Asperger’s or Introversion?

When I first came to understand I have Asperger’s Syndrome, I had many people tell me that I am merely introverted Well, I am certainly introverted. But let us consider the Asperger’s Fact Sheet and the criteria. Do I meet them?

  • Do I have an “all-consuming interest and a one-sided, self-focused social approach”?

As a child I was obsessively interested in dinosaurs, then sharks, then orchids.  I would make lists of dinosaurs or sharks or orchids; sometimes those “lists” would be drawing after drawing after drawing — in a list-like fashion. They would be labeled with data about the dinosaur or shark or orchid. Length or location or some sort of objective fact.

I am still obsessively focused, but the focus has become self-organizing network processes. I can sit and talk about that for hours and hours. And I promise you that the conversation will be quite one-sided and self-focused. Most of my conversations have been and continue to be. As a result, I work well with others on projects in which I am interested, but I don’t socialize well.

  • Is it true that because I “cannot read social or emotional cues well, they come off as insensitive, pushy or strange, yet have very little insight into how they are perceived”?

I cannot tell you how many times I have been accused of being arrogant. Even when I am insisting we need to have humility in our ignorance. I have been told I am “insensitive” when I try to solve problems. I’ve been told more than once I seem “strange.” And my wife constantly reassures me that I have very little insight as to how I am perceived by others and that I cannot read social or emotional cues well.

  • Do I engage in “taking turns speaking, staying on a topic for a polite number of turns, and showing interest in someone else’s comments. People living with Asperger’s tend to talk at people instead of with them, and will often talk about their favorite topics long after the other person has become tired of the subject.”

I can definitely dominate a conversation. I have a tendency to interrupt when I have a thought. I stay on topics for a long, long time (or, if I’m not interested, not very long at all), and I have a hard time feigning interest. I do tend to talk at people instead of with them — I use language to communicate information rather than to create relationships — and I most definitely talk abut my favorite topics long after the other person has become tired of the subject. I am sure I am tiring even at conferences.

  • “Having a normal or higher IQ allows a person to learn and know, to push the envelope in intellectual ability, and to rejoice in the pursuit of some realm of knowledge, but there can also be negative effects. When someone is aware he is different, when, for all his intelligence, he cannot successfully make a friend, or get a date, or keep a job, he may end up far more prone to depression and despair than a person with a lower IQ. It has been found that children with both high-functioning autism and Asperger’s suffer from depression and anxiety more than their typical peers.”

I have always had a hard time making friends. I typically just “befriend” the friends of friends. I got by with my brother’s friends for a long time. I made exactly one friend during my Master’s in English, and I lost track of him immediately after we graduated. That was two years in Mississippi. I made one friend during my Ph.D., and was mostly friends with his friends. I got my first girlfriend when I was 25. I was, in fact, quite depressed for most of the 1990s because of these kinds of relationship problems. And I continue to have problems keeping a job.

  • Meltdowns.

I used to have meltdowns. When I was interrupted at a task, especially. When things just became too much. I have had two nervous breakdowns. But I have, over the years, learned how to deal with the stressors in my life. Yet, I do have to fight off blowing up when I am interrupted at my obsession/work.

  • Clumsiness.

I walked on my tiptoes as a child — something quite common in people with Asperger’s/autism. I was a disaster at trying to play any kind of sports. Teachers complained about my handwriting skills.
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There are other aspects to Asperger’s, which includes thinking style. Bottom-up thinking, analytical thinking, being able to see patterns extremely well, strongly visual thinking — are all typical of those with Asperger’s and autism. I am equally very bad at top-down and strategic thinking typical of neurotypicals. Strategic thinking is extremely exhausting, and I’m not very good at it.

I suppose it is entirely possible to have every trait of Asperger’s and not have it, to only be introverted. But you should probably bet on Asperger’s being the most likely diagnosis. And my own positive diagnosis certainly confirmed that bet, at least for me.

I Am Not an Illness

By contemporary American standards, I’m mentally ill. I am mildly bipolar, I have had two nervous breakdowns, and I have Asperger’s Syndrome. I have had a great deal of difficulty “fitting in” to society. But just because someone does not fit in to a particular society at a particular time, does that mean they are mentally ill? I have an extremely good long-term memory and I am a poet. A few thousand years ago, that would have made me the tribal poet, who kept the myths of the tribe. I would have been Homer. Nobody would have thought it strange that I was mostly withdrawn and antisocial, until it was time for me to recite the stories. I would have been greatly valued then.

Or consider someone with schizophrenia, who sees visions. Today, we medicate such people. In other times and places, such a person was a religious leader, a shaman, whose visions were valued. The story of John Nash shows us how valuable schizophrenia can be — he rejected his medication, because he couldn’t think on them. Had he been medicated early on in life, where would game theory have been?

