Autism and the Emergence of Art

Around 30,000 years ago, extremely detailed, realistic art emerged in cave paintings. Believe it or not, there are many scholars out there who believe this occurred because the artists were autistic.

Lead author of the paper, Professor Penny Spikins from the Department of Archaelogy at the University of York, said: “Detail focus is what determines whether you can draw realistically; you need it in order to be a talented realistic artist. This trait is found very commonly in people with autism and rarely occurs in people without it.”

Which itself raises some interesting issues regarding the history of art and the proliferation of realism during periods such as the Renaissance.
A related article also suggests that human societies really took off only after they learned to tolerate the presence of people who thought and behaved differently. Oddly, we seem to be losing that trait even as we are gaining acceptance of people who merely look differently.
Either way, it’s obvious that autism has been around for a very long time indeed. The idea that autism may be adaptive for humans at the level of group selection is something I myself have suggested. It would appear that autistics are important for the development of artistic styles and a concentration on extreme realism. Of course, that means that during artistic periods dominated by iconoclasm, such as we saw in Modernism and Postmodernism, select against autistic artists. It is likely, though, that we will again have our day.

Who is up for another autistic-lead renaissance?

 

 

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Nonfiction, Science Fiction, and Fantasy

In two past articles, I have argued that autistics don’t typically like fiction and that we tend to prefer science fiction and fantasy over more mainstream fiction. This seems to be contradictory, but I would argue that both are true.

Autistics tend to read less fiction and to not like fiction; however, if they do get turned on by fiction, it’s likely to be either science fiction or fantasy. I suspect that more “mainstream” fiction is too ambiguous for autistics– that is, the boundaries between the real (nonfiction) and fiction is too blurred and thus a bit confusing–or perhaps it’s that science fiction and fantasy are more focused on plot (action) than on character development. The characters in science fiction and fantasy are less “human” so to speak, than in mainstream novels. We have a hard time relating to characters in the latter than in the former, as a consequence.

With science fiction, at least, there is also a tendency to have a focus on science and technology, two areas of particular interest to many if not most on the autism spectrum. While I always wanted to read, I have discovered many on the spectrum do not care to read all that much. But really, it’s like almost anything with autism–find the right topic, and it’s easy to get them to read (or talk). I recently got a 12-year-old autistic boy to read a book simply by finding a book about sharks (like Daniel, he’s interested in sharks). Until then, getting him to read was like pulling teeth. Without novocaine. And without strapping the patient down.

Part of the problem may simply be that many on the spectrum simply don’t see the point of reading fiction. If it didn’t happen, if you can’t learn something factual from it, why read it? Combine that with the typical autistic problem of understanding metaphors and other issues of literalism, and it might make sense why many autistics avoid fiction.

Science fiction can of course help with these matters, because science fiction involves science and technology, meaning it’s rooted in things autistics tend to like. The preference for fantasy among fiction-reading autistics, however, is a bit more of a mystery. Perhaps the fact that it’s so obviously untrue makes it attractive. It’s all so outlandish, outrageous that we’re comfortable in it.

Nietzsche, who I suspect to have been on the autism spectrum, argued that art is true because it doesn’t pretend not to be untrue. He was talking about how we believe science to tell us what is true, with scientists themselves presenting their findings as true (when their findings are ultimately falsified into theories and generalities that cover the variations among all things), but we can perhaps see how this attitude, when applied to literature, would make even more obviously “untrue” literature, like fantasy and science fiction, more attractive. Surely the more untrue art appears to be, the more true it really is.

Science fiction, fantasy, and video games are all plot-driven and do not focus much on character development. The internal goings-on of the average person is a mystery to us, and so it’s also possible that science fiction and fantasy are comfortable to us because these genres tend not to focus on those things. We see people acting, and we supply our own interpretations of why they act that way; we can do the same in plot-driven fiction.

All of these are mostly preliminary thoughts on this issue. I like fiction, but if the books I’ve read are any indication, I like nonfiction books more. Yet, I write fiction. But the reason I write fiction–especially short stories–is that I am typically trying to figure out what people were thinking when they did certain things. And of course I read fiction because I write fiction, as any moderately decent artist would. I haven’t written any short stories in a while, and I have several unfinished novel manuscripts, but I am now working on a fantasy epic, so I guess I’ve learned to become who I am.

A Clash of Cultures

Do you have trouble keeping secrets? Do you find you typically tell the truth, even when it’s socially inconvenient? Do you tend to over-share with everyone, including complete strangers? Are you direct and to the point–to the point that people often think you’re rude? Are you unsure what is or is not acceptable joking? Or what is or is not an acceptable comment? Are you unsure why people want to talk about the same daily nonsense and don’t understand why they don’t want to talk to you when you’re the one with something interesting to say?

If this sounds like you, you may be part of a small bioculture people call “autistic.” I say “bioculture” because it recognizes the fact that culture has its roots in human biology, in neural structures. All of the normal things neurotypical humans do are part of the broader underlying human culture, of which there are many variations. Those underlying patterns on which cultures develop–which include keeping secrets, having privacy, being indirect, engaging in small talk, and understanding the social rules of appropriate comments and jokes–are simply not the natural patterns of autistic people.

I want you to imagine for a moment a culture of autistics. Imagine, if you will, a culture where everyone means what they say and say what they mean, sugarcoat nothing, are always direct, rarely if ever lie, consider fixing problems to actually be a demonstration of empathy, engage in almost nothing but in-depth conversations about a wide variety of topics, do not typically fear death, value rationality and evidence above everything else, simultaneously respect other’s privacy while also being an open book themselves, consider science fiction, fantasy and video games to be the height of culture, are science and fact-oriented, and almost everyone has perfect pitch.

