Friday, August 14, 2020

A New Explanation of Autism

I've had an intuitive feeling about Autism for a while: that it's not what it seems; it's not necessarily a bad thing; it might be the next evolutionary leap; the deficiency is not in autistics' inability to connect, but in everyone else's inability to recognize connection without blatant gesturing.

Because it was strictly intuitive, I've been unable to articulate it in any coherent way. And I can't do much with purely intuitive understanding. Unless my rationality understands the thing I know in my gut, it's useless to me (this posting helps explain why that is). I flounder and flail. This is one reason I'm a writer - I have a strong drive to try to make lucid sense of things.

To that end, I've been teaching myself stuff all my life. A voice in my head explains things to me in third person. I frame it as rehearsal for eventually teaching others, but, really, this is just the way I process gut intuition into useful comprehension. It's a process of self-translation.

In 2008, I began to externalize that inner process via this Slog. And it all began to accelerate. I discovered that it helps to formalize; to not just piece it out, but to go the extra mile of whipping it into camera-ready fluency. I'd previously been content with the mental equivalent of a hasty first draft, but the writing process hones my understanding. Thinking it is better than knowing it; saying it is better than thinking it; and writing it is better than saying it (and, subsequently, reading it - reading my own stuff, like my talking-to-myself teaching method only far more lucid - is best of all). Lucidity is the prize, and it gobbles vast resources. Fine by me; I wouldn’t expect it to come cheaply.

"Necessity is the mother of invention" is one of those aphorisms that's deeper than it seems. It’s a shortcut. My intuitive gut-level understanding becomes more available under real-world pressure. The process of translation-to-lucidity accelerates wildly when actual need arises. So when a friend recently told me he was dismayed about likely being on the autistic spectrum. I intuited that dismay might not be the proper reaction, and the verbalization just sort of happened.

So while it's fresh, I'm dumping out a transcript (the discussion was via text message), along with some sidebars. It's long and repetitive (I circle around my point, shooting from different angles, hoping to score a direct hit). But if you suspect you're on “the spectrum,” it may transform how you think about yourself, or at least explain some of the gaslighting.
If my understanding of autism is correct, the autistic experience is one of nonstop gaslighting by society at large.
If this material doesn't pertain to you or to a loved one, it may still be interesting because it ties together several major Slog themes. I'm far too extroverted to be deeply in "the spectrum", myself, yet, as I observe below, much of this Slog could be seen as a defense and explanation of an autistic's world view.


Friend: I always wondered if I was slightly autistic. I don't really understand empathy.

Me: Well, first, I'm not convinced autism's a bad thing. I suspect it might be a positive evolutionary step, though disruptive to current social norms. There's evidence suggesting that even severe cases (totally non-communicative, etc) have quite rich inner lives and are highly empathic, even though they don't outwardly express it.

And, on the other side of the equation, I rarely see much true empathy out there among non-autistics. Mostly just displays of empathy. Empathy theater, if you will.

Friend: Empathy requires effort. It takes a lot of work to do the theater aspect.

Me: I don't observe that you lack empathy. You're always eager to help, and you care what people go through. You just lack empathy theater. You don’t make a flamboyant display of it.

Friend: But the display helps get other people to the right place sometimes.

Me: Perhaps. But let's talk about you. My point is that autism, if it's a malady (and I'm not sure it is) is a malady of display. And so the vast majority of the population, which confuses display with reality, assume autistics lack empathy because they can't/don't make a show of it. I.e. they feel it, but don't display it. It's the opposite of a psychopath, who only displays but never feels.

You never pet people like bunnies. Yet you never fail to step up whenever you can be helpful. Empathy displayers, by contrast, rarely step up! All about the display, they usually don't have the actual goods. So perhaps the malady really lies on the other side!


