For a long time, CleverGuy has been encouraging me to read Temple Grandin, assuring me that I would really like her writing. I know who Temple Grandin IS, but I never felt terribly compelled to read her books. She designs cattle management and slaughter facilities, and she is a very high-functioning, yet profoundly autistic genius.
Well, I ordered her book Thinking In Pictures, and finally got around to reading it this weekend. In between bouts of making 2000 cakepops (Jesus Christ almighty, what the hell was I thinking?!?).
The book is fascinating, and her descriptions of her childhood and how she functions and thinks as an adult are truly remarkable. And also eerily familiar.
I suspect that is just what CleverGuy anticipated I would feel. As you recall, CleverGuy is a software programmer who decided to up his skills by taking a degree in electrical engineering, and for his final project, he built a 3D printer from scratch.
CleverGuy has lots of experience working with (overwhelmingly men) who have been diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome, or who otherwise fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. In fact, I suspect CleverGuy himself might be somewhere on the spectrum, and hence is able to recognize the traits in others.
True story: last summer, me and CleverGuy had a conversation that went on for days in which we tried to determine whether either of us had any flaws in our personality. No, really. We did. Any potential candidate for “flawdom” was recognized as one that we share, and therefore could not possibly be a flaw.
Irrational optimism? Check
Self-aggrandizing logic? Check
Complete lack of regard for social niceties? Check
Total indifference to rank or social status? Check
Cringe inducing conversational style? Check
Preference for truth and bluntness over diplomacy and deceptions? Check
Difficulty getting along with peers because we find them all so fucking stupid? Check
Obsessive interest in fictional worlds and characters? Check
Ability to not take criticisms personally and focus on the veracity of insults? Check
Basically, we are totally unbearable socially unless we go into Bald-faced Painful Lying mode, pretending to find other people interesting and their conversation something less than retarded, which neither of us particularly like to do.
So I read Temple, and decided to take a few on-line “Do you have Asperger’s” tests. Here is one from Wired.
When I filled out the questionnaire, I did not answer in terms of how I am NOW. At some point during my early twenties, I realized that I was not like other people in that I was far more socially awkward and offensive. I assumed that was the result of growing up, isolated, with violent assholes for parents, disregarding the fact that my brothers had all grown up in the same family, and had none of the problems I did with getting along with my peers.
Almost always, I was able to find another nerdy, “different” girl with whom I bonded, and we created our own little social world in which our bizarre and obsessive interests, while not necessarily shared, seemed perfectly normal. The summer I spent with Christina collecting, cataloguing and naming frogs was particularly memorable. Many long arguments over whether we had re-captured Mabel or Eloise ensued.
Compared to my friend, everyone else seemed stupid and mean.
But eventually, I matured enough to realize the problem wasn’t with other people. It was with me. I could see that I lacked certain understandings of how relationships worked, and I set out to learn how normal people interacted. It was a Social Studies Project, and I used different resources to learn what was considered proper, acceptable behavior.
I studied etiquette manuals. I skipped all the shit about forks (who gives a crap?) and went right to how to respond when someone says their grandmother got hit by a bus. Hint: don’t laugh.
And I read psychology books. Lots and lots of psychology books. I found Abnormal Psychology the most helpful. Like a laundry list of what NOT to do.
And I watched films and read fiction books, dissecting exactly how people responded to certain situations. I examined the musculature of facial expressions, not so I could read them in others (which I can do, to a limited extent), but rather so that I could reproduce them.
It’s actually a very interesting subject. Try this: pull the inside of your eyebrows up, like a baby who is about to cry. Turn the corners of your mouth just slightly down. You should feel a lump, a tightness forming in your throat, and feelings of sadness may suddenly come to you, because you have tricked your brain into thinking you are sad.
Am I sounding psycho? I hope not. It’s not that I don’t have feelings, I was just really inept at conveying them and even though I could READ those expressions, more or less accurately in others, I had no idea how to respond.
