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.

 

Connecting and Communicating on the Spectrum

If you have a verbal child on the spectrum–or adult, for that matter–you are likely familiar with the phenomenon of obsessive interests, and the seemingly intense need for the autistic person to share everything they learned right this very minute. And Heaven help you if you’ve been away a while while they have been learning about their interests, because you’ll be sure to be bombarded with information the moment you see them.

Now, before I address what is going on, I want to make a point by addressing my autistic readers (neurotypicals: keep reading, because this is really mostly for you).

Austistics, if you have a neurotypical person in your life, you are likely familiar with the phenomenon of that person coming home and wanting to share with you everything they did that say and every social interaction they had. While you couldn’t care less about any of that stuff, you need to understand that those things are important to them. They think sharing such information is an appropriate way to create social bonds. While we bond over knowledge, designs, and ideas, they bond over gossip and complaining about what other people do. That is their passion, and that’s what they get excited and emotional about. So please be patient with them about their interests. It may seem silly or superficial to you, but it’s not to them. So let them have their say; don’t try to solve their problems (they hate that and only want to express themselves), even though you will likely come up with a clear and obvious solution; and try to at least feign interest by acknowledging them, asking questions, and demonstrating empathy for their position. The best course, too, is to take their side no matter what, even if it’s clear to you that they are in the wrong, or could be wrong–especially close friends and spouses, coworkers and bosses. Remember, they only want you to listen and take their side; anything else will offend and upset them.

If you do not have autism, this is how you appear to us. You think it’s ridiculous to talk about the application of complex network theory to understanding the economy, designing better slaughterhouses, or blowing up the Death Star, the behaviors of basking sharks, or what happened in Nausicaa (Daniel’s latest obsession); we think it’s ridiculous to talk about what Bob did to Sally at work, that George is having an affair with his boss, and that Mary is being mean again.

The point is that we’re both wrong; neither is in fact ridiculous; both are vitally important to the person; each is desperately trying to connect to the other through their interests. Neurotypical people are primarily interested in people; autistic people are primarily interested in things and ideas. Autistic people, by sharing their interests, are trying to make a connection with you. They are trying to be social. They’re not being social wrong, they are being social different. And when you rebuff them, you discourage them from trying to be social and you hurt their feelings. They then retreat into themselves and are less likely to try to be social in the future.

At the same time, if we were to treat the way you connect the same way, you would consider us to be anti-social, rude and arrogant. In fact, we are often considered to be all these things. This is reinforced by the fact that what we want to bond over is typically intellectual, nerdy, and/or geeky. You think our interests are stupid and annoying, and we feel the same about yours. But it is we who have to adapt.

In short, it is the responses and reactions of neurotypical people to our attempts to bond that contribute as much as anything to any sort of unsocial behavior. When our family sits at the dinner table together and Daniel wants to tell us something, we express interest in the topic, asking questions or otherwise contributing to the topic at hand. As a result, Daniel has been talking more and more. And he’s grown more interested in us as a result. Imagine that! We express interest in him, and he expresses interest in us.

Neurotypical people develop their identities through their interpersonal social networks; autistic people develop their identities through their interests. They identify with their work and interests, meaning if you dismiss their topic of conversation, you are dismissing them personally. That, at leas,t is how we interpret it. It is similar to if someone told you that your friends were all stupid and hateful and they didn’t understand why you would like those people. My guess is that you would distance yourself from that person. Because when they insult your friends, they insult you. For us on the spectrum, our obsessions are our friends. We listen to you talk about your friends; we only ask you listen as we talk about ours.

So that’s why we on the spectrum want to share our interests. It’s how we try to bond with you. In addition to that, we want to share when we want to share because what we want to say is present to mind. That means we can remember everything and communicate it well. If you make us wait, we may not remember in that moment, and it’s likely we will have to search for everything we wanted to say. That means we’ll be full of long pauses, uncertainty, and frustration. Frustration you will probably share since you don’t understand why we’re so hesitant now when we were so enthusiastic before. You need to understand that when the moment passes, it is impossible to recover. And we’ll be likely to forget half our points even as we know we forgot half our points, making us more frustrated–and more determined next time to get it all out.

So now you know why it is that we on the spectrum want to talk about the things we want to talk about, and why we feel such an urgency to do so. Part of the urgency is the way our memory works, but part of it is the same kind of urgency you feel in wanting to tell your friends and loved ones about what the other people in your life did. And that’s something we should both be able to understand.

Cows Eat Grass, Not Vegetables

Once I was trying to get Daniel to eat some chili I had made. I used to make a kind of chili with beans that he liked a whole lot, but my wife found a new recipe without beans and with a lot of other vegetables that Daniel is less of a fan of.