I once wrote, on Quora, in my explanation of "How to Spot Intelligence":
The most impressive intellects are not always fast or flashy. Not, in other words, impressive-seeming. In fact, most truly intelligent people I've met haven't been very impressive-seeming, because if you've got the goods, you tend not to waste effort on the "seeming" end of it. Watch out for seemers!
Autistics are entirely disconnected from Seeming. They would never think to adopt empty gestures and indicators. They don't erect a facade, nor do they parse other people's facades in a "normal" manner.

In this posting, I wrote:
I know several mothers who trained their toddlers, early on, to rotely utter "I love you, Mommy," encouraging this behavior via standard psychological feedback actions (none was so gauche as to hand out cookies, like rewarding a dog for heeling, but they all came awfully close).
This would be utterly inexplicable to an autistic. And, perhaps it's because I'm slightly autistic, myself, but if I had to judge sanity, I'd go with the one rejecting empty display. Disinclination for posing and play-acting strikes me as a feature rather than a bug.

In fact, autistics' hearts may overflow. But most people traffic in gestures and indications, so the reality is beside the point. It seems obvious, at least to me, that display is cheesy and empty, and can easily be faked, while actuality is deep and beautiful and genuine. To me there’s hardly any choice at all.

Autistics struggle with the notion of plastering on a cheap "seeming" layer after they’ve already kindled the "being". Why would you invest effort into seeming smart once you know you genuinely are smart; contriving to seem compassionate when you already actually are compassionate; stating canned lovey platitudes when you truly are in love? It requires an odd sort of downshift to pretend to be what you actually already are.

To the rest of the world, an absence of gesture, display, and platitude indicates an absence of the actual thing. If your toddler isn’t uttering the magic words, that can only point to their tragic inability to love. While most people categorically mistake the sizzle for the steak, autistics traffic in steak alone, and don't even really understand sizzle. Though they have trouble coping, socially, within an insane society, they are the sane ones.

Opting out of empathy theater - of grand displays of this or that - doesn't make you emotionally vacant. It just makes you dramatically vacant.

The Crux

I once offered this interpretation to a child psychologist. Perhaps because she was working through her fourth craft beer at the time, she was surprisingly receptive. Giving me benefit of doubt, she asked the inevitable, critical question; one that's echoed in my head for a few years:
Ok, but if you care about people, but don’t do the familiar gestures, how can anyone possibly know?
I felt disgusted by the question. But I did see her logic. She'd expressed the crux of the issue. There is dysfunction here, but it's on the other end; in non-autistic people's inability to parse with any depth of subtlety. If your toddler doesn't mindlessly parrot "I love you Mommy," how would you possibly know there's love there? With no shiny label, how does one gauge the contents? Gross signifiers are all most people can go on! It's shocking!

To me, empathy is demonstrated by actually making yourself helpful. I do so more than most people, but it's rarely noticed. In fact, many are irritated by helpfulness. They don't have real problems, they are doing Problem Theater, so they're seeking not solution but an audience for their performance. They want to be petted with the standard empathy platitudes. They want to be the bunny - to perform that scene - and if you don't play along, reading from the standard dramatic script, you're ruining everything. You're cold and unfeeling. Unempathic!

This makes my head want to explode. But that's only because I have a foot in each framing, giving me perspective both ways. Autistics simply can't parse it. This is utterly beyond their grasp. They're drama-impaired. All they take away is that they're doing it wrong. Again, they’re endlessly gaslit into feeling deficient.
Incidence of autism appears to be accelerating wildly. Simultaneously, the prevalence of drama in everyday life has been accelerating wildly. I believe the two are connected. A forking is taking place - humans are gravitating toward either the Actual or the Seeming.

For now, the latter is deemed normal and the former dysfunctional. But I predict this will flip. Hence my statement that autism is the next evolutionary leap.
Wired to register other people's inner lives entirely via shallow, gross gestures, and lacking any emotional intuition, “normal” people have a devil of a time gauging what's really what and who's really who. Strip away stock facial expressions and catch phrases, withhold dramatics and flamboyant gesturing, and they will behold only a mound of flesh, unable to discern any inner flicker; any human essence. To me, that's eerily inhuman. Who, exactly, is the debilitated one?

