LGBTQ and Autism

I keep coming across this connection between autism and an increased likelihood of being LGBTQ, but I haven’t written about it until now because, well, it hasn’t been personalized yet. My wife has a gay best friend–they have been friends since they were 14–but he’s not autistic. I always figured that homosexuality didn’t bother me in the least because I was so secure in my own heterosexuality. Which, again, points to why I haven’t really written about this issue. With a few exceptions, such as here.

Yet, it would be a dereliction of my duty as a blogger of all things autism if I were to leave it aside. Thus, I refer you to this article: Dual Spectrums. It’s worth a read, because it discusses the very high correlation between autism and fluid gender and sexuality.

I believe that one of the traits of autism involves a failure to “see”hierarchies and boundaries in the world. For the same reasons I tend to treat the CEO and the custodian the same and for the same reasons I’m a polymath, there are those for whom the boundaries of gender and/or sexuality have dissolved. I have argued that autistics tend not to be racist, and this tendency is also related, I think.

It also may simply be that we are oblivious to social pressures and are thus free to be ourselves, more or less.

Of course, we are looking for a single reason, we’re almost certainly going to be wrong.

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Autistic Masking

A recent trend I have seen on Twitter among autistics there involved opposition to “autistic masking.” Not all autistics can mask, but many if not most can. And that creates a number of problems for us.

I’m honestly a little torn on this issue, because on the one hand, I realize that literally everyone “masks”–you are a spouse, a parent, a friend, a child, an employee or employer, and there may be remarkably little overlap among those personas you present–and on the other hand, autistics both have to mask a lot more (like stimming), and masking is much more exhausting for us than it is for neurotypicals.

Over time, though, a lot of masking just becomes second nature. Sometimes you mask without even realizing it. For example, recently Daniel started engaging in palilalia. It was only recently that I realized palilalia was something I also did–only, I did it silently, in my head. I don’t see any particular benefit to my “unmasking” my palilalia. I’m still doing it–silently, in my head–and all it would do would be to cause unnecessary stress on others for me to do it out loud.

There are a lot of things people keep to themselves. People self-censor all the time. It’s called being polite. It’s called having good manners. You learn good manners. It’s not something anyone is born with. It’s a form of masking, and it’s a form of masking that makes you a better person over time.

However, the last century has seen a rise in what I would call the “cult of authenticity.” Everyone seems to think–or at least say they think–that people ought to be more “authentic,” that they need to be their “authentic selves.” I say that’s nonsense. I don’t want people to be their authentic selves. I want them to be better, nicer, kinder, more generous than their authentic selves–even if their authentic selves are good, nice, kind, and generous. The cult of authenticity has ruined art, poetry, relationships, and general civility. Rather than expecting everyone to rise up to greater heights, we want everyone to wallow in the shallows of their “authentic” selves.

At the same time, I can understand why many autistics are truly tired of masking. Masking is, for us, a great effort and, even when well-performed, prone to breaking down. Masking for neurotypicals is easy and relatively effortless. Masks can change in less than a moment. This is hardly the case for autistics. We have to always think about what it is that the person in front of us wants to see from us. And heaven help us if the situation changes and the mask has to change. Worse, we have to mask things that others don’t have to mask. Neurotypicals are sincerely interested in other people and stories about others people, while very often we autistics aren’t. But we know it’s important to others to talk about those thing, so we feign interest. Also, if we are allowing a lot of back-and-forth in conversation, you may rest assured that it’s only because we are artificially cutting ourselves off despite having so much more to say. This, too, is a form of masking.

I suppose the real problem with masking is that while presumably neurotypicals do get times when they can be their “authentic selves” around certain people, we too often feel like we can never be ourselves–even around friends and family. When can I stim without feeling self-conscious about it? (Of course, I also rarely stim when I’m fully comfortable, so I suppose wanting both is contradictory in nature, at least for me.) When can I just talk and talk and talk about what interests me? I pretty much never get that opportunity, and I find myself less and less able to have conversations about my interests that go on for as long as I want them to go on (ah, the beauty of grad school in allowing such conversations!).

I often put up with people touching my wrists (which makes me want to crawl out of my skin), and I have to wear suits and long-sleeve shirts (remember my wrists?) in certain situations. I’ve had to get over being interrupted when I work so that I’m not biting people’s heads off. Even then, I really haven’t “gotten over” the intense irritation I get at being interrupted when I’m working on something, especially my writing. Rather, I mask it, taking a moment to calmly move out of the zone and into a space where I can converse. But let me ask you: should I have just kept biting people’s heads off, or should I have masked that reaction? I think we should probably all agree on the answer to that.

Living in the world means masking. This is true for all people. However, it’s harder for us autistics. And we’re rarely if ever given the opportunity to truly be ourselves. Which only makes it harder. Which is no doubt why there is this movement against masking. We have been pressured into always-masking (and always doing so poorly), and many have gotten sick and tired of it. The answer, for them, is to demand from everyone that we be allowed to never mask anymore. I think there are rhetorical benefits to that approach insofar as it draws attention to what we have to do to get along (and even then, not enough)–especially if it can draw attention to the fact that masking, because it’s so hard for us, actually harms us not only through mental exhaustion, but from people reacting so poorly to when the mask starts to crack. We need people to realize what we’re doing and how it can harm us. But, truth be told, we’ll never be able to stop masking. It’s simply part of being human.

Yes, I AM an Autistic Person

Am I a person with autism or an autistic person?

The latter identifies the person with disability; the former is “person first,” and suggests that the person and the disability is different.

