Magic

Today Daniel told me that he wanted to develop a new talent. He said he wants to learn magic. And not just any kind of magic: strange magic.

He wants to be able to change butterflies into any color he wants.

He wants to be able to tell butterflies to do what he wants.

He wants to be able to tell what everybody is feeling at all times.

Yes, Daniel considers the ability to tell what everyone is feeling at all times to be magic. And not just magic, but strange magic. If he learns magic, he’ll be able to understand how people feel.

To us, you neurotypicals are a mystery, and it can only take the power of magic to uncover that mystery. Remember that the next time you look at your autistic child and wonder if you’ll ever truly understand them and what they’re thinking and feeling.

The Cerebellum and Autism

The cerebellum, which contains the overwhelming majority of neurons, even though it is much, much, much smaller than the rest of the brain, is proving to be of central importance to the traits we commonly find in autism. The cerebellum is important to processing emotions, processing language, memory, and implicit vs. explicit learning. While the article mostly talks about communication deficits, what’s of interest to me is the point about implicit vs. explicit learning, as that’s a difference I have noted several  times before. This suggests that I am right about autistics being strong explicit learners and weak implicit learners, and it also suggests why autistics have this feature of learning.

 

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.

Affective and Cognitive Empathy in Autistics

The issues of empathy and autism are actually quite complex. There is research that suggests that autistics have affective empathy, but are lacking in cognitive empathy. Few realize that there are in fact two different kinds of empathy. In particular, it is noted that, “ASD had difficulties with tasks requiring cognitive perspective taking, but reported emotional experiences and victim empathy that were in line with comparison boys.” In comparison, psychopaths are deficient in affective empathy, but not social.

In other words, autistics seem to be deficient in social empathy because they are deficient in theory of mind. Given that I have argued that there are serious problems with the theory that autistics have deficient theory of mind, this would also suggest that there is a serious problem with the argument that we are lacking in cognitive empathy.

Why would the researchers find that ASD have difficulties with cognitive perspective taking? Perhaps because they themselves have difficulties with cognitive perspective taking when it comes to those with ASD. They no doubt had us try to “mind read” neurotypicals, only to find we had difficulty. Did they also have us try to “mind read” fellow autistics? I know that I do a better job of understanding the feelings, thoughts, and actions of fellow autistics than I do of neurotypicals.

If I were to judge neurotypicals by autistic standards, I would have to conclude that they don’t have cognitive empathy. They seem to have emotional/affective abilities, but not the ability to take our perspective. If they were able to do that, they wouldn’t have been making the mistake of accusing us of not having empathy or theory of mind.

When most people accuse us of not having empathy, they aren’t usually making these distinctions, though. Watching us, it may sometimes seem we don’t have empathy. Rather than having an obvious emotional response to a situation, we are often standing there, calmly taking in the situation, then calmly coming in to solve the problem. People too often interpret this lack of an “emotional” response–which all too often means, “You’re not panicking and making things worse, like I am”–as lack of empathy. We in turn look at the neurotypicals’ emotional responses as irrational, ineffective, and even making the situation worse.

Of course, in turn, there are a number of situations that greatly upset us that neurotypicals don’t remotely understand. Yet our emotional responses to our things are considered by neurotypicals to be “ridiculous” and a sign of our pathology. We get upset at different things, and are calm in the face of different things; that’s all. It’s not a sign of pathology for either of us that those differences exist.

Improving Executive Function

Tali Shenfield’s Child Psychology Blog has a post on improving executive function. I have written on executive function before (here and here and here and here) but this post goes into greater detail about all the things affected by executive function, including:

  • achieving goals we set
  • achieving goals others set for us
  • short term memory
  • planning
  • organization skills
  • emotional self-regulation

Shenfield also points out that executive functioning is on a gradient, meaning a 12 year old could have the emotional maturity of a 9 year old. Or, as I’ve told my wife, Daniel (8) has the emotional maturity of his brother, who is 5, while his cognitive abilities are much more advanced. But with executive functioning essentially making him “act 5,” most people don’t realize how advanced he is in many other ways.

I have issues with all of the above listed, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. At the same time, once I have all my ducks in a row and I have said I’m going to do something, you can take it to the bank that it will get done. In the end, I can achieve goals I set or other set for me because for me it’s a matter of integrity to do what I say. Deadlines loom large for me, and that helps me overcome at least that issue–when a clear deadline is actually set.

Daniel’s Stoic Philosophy

Last night Dylan threw up after having had a stomach ache all day. Waiting to get in the shower after he threw up, Dylan was very upset and said he hopes he never gets sick again. Daniel responded, in perfect stoic philosophy fashion, that Dylan will indeed get sick again.

Of course, most people would take such a statement as literally the opposite of comforting. We’d be outright offended if an adult said what he said. However, Daniel meant it as a kind of comfort. It was clear, from the way he said it, that it was meant to help Dylan be less upset. If he’s certain to get sick again, it makes no sense to get this upset now about it. Perfect stoic logic.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Daniel demonstrated stoic logic. Dylan is a bit OCD, and he cannot stand to get any water on his clothes. And I do mean the smallest drop of water will make him want to change clothes.