So I learned.
Like Data, learning to be human.
I honestly thought everyone had to learn those things, and I was just a bit late to the game.
So, no surprise, I tested a teensy bit high on the “Do You Have Asperger’s” quiz. But I answered the quiz as if I were responding BEFORE I had studied appropriate responses to emotional situations. If I answer as who I am now, given that I have studied and learned how to respond, I’m perfectly normal. None of the questions ask if I have to make a special effort to “find social situations easy”.
In fact, I do find almost any social situation easy now. Because I have a set of instructions and responses I can access to tell me how to behave. And I’m constantly improving on them. I think a lot of people still find me abrasive and impolite and far too blunt, but that’s because I generally don’t give a fuck what they think. When I’m entertaining my husband’s colleagues, I can put on the Perfect Hostess Apron just fine.
It’s an effort, but one that I’m generally capable of.
And “thinking in pictures”. Isn’t everyone capable of doing this, to a certain degree? Temple is unique in that she can ONLY think in pictures, but surely most people can visualize their thoughts with little effort? My default is to think in pictures, but I have excellent memory recall of written words. I can remember and find links for posts with little effort. If I’ve read something in the last two to three years, I can find what I’m looking for almost down to the page number. But it takes a conscious effort.
Sometimes I MUST think in written words, and when I fail to do that, it’s a disaster.
True story: like every other 15 year old in my highschool, I wrote my Beginning Driver’s Exam and got a Learner’s Permit. I read the Rules of the Road book to the point I had it memorized, and I used that book to help me to drive.
I passed my exam on the first try, and then proceeded to be one of the worst fucking drivers you have ever been on the road with. Our garage door was covered in dents because I could never figure out the boundaries of the car. Many poles in parking lots had chunks out of them thanks to my superior parking skills. I parallel parked exactly ONCE, and that was to pass my test. Nearly had a heart attack doing so. The three times I attempted a left turn, I crashed into oncoming traffic. I only ever made right hand turns after I smashed up the surgeon’s Jaguar in a busy intersection.
When I drive, I have to constantly recite the road rules. I cannot accurately judge the speed of objects in motion, so I can only use rules that don’t require that (no left hand turns). But it’s really hard to keep my mind on the rule book, especially when a route becomes familiar.
I switch to pictures and just enjoy the scenery going by.
One day, I was out driving and I went through a very busy intersection. Against a red light. I didn’t notice the light. I was too busy admiring the pictures of hanging flower baskets that were being added to my memories of “hanging flower baskets” and when I heard the sound of thirty car horns and screeching tires, I absolutely froze and did nothing.
Continued on through the intersection.
A few cars ended up in the ditch, and a few more on the wrong side of the road, but no one was injured.
That was ten years ago. I never drove again. I still have the problem when I ride my bicycle, which is why I mostly stick to bike paths, but I have to remind myself to think about road rules when I approach intersections or ride short distances on the road.
I’m a terrible driver. I know that. Lots of other people are, too. Probably for the exact same reason. They stop paying attention to the rules and let their minds wander. Some of that wandering likely includes just admiring the scenery. So I doubt “thinking in pictures” is all that uncommon.
All of this leads me to believe that “high-functioning Asperger’s” is basically just bullshit. Easily distracted, creative, eccentric, able to become deeply absorbed into topics (like hanging flower baskets rather than red lights) – those are all fairly common traits.
So why pathologize them? We used to be able to accept the socially eccentric with little problem, but now we need some sort of “diagnosis” and drug-taking or behavioral therapy regime to deal with what used to be considered “normal human variation”.
I started reading around about Asperger’s and the following two facts kept leaping out at me:
Most people diagnosed with this “illness” are men
Asperger’s is highly correlated with scientific or mathematical genius
Indeed, Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the world’s leading autism researchers, points to several of the world’s greatest minds as meeting all the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome.
