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.

Oxytocin and Autism II

Oxytocin is an important neurotransmitter, and one which has been implicated in autistic behaviors. Known as the “love hormone,” there’s a lot more to it than that. According to Psychology Today,

It regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction, playing a role in behaviors from maternal-infant bonding and milk release to empathy, generosity, and orgasm. When we hug or kiss a loved one, oxytocin levels increase; hence, oxytocin is often called “the love hormone.” In fact, the hormone plays a huge role in all pair bonding. The hormone is greatly stimulated during sex, birth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is the hormone that underlies trust. It is also an antidote to depressive feelings.

As I have noted before, oxytocin has a dark side, meaning low levels of oxytocin not only reduce one’s desires for social interaction, but also reduces the tendency to engage in “groupthink,” the worst versions of which are racism and sexism. To the extent that autistics don’t engage in in-group/out-group thinking, we have a general tendency to not engage in racism and sexism.

However, do note many of the behaviors noted above. I suspect that it’s not just any empathy that’s affected by lower levels of oxytocin, but the specific kind autistics have problems with. Coincidentally, the kind of empathy we autistics have problems with is the same empathy that actually makes people favor their in-groups over out-groups and thus can make people behave in racist and less moral ways.

Also note that oxytocin is as much the sex molecule as the love molecule. I have read that many autistics have little to no interest in sex. While that’s certainly not universal (I’m sure other hormones, etc. are involved and affect sex drive as well), it seems to be much more common among autistics than neurotypicals. Low levels of oxytocin would explain this phenomenon. Ironically, since having sex increases oxytocin levels, those who lack interest in sex due to low oxytocin levels are behaving in such a way as to maintain low oxytocin levels.

The connection to trust is a bit odd to me, as I find autistics to be generally quite trusting. However, it may make sense if trust is tied to in-group members, and distrust to out-group members. Without that distinction, it may be that we are simply more trusting of out-group members, and thus we seem more trusting overall.

Here is an interesting overview of the research to day on the connection between oxytocin and autism. I have also written about the connection between touch and increasing oxytocin levels in a post titled Hugs Help.

A Literature of Autism for Empathy-Creation

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

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

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

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

Daniel Wins the Fantastic Falcon Award for Exhibiting Compassion

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

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

Joyce Carol Oates Insults Autistics on Twitter

Around the same time Nancy MacLean was making her anti-autistic comments, Joyce Carol Oates tweeted quite the ignorant insult about autistics:

So we are apparently identical to psychopaths and don’t “even seem aware of others.” I don’t even know where to begin with such a comment. First, there is no overlap between psychopaths and autistics. None. If anything, we are anti-psychopaths. A psychopaths is so socially aware and even charming, that he or she could get you to vote for them (any very many have). But you won’t find a great many of us autistics in politics.

Also, I’ve never known a single autistic person–even among the many severely autistic people I’ve known over the years–who weren’t aware of others. We may have a tendency to prefer objects–or even ideas–over people, but we’re not unaware of others. Of course, Nancy MacLean and Joyce Carol Oates seem intent on making it clear why we may not particularly care for people, given the way we’re so often treated. Particularly, it seems, by people like them.

I’m wondering how many more people like them are going to make ignorant, disparaging comments about autism before people start getting outraged by it. I’m also wondering if and when any of them are going to show the empathy, morality, and conscience to apologize to the autistic community for their discriminatory comments. I find it very disturbing that we cannot seem to get a single apology from anyone for comments that nobody would tolerate if they were made about practically any other group.

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.

The “Double Empathy Problem”

When you learn to cite sources, you are told that you give a direct quote when you could not say it better yourself. The same is true of blogging. If you cannot say it better yourself, make a link.

The author says there is a “double empathy problem” between autistics and neurotypicals. I’ve talked about that in relation to theory of mind. Clearly we have come to the same fundamental conclusions–in no small part, because we have taken similar approaches, such as by thinking of neurotypical thinking in pathological terms.

I’ve discussed these issues here and here and here and here and here.

