13 July 2021

Autism and the authentic self

First off, let me say that I am not autistic (or at least I've never had any reason to think so), and I have no special insights into autism, beyond what I've seen autistic people say about it.  Nor do I want to encourage the fad (irritatingly pervasive on Tumblr at least) of people laying claim to various ill-defined mental conditions in a transparent effort to gain "cred" or sympathy or to appear more colorful.  Such attention-seeking merely distracts from the needs of those who actually do suffer from such conditions.  Rather, my point is that learning about the autistic experience may provide insights useful to self-understanding even for those who are not autistic themselves.

This insight came to me via two recent podcasts by blogger Johnny Profane at AutisticAF which can be found here and here (if you are not a fan of the podcast format, the first is fairly short and the second has a transcript, though I think the audio version is more effective).  The second, in particular, discusses "autistic joy" or "flow", a state of total focus and immersion in an experience fascinating to the individual.  Most people, I think, achieve something approximating this at least occasionally, though it sounds like the autistic experience is much more immersive, sometimes making the individual completely oblivious to distracting stimuli.  The state is a "blissful" one, not exactly tranquil but fully engaged, such that being jerked out of it by the demands of the external world causes real psychological pain.

Listening to this, I felt a startling sense of familiarity.  I can remember, when I was young, sometimes going into somewhat similar states of absolute absorption with something that fascinated me, sometimes to the vexation of people who had to deal with me, when it led me to forget things I was expected to do.  As an adult, of course, it is easier to limit one's access to that state to times when no such expectations will likely arise.  However, socialization in our culture actively discourages experiencing it at all, dismissing it as "daydreaming" or the like.  We are relentlessly encouraged to turn our attention outward, to focus on the world of work and mass media and group recreational and social activity, even while Americans are notorious for the shallowness and superficiality of friendship and social interaction.  The kid who sits alone engrossed in a book or, even worse, absorbed in some intricate phenomenon like a flower or a swarm of insects, is a weirdo who needs to be cajoled into roughhousing with other kids or something else more "normal" and group-oriented.

People in general, and Americans especially, are not very introspective or self-analytical, and are socially discouraged from ever becoming so.  Autists may have no choice but to become so.

(I was actually luckier than most in having a family environment where intellectual interests were usually respected.  I have, for example, an early and fragmentary memory of one night when my parents rented a telescope and set it up in the back yard for me to look through.  I can still vividly recall the sight of the Moon, suddenly huge and rugged-surfaced, drifting slowly across the field of view, due -- as I knew even then -- to the Earth's rotation.)

Johnny Profane also feels that when he was young he didn't have a "personality" as the concept is generally understood, rather simply drifting through alternating states of autistic joy and the stresses of dealing with the baffling and increasingly intrusive social world.  He eventually had to essentially fabricate one, in the sense of an alertness and set of responses to social stimuli, but it always felt awkward and unnatural, like an ill-fitting set of clothes.  Again, I suspect that many people experience a less stressful version of this.  As a child, you constantly struggle and flounder in social interaction, sensing the existence of some kind of rule book of proper behavior that the adults all know but you don't.  When you become an adult yourself, you realize there is no such rule book and the adults were all just winging it as best they could.  You merely learn from experience to avoid the most damaging blunders, and surprisingly many adults remain rather inept even at that.

Even as a child I was profoundly aware that as time went on, I was increasingly being taught and expected to behave and express myself in ways which were at odds with my real personality, or at best irrelevant to it.  For many years I consciously maintained an outward façade, a fake self which manifested the behaviors and feelings expected of me (not that I was ever very good at it), while also consciously cultivating and preserving my real self deep inside, in a spirit of deliberate hidden defiance, constantly reminding myself that someday I would be an adult and more able to let that authentic self rise to the surface and live free.  That way of being stood me in good stead later in situations like jobs, where I usually ended up knowing a lot about my co-workers while they knew almost nothing about me.  Even the people closest to me have never known about most of what goes on in the depths of my inner mind.  They would not have understood and there was never any reason to let them in.

And for years it never occurred to me to wonder to what extent other people were doing the same.

Johnny Profane's insights about the value of unstructured time, and how time spent in intense absorption in your own personal interests and pleasures is the only time which is truly not wasted, also perfectly agree with the view of life I arrived at years ago.

I encourage readers to check out the podcasts.  You may see more of your authentic self reflected there than you expect.


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Put the podcast in my list. I'm going to probably start commuting again, sot it'll be perfect to have it there to listen to.
I have not have a ton of experience with people in the spectrum, but I have felt the need to make sure they feel comfortable enough to feel free to express their need to either be left alone or to at least make sure that the interactions they have are dictated by their needs, not ours. Social interaction is such a shallow experience in America....