If we are talking about a paraplegic or someone who lost an arm, person-first language would make sense. However, I am not a person with autism. That is, if you could “take away” my autism, there would not be a “Troy Camplin” left that in any way would resemble who I am. Autism is a brain structure difference, and that difference results in a particular way of thinking, behaving, acting, interacting, etc., and affects personality.

That is, I am utterly indefinable outside of the autistic structure of my nervous system. The same is true of my son, Daniel. He would not be him, with all his wonderful capabilities and occasional frustrations and difficulties, aside from the autism. Daniel is an autistic person. So am I. We are not people with autism, as though the autism could be taken away and we would remain the same (absent a few communication difficulties). No, we are autistic people. Quite different in our thinking, behaviors, interactions, etc.

This is different from saying I am a person with dark brown hair (or, increasingly, without much hair). The color of my hair does not affect my personality. I am a person with hazel eyes. I am a person with slightly low blood sugar. I am certainly a person with a large number of traits that have nothing to do with my personality, behaviors, thinking, actions, etc. Skin color, nationality, ethnicity, etc have no effect on my morals, behaviors, interactions, etc. But my being autistic does.

The thing with the “person first” language is that it participates in the medicalization of autism. If a person has cancer, you would definitely say they are a person with cancer and not call them a cancerous person (talk about a difference in meaning!); it’s a person with diabetes, not a diabetic person; it’s a person with psoriasis, not a psoriatic person. Things that can be potentially cured, treated, or truly controlled are things appropriately medicalized, as they are diseases of different kinds.

But I am not a disease. I don’t have a disease. And I really don’t have a disability, except from a purely neurotypical-centric world view. Nobody would consider me disabled because I’m left-handed in a right-handed dominant world. Many things are designed exclusively for a right-handed world, making many things difficult for those of us who are left-handed. But do those difficulties make us disabled? Of course not. We adjust. We sometimes find left-handed utensils. Sometimes people adjust to us (letting us sit with our left elbow away from everyone at the dinner table, for example). But we’re hardly disabled on account of it.

And the same is true of being on the autism spectrum. I adjust to the neurotypical world. I try to find autism-friendly social situations when possible. And sometimes neurotypical people need to adjust to us. Failing to do so is simply selfish and rude. Especially if we tell you that we are on the spectrum and explain our communication differences. If we do that and you call those things “excuses” and refuse to adjust your expectations, that makes you the asshole, not us. We don’t mean to be rude, even if we sometimes do things that can be interpreted by neurotypicals as rude; but when we apologize and explain ourselves, the decent thing to do is to accept our apology and to try to understand the communication breakdown with us.

To say someone is a person with something is to say that they remain the same whether they are with the thing or not. I am the same person whether or not I am with my computer, whether or not I am with my cup of coffee; even whether or not I am with my wife and children. I’m a man with a wife and children, not a wife and child person. But I am most certainly an autistic person. It is part of my state of being. My very existence is unthinkable in its absence.

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.

Polymath or Know-It-All?

It is apparently not uncommon for people with Asperger’s to be thought of as “know-it-alls.” But what, exactly, is a know-it-all?

I have been called a polymath, a Renaissance man, extremely knowledgeable, and, yes, a know-it-all. What is the difference among these things?

A polymath is someone who knows a great deal about a great many things. I have published on economics, sociology, literature, theater, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, networks, complexity, organizations, spontaneous orders, and morals. I have a B.A. in recombinant gene technology with a minor in chemistry, and I have two years of grad school in molecular biology; I have a M.A. in English; and I have a Ph.D. in the humanities, the dissertation for which was titled Evolutionary Aesthetics. I am also the author of Diaphysics, a book that covers all of those topics as well as physics.

A Renaissance man is a polymath who is also an artist. I write plays and poetry.

Obviously, “extremely knowledgeable” is a general term for polymath.

So what about “know-it-all”? It is obviously intended as an insult. In my experience is it wielded by those who have lost the argument to my superior knowledge on a topic or who feel overwhelmed by my unrelenting barrage of facts on the topic at hand. That’s when you get slammed with the epithet “know-it-all.” Those who are accused of such ought to take comfort. Receiving the accusation is an admission of ignorance and defeat by the person delivering it.

Autism is Literally Not Self-Centered

fMRI scans show striking differences between people with autism and neurotypicals.

Most notably, neurotypicals’ “thoughts of social interaction clearly included activation indicating a representation of the “self,” manifested in the brain’s posterior midline regions. However, the self-related activation was near absent in the autism group.” That is to say, the autistics did not put themselves into the given scenario. Say “hug” to a neurotypical, and they will imagine themselves getting a hug from or hugging someone; say “hug” to an autistic, and they will think of the dictionary definition of the word or envision others hugging.

This actually goes along with much of what I have written about on this blog about people on the spectrum being more external-focused. We think more about objects and ideas rather than people, because we don’t think that much about ourselves. This also makes sense of the fact that solipsists are the mental opposites of autistics; solipsists cannot differentiate the world from themselves, while autistics radically differentiate the world from themselves. At its most extreme, the latter is outright debilitating. At the same time, solipsism at its most extreme is the person so hyper-empathetic that you cannot reason with them at all. Everything is based on their feelings, or nothing.

Thus, while many people accuse those on the high functioning end of the spectrum of being self-absorbed, we can see from this research that the opposite is literally true. We don’t think of ourselves at all. Or rarely. But because we don’t think of ourselves, we don’t think that much about others, either — at least, to the degree that one has to think of oneself to think of and about others. We are great with objects, and thus we tend to gravitate toward things like math, programming, engineering, and the sciences. Those of us interested in the social sciences tend to gravitate toward things like agent-based modeling.

Why this pattern of thinking comes about is what we need to try to understand.