Duke Historian Nancy MacLean Identifies Autism as the Source of a “Malevolent” Ideology

Duke historian Nancy MacLean, while speaking at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in NYC on February 7, 2018, says she thinks that the villain of her book Democracy in Chains was a villain precisely because he may have been, in her opinion, autistic. And people who have what she considers an evil ideology have tended to be autistic. She is talking about James Buchanan, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on Public Choice Theory. See the 1 hour mark:

There is a young man who asks her a question about where James Buchanan’s ideas and ideology come from, whether from “personal greed” or “malevolence.” MacLean responds:

Such a profound question, and I have to say as an author I have struggled with this, and I could explain it in different ways. I didn’t put this in the book, but I’ll say it here [stifled laugh]. It’s striking to me how many of the architects of this cause seem to be on the autism spectrum, you know, people who don’t feel solidarity or empathy with others, and who have kind of difficult human relationships sometime.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not at all objecting to being grouped in with the likes of a Nobel Prize-winning economist. The point isn’t the comparison to the person at all. The objection is that to MacLean’s mind James Buchanan’s ideology is not just wrong, but downright evil. And why is it evil? And why is it “malevolent”? Because it’s what autistic people believe! Only autistic people could believe in an ideology with which Nancy MacLean disagrees.

In case you’re wondering, James Buchanan was a classical liberal. That is, he believed in small government, free markets, and that people should be generally left alone. MacLean interprets this as being evidence of Buchanan being autistic (she doesn’t directly say it, but certainly implies it–which is her M.O. in her book, by the way). She accuses us of not feeling solidarity with other people and of not feeling empathy. Naturally, those of us on the spectrum know that we are certainly empathetic, as I myself have discussed several times–in some cases and ways, more so than others. I know that I have the ideology I do precisely because of my strong concern for the poor.

Is this the only time? Not at all. In Democracy In Chains itself, she notes that economist Tyler Cowan, because he is on the autism spectrum, “was not inclined to sentimentality or solidarity” (202). Clearly this is congruent with her comments about Buchanan.

We on the spectrum ought to be outraged that a Duke University historian is going around telling people that the reason someone has an ideology that she herself considers malevolent is because the person is autistic. Meaning, people with autism, in her opinion, create malevolent, unempathetic, antisocial ideologies. I’ve discussed how ableist people like MacLean use autism as a slur, but I don’t think we’ve ever been accused of being the source of malevolent ideologies before.

If I lived anywhere near Duke University, I would be outside the History Department tomorrow protesting her. I can only hope the students of Duke, the residents of Durham, NC, and anyone who comes to learn about any of her speaking gigs begin protesting her. It’s time we insisted that we not be slandered by anyone, including Duke University historians.


Update: This blog post has been cited in Reason and DC Weekly and Latest Autism News (they are the same piece, in different outlets). And Latest Autism News also has its own piece on it, citing this blog. This blog post has also been reposted on the History News Network. And I have an interview here.

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?

Suppose You Thought Like Me

I want you to imagine that you are a person for which the following traits are always true.

Suppose that you are brutally honest and truthful at all times. And that you think being truthful and honest at all times is helpful.

You call things as you see them. This likely stems from your strong tendency to take things literally, at face value. This means you tend to be nonjudgmental and unbiased. (Note: being nonjudgmental is not the same thing as either amorality or giving allowance to immorality, though we may certainly disagree about what is or is not immoral; if anything, I myself have a very strong moral code) That and your honesty ensures you present things exactly as they are, as you understand them, without ignoring inconvenient facts.

Suppose too that you are conscientious, committed to your work, punctual, reliable, and loyal. Always. Also suppose that you believe when you are at work, you are only supposed to work and not socialize. Ever.

Suppose that when you express an opinion it’s because you’ve done a great deal of research and you have thought through the patterns and complexities and the varies alternatives and, only after a long period of contemplation, come up with an understanding, a solution, or an insight.

Suppose you’re persistent and focused. Suppose, too, that you’re a highly creative thinker and are not at all prone to groupthink or following behaviors. Suppose you can rapidly recognize patterns and can engage in imagistic thinking.

Suppose that information comes at you in an almost constant barrage (and can be so much that it can overwhelm your senses and thinking), that your thoughts are always racing, that your information output is almost as rapid as your information input.

Now suppose you think everyone thinks like you, perceives the world like you, behaves like you.

Or should.

What would you think of everyone else? What would everyone else think of your behaviors and the way you treat them?

If you can do that, if you can imagine these things–and imagine what it’s like to experience someone like you (if you are neurotypical) when the world is experienced this way–you can understand why we with autism act as we do. And why you mistakenly think we lack things like empathy or theory of mind.

We don’t.

We just think you think (or ought to think) like us.

And you think we think (or ought to think) like you.

But we can’t.

And you can’t.

We’re literally of different minds.