So I told Daniel we had chili for dinner.

“Is it with vegetables?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I don’t want it.”

“But you have to eat vegetables. They’ll make you grow up to be big and strong like Daddy. You want to grow up to be big and strong like Daddy, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yes. I want to eat lettuce.”

“Lettuce will make you big and strong like a bunny.”

“A bunny?!?”

That’s when Dylan, who was 4 at the time, chimed in.

“I want to eat vegetables and grow up to be big and strong like a cow!”

To which Daniel said, “A cow?!? You want to eat grass?!?”

This interchange tells you a lot about the difference between Daniel and his neurotypical younger brother. Dylan immediately understood that cows eat grass, grass is a plant, plants are vegetables, and therefore cows eat vegetables, meaning that if he ate his vegetables, he could grow up to be as strong as a cow.

Daniel understands that cows eat grass. While Daniel is a genius at cause-and-effect relationships and patterns, he clearly does not (immediately, at least) see conceptual patterns. He clearly does not have a broad-enough definition of “vegetables” so as to include grass, though Dylan could make that connection immediately.

Generalizing from a single example to other situations is difficult for people on the spectrum. This is one reason why we are socially awkward. Every social situation comes pretty close to being new and unique. It takes a lot of similar interactions for us to begin to generalize, and the fact that social situations are all different on some very complex levels makes learning them extremely difficult. As Temple Grandin observes in Thinking in Pictures, “autistic children need to learn everything by rote. One or two warnings won’t do” (97). In this particular case she was talking about how telling an autistic child to not cross the street may result in the child not crossing the street in front of their house, but not realizing that other streets in front of other houses is meant in that rule as well. That has to be specifically pointed out.

Grandin also points out that this inability to generalize causes inflexible behaviors (38) precisely because practically every situation is new. Everyone has been in a new situation in which they felt uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do or think or say. Most people like to stick to their routines to avoid truly new situations. But for most people there are few truly new situations; most situations have a family resemblance to other situations they have been in. But suppose you went through life and every situation seemed like a completely new situation. Wouldn’t you be anxious, fearful, unsure what to say or do, uncomfortable, and want to get back to what you know?

As we can see, the autistic epistemology wherein concepts are built from the bottom-up after many iterations of the perception (an epistemology promoted by Ayn Rand and Nietzsche, both of whom almost certainly were on the Spectrum) results in extreme difficult in generalizing and, thus, more rigid thinking where you have to be taught things more explicitly. With neurotypical people, many concepts are either innate or developed after only one or two examples. This means that generalization is fast and easy.

In the highly social neurotypical world, this means that many classical autistic “individuals usually learn to talk, but they remain very severely handicapped because of extremely rigid thinking, poor ability to generalize, and no common sense” (46). Of course, the last one is really just a poor ability to generalize human behaviors. And all of these have to do with the way concepts are formed.

Cows eat grass. They don’t eat vegetables.

Why I Am an Expert in Autism

I do not have a degree in psychology or neuroscience with a concentration in autism. So what, then, makes me an expert in autism?

First of all, not having a degree in something doesn’t make one an expert–or prevent you from being an expert. There are plenty of ignorant fools with Ph.D.s. And while I wouldn’t want to go so far in describing most neurotypial experts in autism, I would have to insist that there is a certain degree in which they are necessarily and irrevocably ignorant, and that is in understanding autism from the inside, in how it’s experienced. Interpreting behaviors without understanding the inner experiences that lead to those behaviors will often lead you to the wrong conclusions.

A favorite wrong conclusion is that autistics don’t have a theory of mind. This is something which I have written about before and refuted. In fact, it we autistics could posit that because neurotypicals didn’t think like us, they didn’t have a theory of mind. Yes, I often don’t know how you’re thinking or why you’re doing something, because it would have never occurred to me to do or think that way. For the longest time I simply thought everyone else was simply stupid and irrational. Since I found out I am on the spectrum, I’ve come to realize everyone else’s thinking is normal and it’s mine that is on the long tail. That is, neurotypical people think in neurotypical ways, and I think in autistic ways, and some of those ways overlap, and some of them don’t, and that’s okay.

But how does any of this make me an expert in autism. Well, an expert is simply someone who knows a lot about a subject. I have done a great deal of research on autism–and you need to keep in mind that my idea of research is formed by my degree in biology and my Ph.D. in the humanities. I don’t just read a few popular books on autism, but rather have read a great many scientific articles on it. I would be willing to put my knowledge and understanding of autism up against anyone with a Ph.D. who studies autism. More than that, because of my expertise in complex network processes, I can bring that knowledge to their knowledge and expand on it–as I indeed have. More, I can take all of this data and interpret it through my own experiences, explaining what the data really means.