Here's a disquieting thought: emojis might not be banal shortcuts after all. What if they're as deep as most people can actually go?

If someone doesn't frequently utter the words "I love you!", many would struggle to recognize love. This is why people are so easily conned.

Reader: I love you! So so so so much! I truly do! I just typed those characters; how could I possibly have done that if it weren't true?

Admit it: you felt a twinge. Me being a wise ass, spewing canned phrases with all the soulful authenticity of a parakeet, can still deliver a slight twinge. It would not give autistics, who are falsely deemed cold, any twinge at all. They know there's nothing like the real thing, baby.

So here's the proposition from normals: “Those who fail to ape standard gestures and social tropes must lack feeling. We need to fix them so they start parroting normally.” This, alas, is the majoritarian view. So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Learn to parrot the damned words! Be more like a psychopath! I love you so much! I do!

Dialog Continues

Friend: Re: empathy, I have to put myself in other peoples' shoes to figure out how to deal with them or help them. And that's hard. So that feels like a deficit on my end.

Me: If they have a bona fide problem, you help, no questions asked. Because you're empathic! But if they have a big dramatic kerfuffle going on in their heads, and they need you to provide some patterned response, that's not lack of empathy on your part. That's, again, lack of empathy theater. You just don't pretend well enough, so there’s nothing to relate to. And I'm not convinced that that's a bad thing.

Friend: I should at least better understand their motivation

Me: But that motivation, with the rest of it, takes place within a cinematic frame. It's fake!

If an old woman falls down shopping, you'll gather her grocieries and help her up, right?

Friend: Of course!

Me: While all the supposedly “empathic” people stand there passively, murmuring to convey their sense of concern?

Friend: Yeah, helping comes easily.

Me: So you're doing reality. The other stuff is pure whimsy.

Friend: I guess it's dealing with folks with mental health issues etc that's hard

Me: That's a whole other thing.

Friend: Yep.

Me: Your tight gravitational tie to reality, i.e. your sanity, creates a clash. You're unable to join flights of fancy. With the mentally ill, such flights are more severe, but it's still all conjured up.

The fact that you're even trying to understand them demonstrates your empathy! Un-empathic people wouldn't feel bad; wouldn't have this conversation or entertain these thoughts! You are highly empathic, but, lacking the drama gene, you can't commiserate with someone over fake drama. And if that makes them falsely conclude that you're un-empathic, that’s not on you.

Friend: My reaction is: Why are they freaking out when things are fine???"

Me: that strikes me as a patently reasonable question! But note that an unempathetic person would ask “Why are they freaking out when things are fine for ME?" But that's not what you're saying, right?

Friend: Yes.

Me: There's no lack of actual empathy. Just non-theatricality. Being well-grounded in reality, you can't take fake emotional trips. But if they drop the groceries, you'll help. I pronounce you healthy and normal; please pay the girl on your way out!

Severe Autism

Let's consider severe autism, where a person offers zero feedback to other humans. Perhaps they whirl around, hollering. They appear disconnected; off in some nowhere-land.

But what if they're extraordinarily grounded in the here and now, and caring a great deal about you, but unable to create the usual facade of composure? What if they see and feel with utmost wisdom and clarity, but don't feel any call whatsoever to seem like it?

I'm not saying such a condition isn't problematic, but, again, the real problem may not be their inability to express grossly, but our inability to perceive subtly. For those lost in abstraction - the dramatic, gestural, empty emblemization of it all - non-emblematic people seem existentially disconnected. But that doesn't mean such people aren't supremely present and deeply connected within themselves. They just can’t understand why you’d need them to not only be that way, and feel that way, but to also work to seem like it.