How would you feel? If you’re on the spectrum, it sounds like heaven. (Would we be as anxious as we are now?) But if you’re not, how socially awkward would you be? Remember what I said about if we pathologized neurotypical behavior.

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.

On Being an Autistic Writer

I was recently contacted through Facebook Messenger by a woman who said she was recently diagnosed with mild autism and recognized that she was a pattern thinker, leading her to discover my post on pattern thinking. She said she was a writer, and she asked me about my writing process and how I integrated pattern thinking into it.

There are a number of ways I integrate pattern thinking into my writing. I suppose an obvious way is in the use of patterns in the writing of my poetry. I tend to use regular rhythm, repetitions of words and sounds, including end-rhyme. Even before I started writing in more formal verse, I was always attracted to the repetition of sounds in alliteration. I probably have a bit more of a tendency to use alliteration in my prose, particularly my creative prose, than in my poetry, since I can use other forms of repetition in poetry than alliteration. Also in my prose I have a tendency to be more repetitious with word choices–which allows for the thematic development of those words’ meanings. Finally, there are lists. I do love lists. Those of course are the creation of an ordered pattern as well. My fiction is full of lists–sometimes rather explicit lists, but also in the listing of things, features, etc., particularly in parallel structure.

With my poetry, it did take me a while to develop the ability to write in regular rhythm–most notably, iambic pentameter–before it became so ingrained that it is now second nature to write in it. I almost don’t have to count the syllables or check the rhythm anymore. Once that pattern became internalized, I was able to allow the words to flow in a more natural way. With poetry, then, I write when inspired. It flows out of me as though the Muses are speaking through me. I completely understand why the ancients believed the poets were vessels of the gods, the gods speaking through them in poetic lines.

However, my plays (mostly in verse), short stories, novel manuscripts, and nonfiction work, are a product of a very different method.

For all my writing, I get my ideas through a combination of reading 3-5 books at a time (so the ideas can chaotically crash into each other), watching and listening to people, the news, T.V. shows and movies,–pretty much, everything in life. I try to remain open to the odd syntheses of ideas emerging from a variety of places. Patterns among these different sources speak to me and inspire. To the extent this is unconscious, poems emerge. To the extend that I’m writing things down and taking notes, I get plays, fiction, etc.

Often I’ll get a vague notion, and write it down. That can germinate new ideas around it, leading to a plethora of notes. If it’s fiction, of course, those notes are internally generated; if it’s non-fiction, I’ll fill pages and pages of notes from things I’ll be reading on the topic in question. All notes are written by hand, the hand seeming to have a more direct connection to the way my memories form. (And the Muses are the children of Zeus/God and Memory/Memneke.)

The notes are not ordered, are not organized. They are jotted down as they come to me, as they flow out of me, as I read things that I intend to read as research, as I read other things I never realized might matter. Out of this chaos of notes and fragments (sometimes multi-page fragments), will emerge coherent stories and essays, plays and books. My bottom-up thinking results in a bottom-up process–out of chaos emerges order. I write once the notes have reached a critical point of unconscious organization, and I need to pour out what I’ve filled myself with and mixed well in my mind.

So, that’s my writing process. From the outside I am sure it looks like a random mess out of which nothing could possibly emerge. But I’ve written a great many works–essays, plays, short stories, a novella, and a non-fiction book–this way. As for the blog, well, most of the time I’m inspired by something I’ve read or heard someone say or, in this case, someone asked.

The Freedom To Do and Be

Wednesday night I attended a talk at Southern Methodist University by Deirdre McCloskey, an economist at the University of Chicago. She is the author of a series of books–The Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity, and Bourgeois Equality–in which she argues that economists have misunderstood the driving force of economic growth and widespread wealth. It’s not savings, and it’s not capital investment–rather, it’s ideas. And it’s a specific set of ideas: treating people equally, equality under the law, and respect for people who engage in business. She argued last night that when people are given the freedom to do what they want to do and be who they want to be, that freedom results in the creation of wealth.

This made me wonder how much wealth the world has lost because autistics are not allowed to do what they want to do, and to be who they are.

 

How We’re Happy

Autistic people identify with their work and their obsessions. If they are not allowed to do that work associated with their obsessions, it is much like putting a neurotypical person in solitary confinement–they become antsy, anxious, and increasingly stressed.

For an autistic good mental health consists of being able to do one’s work at least daily, in some fashion or other. Even if they are “taking a break” from it, the mind is never far from the topic. It often intrudes. Absent-mindedness is often actually topic-mindedness at an inopportune time.

Speaking for myself, self-organizing scale-free network processes (or, spontaneous orders) and literature (particularly writing poems and plays and other forms of fiction) are never far from mind. I cannot help but think of them and on them and about them. Since they both involve reading and writing, if I cannot do either (especially write), I start to get antsy, anxious, and increasingly stressed.

Ideally, one’s work becomes one’s employment. That minimizes stress. The worst thing that could possibly happen is to have a job that separates you from your work, that prevents you from doing it. Because then you spend all your time at your place of employment thinking about what you want to work on. And if you have a family, it means what would have otherwise been family time is taken up by the work you must desperately do.

Some people, like Temple Grandin, are fortunate that their passion became their work. I haven’t been so lucky. Poems don’t pay, and while I occasionally send things out, I just can’t muster the passion I need to constantly, consistently send out my plays and prose fiction (or, perhaps more accurately, I get anxiety at the idea of trying to contact strangers about anything). I desperately need a secretary. My spontaneous order work has been fed by a series of people asking me to write articles for their journals and collections, meaning I don’t have to send anything out cold.

The satisfaction is in my work. That is all. I like sharing it, but in a strange way that’s not even the point. I do the work anyway. Because I must. Because my work is me. It’s what makes me happy.