One day, while I was wetting his hair to make it more manageable, I got his shirt a little wet. Dylan of course started complaining that I got the shirt wet and that he wanted to change his shirt. Daniel overheard him and came and tried to comfort him by explaining the concept of evaporation. He told Dylan that over time the water would turn into air, so there was no point in getting upset, since the shirt would be dry soon.

Again, this was Daniel trying to comfort Dylan. Daniel takes a very practical approach to solving emotional problems that is likely to seem cold to most people. But if you think about it, what’s a better demonstration of concern than to actually help you change the way you think about a situation so you’re no longer upset?

Autistics Proven to Have Empathy

Here’s a little something from the “I told you so” file. It turns out that, as I have argued before in this blog, autistic are hardly cold and unempathetic; quite the contrary, they are very empathetic and deeply moral.

The connection to being deeply moral has already been made in the past, but many have continued to insist autistics are unempathetic. Which would seem odd, given the research that shows a connection between morals and empathy. At the same time, this article continues to insist on “mind-blindness,” although it would be quite odd indeed if one could empathize without theory of mind, as I’ve noted before.

They suggest that around half of people with autism have alexithymia, which is also found in some non-autistic people. People with alexithymia have difficulty understanding emotions, both theirs and others, and this can lead to the perception that they are “cold.” I would also argue that a tendency toward rationality and practicality can also create this perception.

It seems that the study of autism has gone through a stage of creating a ton of misconceptions about the condition, and now we are seeing studies that, to someone on the spectrum, makes much more sense.

Balloonacy — A Play Good for Children with Autism

Several years ago (April 2015) my family went to the Dallas Children’s Theater to watch Balloonacy, a cute mime play about an old man who lives in an apartment by himself and is celebrating his birthday alone, when a balloon comes in through his open window and becomes his friend. The Dallas Children’s Theater has special showings of certain plays for children with sensory issues, and we have been going since their first such show. The sound is not as loud and the lighting contrast between the stage and the seats is not as sharp.

Although this was not our first play we attended at DCT, and although Balloonacy was not specifically written for children on the autism spectrum – it is a pretty standard mime play in the French style with light slapstick – I decided to write a little about this play because of Daniel’s reaction to the play, and because I think that this play is particularly good for children on the spectrum to see.

The story is about an old man who lives alone and is trying to eat a spaghetti dinner he warmed up in the microwave and to celebrate his birthday. A red balloon flies in through the window, and the old man tries to put it out – only to have the balloon return again and again. Finally, he slams the window shut, smashing his thumb – which causes him to put a band-aid on it. The balloon is magical – appearing out of the trash and out of boxes, including a birthday present left at the front door. The old man grows fond of the balloon when it appears out of the birthday present, and he begins interacting with it and playing with it. At one point he is playing with a fork, and he accidentally stabs the balloon. The balloon starts to lose air, and it slowly deflates. He puts the balloon in a box, puts the band-aid from his thumb onto the balloon, and the balloon reappears fully inflated. After more shenanigans, the old man tries to eat his birthday cupcake, and the balloon smashes it into the old man’s face – as the old man wipes off his face after putting the cupcake down on his seat, he sits on the cupcake. He gets angry at the balloon and throws it out the window, but quickly regrets doing so. He tries to show hearts out the window, then draws a big heart on a piece of newspaper, creates a paper airplane out of it, and flies it out the window. The balloon returns, and the balloon and the old man leave together. The play ends with the old man flying into the distant sky, holding the balloon.

One of the main attributes of autism is high orientation toward objects. Autistics are more comfortable interacting with objects than with people. They even relate, in a certain sense, to objects. I have used this knowledge to help socialize Daniel by making the Matchbox cars he’s obsessed with talk to each other. He’s then been able to transfer the emotions from the cars to people to a certain degree. Lately he’s started to demonstrate interest in getting things for his brother and/or sister when we go to the store, rather than just think about getting a car for himself. But he still prefers objects over people.

Balloonacy has two characters in it. The old man, and the balloon. Daniel identified with the balloon. He is also a fan of slapstick comedy (I have read that this is not uncommon for people on the spectrum), but there is little doubt he identified more with the balloon than the man. He was utterly delighted with the balloon and its antics (all children are, but not in the way Daniel does, identifying with the balloon – most children are delighted with the balloon the way the old man is). But then something interesting happened. The balloon popped. And Daniel began to cry. And the old man got upset. And Daniel began to cry a bit more, wiping tears away. Daniel was sad the balloon popped, and then when the old man was also sad, he saw the man feeling the way he did, and empathized with the old man.

While this may seem a normal thing to do – because, for a neurotypical person, it is – for Daniel this is major. Not only did Daniel feel sad for the balloon, which is something that we might in fact expect from him, but Daniel also felt sad that the old man felt sad. The feelings he had for the balloon was transferred to the old man. It was obvious from his body language and the ways he reacted to first the balloon and then the old man reacting to the balloon. Daniel hugged up on me to get some comfort when the old man was visibly upset, and had merely slumped in his seat when the balloon popped.

It seems to me that Balloonacy is a fantastic play for children on the spectrum precisely because of how Daniel reacted. There was an object the autistic children could relate to, and a person on whom they could transfer their feelings toward the object. This is empathy development, and people on the spectrum need a certain degree of empathy development. This play is a fantastic vehicle for this kind of transference and the redirection of the autistic child toward human emotional responses and interactions.