I can relate to this. I think a number of people can. Those who can’t (e.g. the tipsy shrink) ought to consider whether the dysfunction might be bilateral.

Slog Connection

Peering into this framing, much of this Slog could be seen as a defense and explanation of an autistic's world view. I've written a lot about the difference between real problems and fake ones, and about how we lose ourselves in fluffy drama. We obsess over fake drama until we're gripped by depression, explaining why our unprecedentedly wealthy, comfortable society is massively unhappy and depressed, and why every New Year's eve we kick the previous horribly awful year right in the ass.

I also talk a lot about "seeming"; about authenticity versus imagery. As I often note, "Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing." The poseur perspective is what gives this world its slightly washed-out photocopy affect. It's why we're so seldom surprised. It's why most cooking is so inert. Everyone is utterly transfixed by surfaces; by appearance rather than actuality.

Seeming-rather-than-being is why so many of us eagerly make themselves clones of a certain type of person (have you never noticed there are only a few dozen models of people?). It's how iconoclasm and nonconformity manage to congeal into cliché. It’s why we make parrots out of our kids.

Call me autistic, but I’m not super into the seeming, either. I absolutely don't "seem" like an Internet pioneer, or a yogi, or a hipped-out musician, or like anyone insightful. In fact, I don't seem like any of the people I am! I'm too busy actually being those people! If you've got the goods, why waste effort on the "seeming"?

Is that really so crazy a perspective? Apparently so. By failing to self-signify, I appear to strangers like a goofy hapless loser. When I meet Chowhound fans or Slog readers, I watch with amusement as they struggle to reconcile my unaffectedness. That guy? Really?

The autistic, god bless them, don't get within a light year of "seeming". Being 100% genuine, they appear as blank ciphers to the shallow and superficial. But their only deficiency is their incapacity for fluffy delusion!

Dialog Continues

Friend: I often think to myself: I have no idea what they're feeling but if I do something right, maybe I can somehow help put out the fire!

Me: Look at the level of actuality. If there's something real, you know what to do. Get to work! If not, it's surely best to detach a bit. But don't be surprised if you present as detached!

Friend: Knowing what to do in such cases is a learned response on my part, it's not natural.

Me: Nor is their behavior natural. They are drumming up big feelings for themselves, to make themselves feel something. It's the same reason we go on rollercoasters. To feel more extremely!

So, yes, you can develop learned responses to fit into fake emotional vignettes, but it's not really necessary, because it's their movie, not yours. Just admire their show! Who are you in all this? An engaged and sympathetic spectator, nothing more. So just patiently enjoy the star's carrying-on. That's sufficient. That's what they want from you: to view them like a movie, periodically murmuring to convey your supportiveness or whatever.

I suppose that's the "cure" for autism (at least the mild sort). Learn to recognize that most people watch themselves on a movie screen. So observe their scene passively. Read-only. You're not in it. It's their movie, and you're the audience (or a non-player character). There will be Big Feelings, but it's flaunting, not actionable. Suspend disbelief and react with delight. It's easy, really. Just don't mistake it for anything actually happening (much less needful of any action on your end).

Eschewing Froth

In a society mired in drama, to be firmly grounded in reality (the very definition of sanity) and unable to accompany people on flights of fancy, makes one seem unempathetic. But the inability to fake-sympathize with fake drama does not represent a lack of empathy. Just a lack of empathy theater.

The odd irony is that, on the other side of the equation, the flamboyantly empathic may present a good game but it's normally mostly froth. Don't expect them to lift a finger to actually help, beyond rote gestural affirmation. As I've previously observed, people don't actually do anything.

Autistics don't comprehend frothy drama. They have deep feelings (deeper than normal, I believe), but feel no compulsion to externalize them via gestural display. Meanwhile, most everyone else believes that gestural display is all there is. No reality, only gesture. Their feet never touch the floor.

