsche’s loss of sanity. His life is the reverse of Goethe’s.

Now let me give a brief of my own life. In grade school, I wore dress slacks and button-down shirts. In high school, I started wearing jeans, but they were dress jeans. I went to college to major in recombinant gene technology, then attended graduate school in molecular biology. During grad school, I started wearing t-shirts and listening to contemporary rock (alternative music–I started in with the grunge scene with Nirvana’s In Utero, when I was around 22). It was around this time that I started reading Nietzsche, and I also started writing more fiction and poetry, and myself growing more and more chaotic.

I dropped out of grad school, had two massive anxiety attacks, started writing Hear the Screams of the Butterfly to deal with all of my emotional issues, and also took a year of undergrad English classes to get into a graduate program in Creative Writing. While there I was quite bohemian in my lifestyle. If there was a reversal, it was when I started my Ph.D. program in the humanities, where I started off doing creative writing, but ended up with a scholarly dissertation. After graduating, I met my future wife, got married, had three children, and have lived the past decade wasting my scholarly and writing talents in looking for gainful employment. I’ve also grown more radical in my politics, and I think more daring in my art.

Now, do not get me wrong. I would trade nothing for my wife and children. In that I’m a happy Goethe, so to speak. However, an inability to go “full Goethe” in the sense of his life development, has meant considerable employment difficulties. At the same time, I have been fortunate in also not going “full Holderlin/Kleist/Nietzsche” either. I’m instead in an uncomfortable truce, neither giving in to my obsessions nor being able to live a “normal” life.

The scientist I was in college became the artist became the artist and interdisciplinary scholar–became more and more interdisciplinary, unspecialized, going in the opposite direction of most people. I’ve grown less conservative over time, less satisfied with life, more radical. That is, from order to chaos. Nietzsche is a model for my own changes, though I certainly had no intention to follow that model–it just seems a natural development. Yet, I struggle against that development, and thus (mostly) keep it under control. The forces of order and the forces of chaos are always in a constant struggle within me. I continue to alternate between art and scholarship. If anything, my family is what keeps the struggle just barely on the side of order.

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The Importance of Autism in the Human Population

It is not uncommon to think that everyone is, essentially, the same. Certainly there don’t seem to be any significant genetic differences among different groups, particularly those genes involving the brain. But what if there are differences not among different racial/ethnic/cultural groups but, rather, within the human species as a whole?

About 84% of the genes are expressed in the brain. Given that humans have 20,000 genes, that means about 16,800 genes are expressed in the brain.

We should not be surprised, then, if we were to find more than a bit of variation among human brains.

We should expect to see variation in degrees of creativity vs. copying, on liberalism vs. conservatism, on selfish behavior vs. altruism, introversion vs. extroversion, leadership vs. following, variations in thinking styles, degrees of mental energy, I.Q. and flexibility of I.Q., and of course any of a variety of learning and mental disabilities. These last are of course often disabilities based on a certain accepted mean of learning and/or behavior.

I have noted in some previous posts, linked above, that each of these consists of a spectrum of behaviors, which can be placed in a 20-60-20 grouping of the two extremes and a varying middle. I suspect that the same is true of the autism spectrum as well. The numbers don’t seem at first to support this, but I suspect that the number of people with Asperger’s is grossly underestimated and that ADD/ADHD is properly on the spectrum, such that the true spectrum looks like this:

ADD/ADHD—Asperger’s—autism

Indeed, recent research has found a genetic link among major depression, bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD. About 11% of the population has been diagnosed with ADHD, and while only about 0.2% of the population has been diagnosed with Asperger’s (the distinction of which has been lost by being folded into autism), I strongly suspect it’s more. Many we would just call “introverted” are probably on the spectrum and specifically have Asperger’s. Many upon my telling them I have Asperger’s insisted that, no, I was just very introverted. But as anyone on the spectrum will tell you, much of our “introversion” comes from a combination of complete mental exhaustion from having to negotiate a social environment that doesn’t make much sense to us, and our not understanding how to be social, rather than a desire not to be social.