More, the story of John Nash shows us that even something as severe as schizophrenia can be dealt with without treating it as an illness. He learned to identify what was real and what was not real. Imagine what could happen if people with schizophrenia were taught how to deal with the visions, how to control or ignore them, rather than to have them medicated away.

If it is possible for John Nash, it’s possible for others. And it’s possible for others who have mental differences. We with Asperger’s or autism have to learn how to fit into society; the fact that I have been able to make any number of changes in how I act and interact over the years — before I learned I had Asperger’s — shows it is possible to change and adapt. It would help if our society actually valued our differences and did not punish us for them by telling us we are less than those who are neurotypical. We are not less than you simply because we are neurologically different. And being told we are — directly or indirectly, by pathologizing our differences — does not help us. Quite the contrary: being told we are less, many have decided it’s not worth being here on earth.

Consider Robin Williams’ suicide. The way his brain worked is why he was so brilliantly funny. Yet, the way his brain worked was also labeled as “mentally ill.” He was told that the very thing that made him who he was, the very thing that everyone loved about him and valued about him, was “wrong.” He was “wrong,” less than the rest of humanity. That’s what the rhetoric of “mental illness” does. It devalues and it dehumanizes. That’s enough to make most people want to kill themselves.

More, we make it impossible for someone who is having suicidal thoughts to talk about it. We are told that if we encounter a person with suicidal thoughts, we should tell someone. At the same time, we are told we need to be with a suicidal person throughout their suicidal episode, until it passes. But if you know that telling someone you are having suicidal thoughts will result in their telling the authorities, and if you know that one of the ways you can get locked up is if you are a “threat to yourself or others,” what is the incentive to tell anyone? There is none. The incentive is the opposite, in fact. Keep it to yourself, so you won’t get locked up (and become more depressed because you’re in a mental hospital).

We do need a national dialogue about “mental illness.” And the dialogue needs to be about how we need to stop pathologizing differences in this culture. We are well on the way with homosexuality. Now we need to depathologize most of the rest.

Asperger’s, Autism, and IQ

It seems that people who process sensory information differently are those we identify as having a high I.Q.

Of course, “sensory processing problems” is a main aspect of autism. Does this mean that those with autism ought to have a high I.Q.?

Well, historically people with autism have been shown to have lower I.Q.s than the general population. However, those with Asperger’s generally are seen to have higher I.Q.’s than average. Now, if Asperger’s is, in many ways, simply autism without the language delay, then this raises some interesting issues. Are the low I.Q. scores for those with autism a result of language issues? It seems that that may in fact be the case. Indeed, when alternative measurements of intelligence have been used with certain people with autism, their I.Q. scores jumped from “mentally retarded” to “genius.”

Consider the results from the first article. Two of the aspects of people with high I.Q.s are the ability to focus and to pick out details. These are aspects commonly found in people with Asperger’s especially. It is part of bottom-up thinking — the details give rise to the big picture for someone with autism. Neurotypicals, on the other hand, see the big picture first — this is part of top-down thinking. As a result, they may miss the details, just as bottom-up thinkers may miss the big picture.

In a sense, this means that “high I.Q.” is practically equivalent with “having autism.” Or at least “having Asperger’s.” And as we find more and better ways of reaching non-verbal and low-verbal autistics, I suspect we will find more and more high I.Q.s out there.

Part of the issue involves the general ability to integrate the details. Integration of details becomes increasingly problematic as you move along the autism spectrum. Those with Asperger’s can integrate the best among those on the spectrum, whereas the most sever may not be able to integrate at all. Such a person would, of course, be identified as having severe mental deficiency, since they cannot make any sense of the world at all. The result, it would seem to me, would be a sort of U-shaped range of I.Q., with large numbers with high I.Q. being closer to the Asperger’s end and there being a tipping point of inability to integrate then resulting in very low I.Q.s at the extreme other end.

The result of this would be a situation where those with Asperger’s would appear to have high I.Q.s on average, whereas those with autism would appear to have average I.Q.’s on average. Of course, if you average a group that in fact has two groups in it — one with high I.Q. and another with low I.Q. — you would expect the average of that larger group to be average I.Q. All of which points to some problems with looking at groups statistically without paying much attention to the details.

A Personal Tale of How the Intense World Feels from the Inside

I think there is little doubt that autism runs in my family, and that the kind of autism we have is best described by the intense world theory. The dominance of positive feedback in our neural systems goes a long way toward explaining a large number of traits, including my being mildly bipolar. Another thing that happens to me on occasion also now makes sense in the light of the intense world theory. Every so often my skin becomes hypersensitive. Some times it is more intense than others. Often, my joints and muscles ache and my mind is racing — I cannot remain asleep for more than a half hour at a time — and I become ravenously hungry, but then be able to satiate that hunger with, say, a handful of chips. Everything moves at top speed in me. After a few days, it will subside.