Over the years, I've made an informal study of Great Guys. You know, the people with thousands of social media friends, who everyone considers a "Great Guy!" Here's the thing about Great Guys: If you've broken down on the Jersey Turnpike at 3am, the Great Guy in your life will never come and get you. You can call him, and he'll remind you how fantastic you are, and how bravely you're handling this very traumatic situation, and after he's gracefully gotten you off the phone, you'll be left feeling terrific about yourself, but it's cranky, un-demonstrative guys like me and my dialog friend who'd actually get dressed and come get you.

People like us don't pet people like bunnies. We don't hang out a shingle broadcasting our niceness. We lack the vanity and manipulation to try to convince people. But if you need us, hey, you've got us. Hardly anyone thinks of me as a "Great Guy". I lack the shingle, and the shingle’s everything. 

The Right likes to taunt the Left's "Virtue signalling", and it's a keen observation. But it goes way deeper than politics, and is equally popular on both sides of the cultural divide. In a society that's all about seeming rather than being (most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing), is it any wonder that those who reject the Seeming are deemed repulsively deficient?

It’s essential to understand that an autistic wouldn’t fathom any of this explanation. Everything I'm saying is 100% cuckoo talk. Autistics won’t throw their heads back in revelation, crying “Ah, that’s what’s going on with the world!” They're empathic, but they're not drama-empathic, so they have no vaguely similar impulses they can plumb in order to relate. They just don't get it, period. If you reread the dialogs, my friend wasn’t really registering the distinction I was making; he just kept restating the same bafflement (and impression of self-inadequacy). The disjoint is particularly clear in the final dialog snippet, below. But, first, one last sidebar.

On "Seeming"

I want to reinforce the steep, sharp difference between "seeming" and "being", which I see as critical for understanding autism (or, conversely, so-called normality). I once wrote:
I recently overheard people trying to figure out where to eat. They didn't want chains, they didn't want obvious big names, they prefer "ethnic" and need something really great. Geez, if only there were a leading expert nearby! [Note for newcomers: I’m pretty much The Guy for that. Loads of books, etc, etc.] 
I broke in shyly and offered to advise. I didn't reveal myself with suave confidence; I certainly didn't start with "This must be your lucky day!" As their eyes focused on me, I saw them mentally scanning and assessing some random dude who doesn't look like anyone they'd normally socialize with. Is he hitting on us? Is he nuts? Is this a marketing come-on? What does he want? The scanning ended - the assessment unflattering - and they excused themselves with quasi-politeness and walked off. 
This happens reasonably often, with food and other topics where I might have more to offer than anyone they'll likely meet. I suppose I could have summoned my polished TV voice and bowled them over with self-confidence, boasting of my accomplishments, and signaling via sparkly eyes that, hoo, boy, you've really found That Person! Your lucky day! Yes, I'm exactly the guy you need, the one with answers, here for you and asking nothing in return. That magical person with the million dollar smile and impeccable tuxedo. It's happening! It's really happening!

But no. Seeing is believing, and one sees only a random, tuxedo-less nobody.

People who work on "seeming" are a very different breed from people who work on "knowing", though absolutely no one seems to realize this. While awaiting Seemers, we grind out our cigarettes on the Knowers. You can recognize them from the countless burn marks.

Final Dialog

My ability to fully relate to autistic framing only goes so far.

In a follow-up discussion, I raised what I thought was an interesting and telling question. It was answered exactly as I'd expected, but I couldn't coax my friend to look where I was pointing. We talked past each other. The gaping chasm came clearly into focus:

Me: Do you lose yourself in movies? When the lights come on, do you need to briefly recompose yourself?

Friend: Nope

Me: That's the same phenomenon, no?

Friend: Usually I get out my phone and check stuff. 🤣

Me: Are you always aware you're you, in a body, in a seat, in a theater, watching a screen, for the full 90 mins?

Friend: It sort of flickers in and out.

Me: Mostly in or mostly out?