Many people desperately need the kind of information I can provide from my expertise. Scientists who study autism certainly do, because I think a great many misunderstandings about autism are promulgated because a behaviorist approach is being taken to study autism. Special Education teachers especially need to understand their students from my perspective. Perhaps especially those who are dealing with nonverbal students.

For example, I have been substitute teaching lately, and I almost always pick the SpEd positions. Which keeps me working. Of course, these positions are always with either a teacher or a paraprofessional in the classroom, so I am really mostly backup for the person who knows what they’re doing with that classroom. Taking these positions means I have gotten to observe students across the spectrum as well as what happens in SpEd classrooms up close and personal. While everyone working in the SpEd classes I’ve been in are doing their very best, their very best does not have a foundation in a real understanding of their students–perhaps especially their autistic students.

A recent example of this involved a non-verbal autistic girl at a high school. The teacher (I was subbing for the paraprofessional) said she thought the girl should get her hearing checked because when she was watching a video on the computer with the headphones on, she would always turn the volume way up. I pointed out that autistic hearing is actually backwards to neurotypical hearing. For a neurotypical person, the brain turns down the volume on background sounds in order to hear the foreground sounds better. This is sort of the very definition of focus.

With autistic hearing, there is no distinction between background and foreground–and often, we hear the background better than the foreground sounds. To hear the TV when everyone is at home and making noise, I have to turn the TV up to around 80 (out of 100), but when everyone is in bed and there’s no noise whatsoever in the house, I can hear the TV perfectly at 23. Daniel’s hearing is so sensitive that, when he was around 4-5 years old, he would cry that he couldn’t go to sleep because he could hear the airplanes overhead. While we live in the Dallas metroplex, we don’t live anywhere near either of the airports. You wouldn’t hear them.

Once I explained these things to the teacher, she understood what was going on. And she further told me that that explained a few other things, though she didn’t go into detail about those other things with me. Indeed, understanding the autistic experience of the world does go a long way to explaining many of our behaviors. Those experiences are fairly universal, even if they are on a spectrum. But if you understand even the cases that don’t result in someone who is non-verbal and not potty trained as an adult, you will understand many of the behaviors of those at the most extreme end of the spectrum.

So yes, I am an expert in autism. I am the kind of expert people ought to be searching out precisely because my expertise isn’t just academic, but equally experiential as well.

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.

What Is Executive Functioning?

You have probably read somewhere that one of the main features of autism is weak executive functioning. But how many of you really understand what executive functioning actually is? And how does it explain some of the features of autism?

The purpose of the executive functioning of the brain is to prevent all thoughts from coming to the surface and being expressed. As a result, a great many of your thoughts–perhaps most of your thoughts, never come to consciousness. Others sort of exist on the periphery, but never get expressed or said. Your executive function allows you to be social precisely to the degree that it censors you even before the thoughts are made conscious.

You can think of “thoughts” in the following ways: there are

  1. Thoughts you don’t have
  2. Thoughts you have but are censored by the executive functioning before they come to conscious awareness
  3. Thoughts you have but censor consciously
  4. Thoughts you say

If you are wondering what the difference is between 1. and 2., congratulations, you’re not autistic! The average person who doesn’t, say, think about cheating on his wife may either be experiencing 1. or 2., but will never know it. If an autistic man doesn’t think about cheating on his wife, it’s because he’s actually not having thoughts about cheating on his wife. It’s 1. or nothing. The weak executive functioning means unwanted thoughts will arise and intrude on one’s thoughts. So those of us on the spectrum who never think about cheating on our wives sleep with a clear conscience.

Now, the problem with having a weak executive function isn’t so much that you aren’t actively suppressing much if anything at all in your unconscious; no, the problem is that your head is full of a constant stream of thoughts, and with a weak censor, you’re bound to say more than a few of them. Many of us learn to run thoughts by ourselves before we speak, but that presupposes we aren’t being pressured to say something right now. If we’re delayed in speaking, it’s because we’re making sure what we plan to say is appropriate. Put us under any sort of pressure, make us uncomfortable, and you’re bound to hear what we really think. And that, of course, can be . . . awkward!

If there is anything good about a weak executive function, it’s that such “leakiness” tends to lead to rather creative thoughts. When writing a poem, play, or prose fiction, having a weak censor is actually a boon. All kinds of crazy thoughts come to mind, and many of them are quite interesting from an artistic perspective—or from the perspective of technological innovation. All those crazy thoughts are thoughts everyone is having—but only those on the spectrum aren’t censoring the overwhelming majority of them. If you wonder why I claimed autistics may be among the most creative, now you know why.