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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Autistics Helping Autistics

Medical Express has a piece on an autistic man, Kyle Barton, who lives in the Plano area and who attended UTD who has had a hard time finding a job. The title of the piece is Man with Autism Helps Design Virtual World to Make Life Better for Adults like Him. The entire thing is well worth reading, and I don’t want to summarize it. The article not only discusses his project, but goes into the struggles he’s had finding a job.

I certainly understand that struggle. Barton certainly should not be unemployed. He is a graduate of UT-Dallas and, very obviously, very intelligent. And yet, he’s struggled to find work. I have a Ph.D. from UT-Dallas, and yet the only work I’ve managed to get have been adjunct professor jobs, and temporary and part time work. I’m incredibly thankful I now have a full time job, but it’s as a paraprofessional (don’t get me wrong, I love the work I’ll be doing, but I should be making far more given my education and abilities).

While I do hope that Barton’s work will help many autistics navigate the world better and, hopefully, find and keep work, there’s a certain absurdity to someone like him or me having trouble finding employment. We seem to mostly be guilty of being socially awkward, spending too much time working at work, being too creative, and treating too many people as equals. The fact is that most people are completely intolerant of any real differences in thinking and behavior and only tolerate superficial differences.

 

We Meritocrats

About a year and a half ago I read Neurotribes. Throughout it I kept seeing in each of the autistic cases Silberman mentions that they seemed particularly focused on merit.

I definitely believe in meritocracy, and I always have. It was only reinforced when I read (and recently re-read) Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, in which Rand (who was almost certainly a fellow Aspie), provides a epic celebration of meritocracy. Indeed, her primary argument against socialism or even the interventionist state is precisely that people are rewarded for things other than merit (for her the worst is mere social connections).

It is perhaps not surprising that people who identify with their work and who aren’t particularly social would think that the best system is one that recognizes people for their actual accomplishments than for their social/political skills. Of course, social skills and political skills are practically the same. Which is perhaps why many on the spectrum I have met have been particularly anti-politics if not outright libertarian. To us it seems a pretty stupid way to get things done, since nothing is getting done while everyone involved get rich and powerful while producing nothing of worth to anyone.

We thus have a tendency to respect creators, inventors, and other such entrepreneurs but not the kind of people who get what they want because of their personalities or their social skills or who they know. We appreciate the artists and the scientists and the inventors but not the social butterflies and the politicians and the demagogues.

But let’s be honest. We creators need the kind of people who can promote our work, if we’re not natural promoters (and we on the spectrum definitely are not). We autistic creators in particular need a promoter in our lives, someone who will make sure our things are published, sent out, or marketed to the right people.

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.

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.

 

Welcome to the World Autism Made

One of the areas in which autistic people seem to excel is computers. A large percentage (perhaps most) of computer programmers are on the spectrum. Silicon Valley is covered in autistic people. Although I never learned to program, I’ve been online since before the World Wide Web. I started on GopherSpace. Most of my interactions with others have been online, and I even used the internet to meet my wife–using eHarmony.

Now, it may seem odd that there is a group of people who don’t do well in regular society but who seem well-adapted to computers. I mean, it’s not like computers are in nature, creating evolutionary pressures. And they haven’t been around long enough to create any selective advantages.

However, one thing we forget about species is that they are not only adapted to their environment, but they adapt the environment to themselves. In Africa, there are two species of elephants–the forest elephant and the (more familiar) savanna elephant. The latter have a tendency to push over trees. Might there be savannas where the savanna elephants are because those elephants create savannas?

Let me list a few people who we either know or suspect had autism, and their specialty.

Isaac Newton — founder of modern physics, inventor of calculus
Charles Babbage — computer
Alexander Graham Bell — inventor of the telephone
Thomas Edison — inventor
Nikola Tesla — inventor (esp. of alternating current–AC)
Norbert Wiener — information theory
Alan Turing — mathematician, computer scientist
Bill Gates — software

One could make the argument that autistic people created the very computer environment autistic people are most comfortable in.

In fact, there is pretty good evidence that most of the science, technology, and arts you enjoy are the products of autistic minds.

Autism and Group Selection

There is a theory of evolution out there that applies to social groups called group selection. It’s an idea that arose, been discredited, and re-arose. The economist F.A. Hayek supported it in his theory of spontaneous orders, arguing that large social groups would undergo selection for the best social orders if let free to do so (the benefit, as he understood is, is that people were both free to leave and to change society so that only the society “died off” rather than the individuals–thus could we experiment in ways of living), and E.O. Wilson is now an advocate.

There was an article that came out last year that argued that the presence of autism could be important for the health of groups and thus would arise through group selection. This argument is not dissimilar to observations I have made here and here. The bottom line is that neurodiversity is vital for the health of any society. There have to be a large majority (around 80%) who act to stabilize the system, and there have to be a small group (around 20%) who destabilize the system through creativity and innovation.

The article makes this point as well. Those groups that tolerated autistics seem to be those better able to survive. Of course, creative innovators, those who challenged the status quo in technology or culture, have always been at best “tolerated.” But the more tolerant a culture has been to such people, the more innovative and wealthier that culture has been.

Which should worry you, because our culture does not much tolerate such people outside of programming. Indeed, we are finding continued wealth in the IT sector of our economy, while the rest of the economy seems stagnant at best.