Friend: Hard to say. Depends on how engrossing the movie is.

Me: Can you flicker into someone's dramatic/emotional trip for a while? It's like a movie. Same thing, right?

Friend: Usually it's the plot that draws me into a movie.

Me: I mean in the everyday world with people.

Friend: Like I'm trying to guess the murder suspect.

Me: Yep, got it.

Friend: I remember guessing the twist in The Sixth Sense.

Me: Great movie.

Friend: I still enjoyed it.

Me: Sure.

[end of discussion]

Failing to parse the more abstract, less concrete meta-issue says it all. The side-stepping reveals everything discussed above.

When you lack whimsy, some baby gets lost along with the bathwater. It's useful to be able to think in a looser, more capricious way. Reverie - a light theatricality - has its place, but it's summarily unavailable to autistics, who are confined to literality (or, at best, carefully literalized subtext). My observations, above, don’t describe mere preference or tendency. It's incapacity. An unyielding blind spot.

But everyone has blind spots. And I still feel that this condition will eventually be seen as more of a feature than a bug. For now, it suffices to observe that sanity has arisen...and, predictably, deemed a malady.

One last tie-in. I've been working on hacking insomnia for some time (this posting is overdue for an update). The primary hindrance to falling sleep is logical, linear thinking. If you're pondering your to-do list, you'll never drift into sleep. One's mind must blurrily let go into daisy flakes and dixie cups to make the necessary shift. It's not something I'd think autistics would be good at, and, sure enough, insomnia is an enormous problem for them.

More practical examples.


Anonymous said...

Sociality, and all of it's components are an innate biological process. Through the process of selection, a predecessor to most mammals ended up being more competitive in a group, and since then selection has guided the evolution of this trait. It is not a "human" trait, it's hardwired into nearly all mammals. This has proven such a powerful competitive advantage that it's one of the highest priorities for our brains once it takes care of basic functioning and input response processing. All of these core functions happen in the limbic system. The lymbic system is one of the most primordial parts of our brain development, and starts developing before any other function in utero.

Because sociality is such a powerful competitive advantage, the brain enforces this concept on all of our thoughts that the external (group) needs are the individuals needs. Challenges to this paradigm or any attempt to destabilize this advantage is met with (rightly) heavy resistance. These new traits that challenge it have to "prove" their way into the gene pool by showing they do not destabilize society. Selectively, if you are too disconnected from the group, you don't typically breed. There's a sociobiological bias against anything that doesn't reinforce sociality.

The intellectual fluff of consciousness aside, autism is simply those who's sociality doesn't comply with that biological rigeur. Autists have been emulating that rigeur forever, but these gene lines always assimilate or get eliminated eventually. The core "autistic" feeling is actually alienation. There's consistent reinforcement from all aspects of society that it's wrong and the behavior needs to meet these criteria I'm order to be successful. This can be as subtle as a well intentioned parent's constant behavior corrections or overt social bullying.

The interesting thing about "autism" specifically is that it's being positively selected for. Traits with reproductive penalties don't usually see this unless there is some non obvious selective advantage. And it turns out that generally most pathologies of autism are attempts to increase cerebral performance at the cost of limbic function. Our brains appear to be facing selective pressure into a system not dependent on the limbic system and controlled by higher order functions. Sociobiologically these traits are being sculpted in such a way that autists are able to recognize sociality through higher order functions instead of the innate limbic enforcement.

I think it's important to note that autism is a bullshit concept psychologically, and only makes sense in a sociobiological context. There's so many different pathologies that the only truly universal autistic trait is that vague to overwhelming sense of alienation. These traits and their symptomology are based on bad science and keep propogating bad science because of it. In order to understand autism you have to ignore it and focus on individual traits.

Jim Leff said...

"the only truly universal autistic trait is that vague to overwhelming sense of alienation"

If you can find time to read the post, you'll find what I believe to be a persuasive and novel argument for the source of that alienation.

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