In addition to the above research, there are a number of other studies that find genetic and structural similarities between autism and schizophrenia. Indeed, autism was once considered to be a form of childhood schizophrenia. It may be that the doctors who thought that were on to something. While there do seem to be significant-enough differences between schizophrenia and autism to make the distinction worthwhile, they may be close-enough related to consider them together–at least for the purposes of this essay.

If we take these things into consideration, we have an expanded autism spectrum that includes something like 20% of the population. If that is the case, what we have here is not really a disorder, but a natural variation that contributes to social complexity and dynamics. At the other end, constituting another 20% of the population, would then be what we could consider solipsistic thinkers, who are in many ways truly opposite of autistic, as I discuss here.

Also, one may note that there are a lot of overlaps in categories. Many introverts are on the autism spectrum, and vice versa (many with ADHD may be considered extroverts because of their hyperactivity, so the correlation, in my expanded definition of autism, won’t be perfect with introversion); many on the spectrum are creative and non-conformists. (It is notable that people on the spectrum, while being non-conformists, also dislike a great deal of change, while the more conformist neurotypicals are more capable of change; this tension also likely contributes to social dynamics in interesting ways that should be investigated.) Variations in thinking styles also maps well onto the solipsistic to autism spectrum.

Variations in brain structure, then, is going to be quite common. Given the number of genes involved in the brain, what should be most surprising is that so much is common among humans. This is in no small part because various streams tend to converge into the same general pathways (as described by constructal theory). This is why there can be a variety of causes of autism, with there being similarities among those who have autism (even with variations in degrees of expression). For there to be complex human societies, it would be necessary to have a variety of ways of thinking or even a variety of kinds of minds so that our societies are neither too stagnant nor too changeable. The most stable societies will be those that both honor tradition and are open to change, that change on the margins rather than abruptly.

Even though we have had literally millennia of species experience with the presence of such variation, we still nevertheless see a great deal of prejudice and discrimination against those who have variations in their thinking. This seems especially true in the postmodern period, where we have developed institutions whose job it is to separate out anyone who has a difference in the way they think, process information, etc. This institutional discrimination is very widespread today, to such a degree that you almost cannot get a job unless you are solidly in the 80% solipsistic-neurotypical range. Businesses quite often, if not almost always, actively discriminate against anyone on the autism spectrum, which is why so many on the spectrum are unemployed.

This discrimination against people who think differently comes from more recent egalitarian attitudes which insist that everyone is/must be identical. Given that these variations in mind/thinking cut across race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexual orientation, one can actively discriminate against mental variation even while insisting on acceptance of other categories. Worse, because these mental differences are real and are a consequence of structural differences, insistence that all children are the same and learn the same results in the development of the idea of learning disabilities and of behavioral problems.

The politically correct change of this to “learning differences” has not resulted in any real change in attitude toward those differences as being bad. And differences in processing and interacting with the world are treated as behavioral problems to be solved. But the fact of the matter is that people on the spectrum cannot and should not be expected to behave like neurotypical people, because the are literally structured differently. This isn’t a matter of something superficial like culture, which can be written on any individual born into that culture, regardless of race, etc.; no, this is something deep and fundamental that cannot be so readily changed.

And even if the changes can be made–typically, forced–they always feel artificial to the person. It’s much like insisting that gays can just ignore their preferences and act heterosexual; it can be done, but it will never feel quite right, and it will likely make the person feel anxious and depressed. Perhaps not coincidentally, anxiety and depression are typically part of autism.

Our societies have been formed by the majority of those not on the autism spectrum. There are obvious reasons for that–not the least of which being that those people make up 80% of the population. As a result, it is not entirely unreasonable to insist that we on the spectrum conform to them and not vice versa. Of course, this seems easy enough to a group of people for whom conformity is natural. But what they need to understand, what everyone needs to understand, is that it’s not easy for us.