This makes perfect sense with the intense world theory of autism. When positive feedback dominates, the system in question cycles. This is true of any scale free network process, including neural networks. There are times when I don’t feel very much; but most of the time the cycles are subtle enough that they are not all that noticeable. However, sometimes those cycles run amok, and the intensity increases and increases. There is eventually a crash back to normal, but the period of intensity can be a bit much.

When Your Work Is Who You Are

My wife has observed that my work is deeply intertwined with my identity. It was not the first time she observed it, but sometimes the Nth time you hear something is when you start to think about it.

I hadn’t really thought about it before because she was and is right. It seems so natural to me. I am a poet/playwright/interdisciplinary scholar/spontaneous order theorist. When I wake, those things are on my mind; they are on my mind throughout the day; they are on my mind when I go to sleep. My mind is always active, thinking about my various projects.

Asperger’s has been called the “Little Professor Syndrome,” and I certainly fit that description. When I was obsessed with dinosaurs, I could have held my own with a paleontologist; when I was obsessed with sharks, I learned everything I could find on sharks; when I was obsessed with plants — and later narrowed that obsession to orchids — I learned everything I could find on plants and, particularly, orchids. That obsession later turned into molecular biology in college, then economics, then quantum physics (at least, to the degree one can learn about it without math), then chaos theory and complexity, then fiction writing, then poetry, then play writing. The older I have gotten, though, the more I have retained past interests. I remain curious about molecular biology, and I often think with the concepts of biology; I have increased my interest in economics, combining my interest in complexity with economics into Austrian economics and spontaneous order theory; I still write plays and poems.

One of my more recent obsessions is learning about autism. When I learned my son had autism, I did the autistic thing and became obsessed with the topic and learned everything I could about it. My familiarity with molecular biology and neurobiology helped. It was in dong this research that I learned I had Asperger’s.

It turns out that those with Asperger’s deeply identify with the work they do, with the work with which they are obsessed.

If the person with autism can find a place that will indulge his obsessions, he will be a great worker and will do great work. If the person with autism cannot find such a place, he won’t allow that job to interfere with his “real” work. One can perhaps imagine what the outcome of that is likely to be.

For autistics with advanced degrees, like me, the logical place to work is a university. And if universities were primarily interested in research, scholarship, and teaching, they would be the ideal place for autistics. Unfortunately, universities are primarily interested in more fully developing their bureaucracies, playing university politics, and engaging in all sorts of social games at which autistics are terrible. If universities were places where a professor could see that something was not working, and the next semester change the way he taught classes based on his observations of what worked and what did not, they would be ideal places for autistics. However, universities are now places where professors are pressured into teaching the same way as everyone else, no matter what the educational outcomes may be.

It seems, then, that there are no places to support people with autism. There is no institutional support; the institutions we have are structurally opposed to both the strengths and weaknesses of autistics, while thoroughly supportive of both the strengths and weaknesses of neurotypicals.

Worse, because people like me are so personally identified with their work that that there is little differentiation between the work and person (please note I said “the work” and not the ideas, as particular ideas will be chucked if they prove not to work out), we tend to take it quite personally that nobody wants us or wants us to do what we are good at. We resent the fact that we cannot make a living being who we are, because of the prejudice against us built into the institutional structures of society. I do not know if there was ever a time when things were better for those with autism; however, I suspect that before the growth of bureaucracy as a fundamental institution in all areas of life, life for high-functioning autistics, at least, was much easier.

Learning to Act Human, Part II

After I learned my son had autism, I learned that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and so I have actually taken it upon myself to read some things that might help me.

One book I have come across is the Asperger’s Syndrome Workplaces Survival Guide. The first page and a half pretty much described my work history: problems keeping a job over the long term, problems with the fact that I actually want to get my work done and don’t want to be bothered with all this nonsense that seems to fill the work day and prevents me from getting anything done, problems with the fact that I’m not all that social, problems with the fact that (until I became aware of it) I would sometimes say inappropriate things. The author asks the question all of us on the spectrum ask: “What is more important: chatting in the lunch room or getting your work done?” People on the autism spectrum (apparently mistakenly) think it is the latter. Worse, those with AS can appear to be rude, hard to get along with, or bullheaded, when in fact none of these are true. Those with AS don’t have the same internal censors — we have to learn those. We are easy to get along with; we may just not understand social cues we haven’t consciously learned yet. We aren’t bullheaded; we are open-minded and adjust what we believe based on facts and information — we just insist you provide facts and information.