Other famous people who meet the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s include:
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989, winner of Nobel Prize in literature in 1969, playwright, poet, novelist, left-handed cricket player)
Richard Borcherds (b. 1959, diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, winner of Fields Medal 1998, professor of mathematics)
Paul Dirac (1902-1984, winner of Nobel Prize in physics in 1933)
Paul Erdos (1913-1996, winner of Wolf Prize in mathematics 1983/4)
Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, polyglot, and child prodigy)
Keith Joseph (CH, PC) (1918-1994, British conservative politician)
Enoch Powell (MBE) (1912-1998, real name John Enoch Powell, controversial right-wing British politician)
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970, philosopher, winner of Nobel Prize in literature in 1950)
William Shockley (1910-1989, winner of Nobel Prize in physics in 1956, co-inventor of the transistor, Silicon Valley pioneer, professor, advocate of eugenics, sperm donor with the Repository For Germinal Choice)
Vernon L. Smith (b.1927, diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, winner of Nobel Prize in economics in 2002)
William Butler Yeats (1865 -1939, winner of Nobel Prize in literature in 1923, poet, dramatist)
With the exception of Marie Curie, they are ALL men.
Is Asperger’s just a code word for male genius?
Why do we need to turn male genius into a disease? What could be the reason for that? Why would we want such a self-destructive diagnosis?
I have a few theories. First, I think it’s not ideologically palatable to acknowledge that men exhibit greater genius than women. And note that I use “genius”, not intelligence. Men and women may be more or less equally intelligent ON AVERAGE, but men far outnumber women when it comes to genius.
Even when women DO exhibit genius, it is rarely attuned to scientific or mathematical pursuits.
If we can’t objectively, quantitatively deny that there are more men than women in the highest echelons of human intelligence, then let’s call those men “brain-damaged” in some way. Yes, men might be more capable of genius, but since they are violating the core ideological precept of perfect equality, they must be damaged in some way the rest of us are not.
Well, if Einstein’s brain was damaged, can someone please damage mine in the same way? I’ll take it!
Secondly, I think the fact that we have structured the formal education system to reflect what girls are good at, and how (most) girls like to behave, we prefer to pathologize exceptionally smart and capable boys rather than address the fact that we are closing down the possibilities for the very best and brightest of humanity to bring their obsessions and interests to fruition.
Because so many of those best and brightest happen to be boys. Boys that act nothing like girls, and indeed, even like most other boys. Their energy and focus and unwillingness to sit still and apply glitter is all diagnosed as “illness”.
And they are drugged to high fucking heaven rather than celebrated, and encouraged and channeled.
What in the hell are we doing?
A boy named Albert who could barely add and thought school pretty much sucked, who wore flowered slippers and a bathrobe to work, with his hair all crazy nuts all over the place, was obsessed with thinking about time.
How does it work?
He wrote a paper about it, submitted it to a physics journal and the Theory of Relativity was born.
If Albert had had the misfortune of being born today, he would have been subjected to intense behavioral therapy to curb his obsessive interests, he would have been drilled relentlessly and endlessly until his mind learned to add, he would have been hauled down to HR for dress code violations and some matronly bitch from the secretarial pool would have told him to cut his hair.
Unless he had a mother like Temple Grandin’s, who protected her strange daughter fiercely and made certain she had the opportunities to pursue her unusual interests all the way through college to the doctoral level.
As a culture, we need to seriously question why we are diagnosing smart boys as neurologically damaged, and more importantly, we need to rally the parents of these children to cherish them, protect them, teach them what they lack and love them unconditionally for who and what they are.
Drugs are bad. Just say no!
This ad is from the Church of Scientology, which is as big a steaming pile of bullshit theories and crackpot philosophies as you could hope to confront in a pseudo cult/religion/tax avoidance scam. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s an amazing PSA.
Of course, I would think that though. I lack the capacity to see the social implications of valuing the message over the delivery.
Being an Aspie and all.
Lots of love,