More, by preventing us from being ourselves–at least on occasion–I suspect that our societies are losing out on a great deal that we could and would otherwise contribute to society. Free to be ourselves, with less anxiety and depression, we may feel more up to innovating and creating and thus contributing to society in the many ways we have in the past. That’s all we ask: to be allowed to be ourselves, to be allowed to contribute, to be allowed our humanity.

10 Positive Traits of Autistics

Everyone talks about the problems people with autism have–social awkwardness, literalism, various sensitivities, etc.–but few talk about the various strengths people with autism have. Fortunately, there is now a list of the Top 10 positive traits.

We need to talk more about these positive aspects.  Yes, we have terrible short term memories, but we have exceptional long term memories. We tend to think in sounds and images and patterns, have enhanced motion sense, and are highly imaginative. We are detail-oriented, we are extremely creative, reliable, loyal, and comfortable with repetitive tasks. We tend to be less deceptive (likely due to our literalism and strong moral sense) and non-judgmental.

Note that many of these things are traits businesses say they are seeking in a good employee.

Link Between Autism Genes and High Intelligence

It is not even remotely surprising to me that there has now been demonstrated a link between autism genes and higher intelligence. The linked study demonstrates that those who have some autism genes have higher intelligence. Autism may, thus, be an extreme expression of these genes such that it becomes disabling. In this sense, autism is similar to Tay-Sach’s disease, in which those who are heterogeneous for the gene have very high intelligence, while those homogeneous for it have the disease (and, in almost every case, a doctorate). Slight expression creates high intelligence alone, while more expression gets you autism.

This drives home the fact that autism is genetic. It also drives home that the last thing on earth we want to do is get rid of it. At the population level, there may be a strong benefit to having these genes in the gene pool. In exchange for a few severely autistic individuals, you get many highly intelligent people. Some of those people have varying degrees of social awkwardness as part of that expression, of course, but some of that comes from the fear people have for highly intelligent people and for people who think or act differently from them.

This also drives home the degree to which there is a spectrum that extends beyond the “autism spectrum.” I suspect that people with ADD/ADHD are also on the spectrum, on the other side of Asperger’s. Not coincidentally, those with ADD/ADHD tend to have high intelligence as well. The inability of schools to deal with the gifted, ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s, and autism are all part of the same problem. And the same is true of the fact that contemporary culture is equally incompetent in dealing with the existence of those who are most likely the smartest among us.

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.

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.

Making Fog—And Other Connections

While other theories of autism explain it as a disability, the Intense World Theory of autism explains it as an intensification of the neurological processing. This approach also explains how it is that many people with autism have strong abilities as well.

Daniel’s strength certainly lies in his ability to make strong causal connection. For example, one morning, as I was taking Daniel and Dylan to the babysitter’s, Daniel noticed his breath in the cold air.

“I’m making fog.”

I told him that he was right. I also told him that fog was water in the air and that fog and clouds were the same thing.

“And when clouds come together, they make rain?” And he brought his hands together and intertwined his fingers.

He was, of course, right. When clouds become dense enough, rain drops form and fall. These are the kinds of observations Daniel makes all the time. He was able to make that leap of logic that most 5 year olds –- heck, far too many adults, let alone children –- cannot make.

Around that time,  Daniel also asked me, “What is air?” I told him that it’s what we breathe. He then asked me, “How do lungs work?” After I told him, he asked if the lungs looked like the heart. I want you to think about the implications of that connection he made.

Perhaps the most astounding one he ever made involved magnetism and electricity. Daniel had a fascination with power plants there for a while, and I showed him online about how generators work–that the water or steam produced by heating water with coal, wood, or fission spun a generator that produced electricity–and where the electricity went. I didn’t go into details about exactly how the generator produces electricity, only that spinning was involved. Later, when Daniel asked me how magnets work, I told him. I explained about how electrons are flowing through and around the magnet. He then said, “So, if you spin it, it will produce electricity?” And that is, of course, what is being spun in a generator to produce electricity. He was six at the time.

I wish I could remember them all.