13 July, 2021 03:21  
Blogger NickM said...

Sir Isaac Newton was asked how he discovered the law of gravity. He replied, "By thinking about it all the time.”
― Sir Isaac Newton
A few back my wife bought me a flying lesson in a Tiger Moth. It was from RAF Duxsford - which is BTW a better aviation museum than the US Smithsonian (uncluding the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Annex). I have been to both. I have a thing about 'planes. So, Duxford is just out of Cambridge. We stayed there and visited Trinity College. They had a copy of the very first edition of The Principia (as published by Samuel Pepys) and with Newton's own hand-written corrections for the second edition.

It was all somewhat emotional.

Nick, BSc (Physics), MSc (Astrophysics).

13 July, 2021 04:17  
Blogger Mike said...

Here's a fairly good Aspergers test. It used to auto score the 50 questions but the auto score is broken. The scoring key is at the end.


13 July, 2021 10:06  
Anonymous Johnny Profane said...

You have no idea what this means to me.


I wish I could explain.

Maybe some day.

13 July, 2021 10:33  
Blogger Frank Wilhoit said...

This is all about the ability to focus; which is not merely how to focus, but also why, and how to calibrate the level of focus, so that it is not all-or-nothing. No one is taught this; and it is not fair to expect everyone (?anyone) to figure it out for themselves. It is neither trivial nor innate. It is a high and central skill, and requires cultivation. I thought I had it, but it was not from being taught; as I get older, I find it eroding, and I do not know how to maintain it, so I'm going to have to figure that out. But I should have been taught, and so should everybody.

You are quite right to point out that there is an insidious phenomenon of mental-illness diagnoses being used, as you put it, "...to gain 'cred' or sympathy or to appear more colorful....". This shows the crucial distinction between diagnoses of mental illness and those of physical illness. Diagnoses of physical illness aspire to be explanatory, predictive, and prescriptive. Diagnoses of mental illness cannot (today) aspire to these things; and above that, they are notoriously error-prone. For these reasons, we (some of us) fall back on function as a metric. Even where essentially nothing is understood about disease etiology or treatment modalities, it may be possible to achieve gain of function, so that becomes the goal. Teaching focus may be a way to do that. But then suppose that it were, as I proposed above, universal...?

13 July, 2021 10:45  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: Sorry to hear about the commute. Any prospect of switching to a job where that won't happen? I think you'll find the podcasts enlightening.

Nick: Newton was a great man -- not sure how this relates to the post topic, though.

Mike: Thanks, I'll give that a try at some point. Pretty sure I'm not autistic, though.

Johnny: I appreciate it. Thanks for all the work you put into the podcasts. I think they'll enlighten a lot of people.

Frank: The key to more objective diagnoses of mental illness is a better understanding of the underlying physical causes -- which must exist, since the mind is a set of processes performed by the brain, so impaired function of the former must be rooted in some physical issue with the latter.

Mental illness certainly exists, even if a lot of people who don't actually have it claim to do so for various reasons.

14 July, 2021 04:55  
Blogger Lady M said...

I scored a 30 on Mikes test. Not Autistic but I definitely am no social butterfly.

15 July, 2021 08:26  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

I bookmarked it to listen to later. I don't know anyone with Autism but I did know someone with Asperger's. It's never too late to learn something new.

15 July, 2021 11:24  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Lady M: Same here (27).

Mary K: I think it will prove educational.

16 July, 2021 01:35  
Blogger Bohemian said...

I have an Adult Son who was diagnosed with Mildly Moderate Autism, so this fascinated me and the total absorption is a Blissful State of Being when immersed in something with such focus that it shuts out everything else. The Son was quite brilliant in a Savant kind of way when he was Dialed in to something and his high level of function made it so that he could manage to connect with the Outside World just enough and manage his condition more effectively in Adulthood than he could in Childhood. The Sensory part of Autism is what I found baffling while Raising a Child who had it, tho' he had a ridiculously high threshold for real Pain that the rest of us couldn't tolerate... he claimed that things like Buttons "hurt" him and to this day he cannot wear anything with Buttons. The orderliness of his possessions is crucial for him and he could short-circuit if any of it is changed. Autism is a very Curious condition that I don't think even the experts fully understand in depth enough.

23 July, 2021 23:09  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

It's a difficult condition to really understand, I've found. AutisticAF blog does have some good educational posts on it. That state of total absorption seems like it would be conducive to learning new information -- the problem would be making use of it in dealing with the outside world.

24 July, 2021 01:44  

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