The book is all about helping those with AS understand what is expected of them, to learn how to navigate the workplace. One could ask, “Why is it I have to do all the adjusting?” Well, because the neurotypicals offer most of the jobs available. More, even if you are entrepreneurial, you will still have to interact with neurotypical people. At the same time, a very high percentage of people with AS have college degrees, including graduate degrees. Businesses are missing out on a huge pool of talent because they are excluding a lot of people just because they “don’t get along” with others — when in fact it’s not that they don’t get along, but rather that they just want to get their work done. Businesses are too often getting second best people because the first best don’t have great social skills. And — as I can certainly attest — those with AS are as a result misallocated human resources.

Another book I ran across is The Partner’s Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. I read the Foreword, and (though I subscribe to the Intense World Theory of AS and autism — at least for my son and me — rather than the less-competent-Theory-of-Mind model presented in the book) I recognized a great deal about me as a husband and father there. In short, everything I read about AS behavior and the social consequences of those behaviors has been a mirror. There is practically no doubt in my mind I have AS. It explains many of my actions, my thinking, my social interactions, my attitudes, etc. The good thing is that in knowing this about myself, I can actually know what to do to fit in better. I have done so over time as it is, without knowing I have AS. When people are bold enough (or asshole enough, depending on their attitudes) to point out my eyes won’t focus on them or that I primarily look at their mouths when I talk to them (leading me to working on looking people in the eyes — a real cognitive effort, I assure you) or that I cannot engage in small talk or that I sometimes say inappropriate things (which I have gotten much better about, being made conscious of it), I can change those things.

So now you know why I’ve acted weird around you, if you’ve ever gotten to interact with me personally. Just remember: if I’m working, for the love of God, don’t interrupt me! 🙂

Learning to Act Human

In my research into my son’s autism, I came to realize a great many things about myself. For example, I have in many ways spent a great deal of my time “learning to become human” — or learning to “fit in” with normal human beings.

Most of the time, when I talk to a person, I am either looking all over the place or looking at the person’s mouth. I have had enough people complain about these things that I have trained myself to look a person in the eye. However, to do so takes quite a bit of concentration. If I think it is important to keep eye contact with you, I can, but it requires mental work to do so. As a result, though, I am almost certainly not paying as much attention to what you’re saying as you would probably like, and I’ll probably have to ask you several times to repeat yourself. Maintaining eye contact is, of course, natural for most people.

In one of his stand-up routines, Chris Rock observes that when you first start dating someone, you are not actually dating that person, you are dating their representative. This is not just true of dating, but of any initial social interactions. Again, this comes natural to people. Everyone understands you are supposed to present an edited version of yourself to others. This is innate. But not for me. I literally had to read somewhere that you should not put forward all aspects of who you are when you first meet someone, because it’s off-putting. This was seriously news to me. I saw the validity of what the person was saying, and put it into practice. My dating life improved considerably — as evidenced by the fact that I am now married. That this took a while is evidenced by the fact that I am 46 and I only got married 11 years ago. My first actual girlfriend? When I was 26. Who knew that you shouldn’t present yourself exactly as you are when you first meet someone? Well, most people, apparently.

I am sure there are many more, but these are the ones that stand out to me.

I still haven’t figured out how to engage in small talk, though economist Peter Boetkke’s observation that in order to get tenure you have to subtract what he calls the “lunch tax” — which is any off-putting (typically, political) discussion — has benefited me greatly of late (keep all political views on the down-low, at least until you feel out the person you are talking to; keep any controversial beliefs to oneself; etc.). This is really a variation of the previous observation, just applied to work. But, again, I had to have it explicitly pointed out to me.

What this suggests to me is that there are a set of behaviors that are more natural for others that simply have to be learned by me (and, I would guess, others like me). I have often not even realized there is something atypical in my behaviors until they are pointed out — either directly, by friends (or people who don’t like me), or indirectly, by reading. Or perhaps, these behaviors are all learned by others, only my tendency to separate myself from other people resulted in my missing those lessons from life. This would be consistent with the intense world theory of autism.

In any case, there are a number of aspects of life which I have had to learn, which were not instinctual for me. The problem is that one cannot learn anything about which one is fully ignorant. I cannot know to learn about gene regulation proteins, for example, until I learn that there are gene regulatory proteins. There are obviously a great many facts like that which we all must learn — and learn about to know we need to learn them. Now imagine that that included social behaviors. Most people learn social behaviors like we learn language — we learn the specifics of a given culture, but we learn then innately because we are born with a “language instinct.” But I do not. I learned most of my social behaviors like I learned molecular biology. Well, that’s the story of my life.

Learning social behaviors only after I have had people point out that I was not doing them. Since such things are instinctual for most people, the assumption is that they are instinctual for me as well, meaning when I am not doing them, I am being rude, a jerk, etc. However, when I learn what I was doing was wrong, I have typically tried to change, to normalize my behaviors. It’s not that I don’t want to engage in typical social behaviors — it has typically been that I didn’t know about them in the first place.