[extropy-chat] fiction and autism

Anne Corwin sparkle_robot at yahoo.com
Tue Apr 24 07:02:24 UTC 2007

(In response to PJ):

> Anne, did you actually read my essay?  

Yes, but I wasn't really responding to your essay per se, but rather the content of your last email post.  And I was responding very abruptly which is *really* a no-no for me, or at least it ought to be!

> While claiming "the jury is 
> still out" and wishing to disregard it, you have instead defended many of 
> my points with your own life experience and theories.  Curious...

Curiouser and curioser.  And I don't necessarily dispute the science you've read, just some of the picky points with regard to what some of it might imply -- which I'll need to get into once I have a bit more time.

> Also, all the neuroimaging and other research about this subject over 
> the last several years have done nothing but reinforce this idea of 
> mirror neurons, imitative behavior and empathy creation as a linked system 
> in primates.  Like us.

I'll have to get a clearer definition of what you mean by "empathy" before responding in more detail here, I think.  More clarification on why appears later in this message.

> If it isn't linked in autists, that alone is interesting, since 
> diminished imitative behavior and 'empathy' (as defined in the majority of 
> humans) is a part of autistic behavior and autist's mirror neuron system 
> does not fire (as seen on an fMRI).  

I don't dispute that autistics probably have different mirror-neuron functioning than nonautistics do, and I can attest to the fact that in my particular case, imitation is extremely difficult.  When it comes to motor activities especially I need to figure out everything myself from the "ground up" based on feedback I get from the environment -- I can't look at someone throwing a ball, or dancing, or doing something along those lines and just be able to do it myself.  However, this lack of imitative capacity doesn't seem to be related to what I think of as "empathy" or lack thereof.  

> The only thing I can think of is that maybe not all behaviors 
> considered 'autistic spectrum' manifest the same way or are created the same 
> way.  

This is probably true.  

> (I still think we'll find out that autism is like cancer or 
> diabetes, in that there are multiple triggers and causes for a similar 
> symptomatic outcome that has been given a single, all inclusive name.)  

I get your analogy, but just remember that unlike either cancer or diabetes, autism is not a disease.  Just pointing out what might be a wee bit of biased language here -- after all, you don't often come across people saying, "Well, perhaps neurotypicality is like cancer or diabetes, in that there are multiple triggers and causes for a similar symptomatic outcome that has been given a single, all inclusive name."  Hopefully my pointing this out isn't taken as egregious political correctness or anything along those lines -- I just feel quite strongly that the way we talk about things can influence how we think about them.

> But no 
> one has done the Aspergers vs. Autism mirror neuron comparison yet.  

I'd be curious to see that, but I am guessing that there won't be much of a difference in those results.

> So 
> if you self identify as an Aspie, you may be right, in the sense that 
> you don't have Autism, but a different situation.

There's actually still quite a bit of controversy with regard to whether Asperger's and Autism are two distinct configurations with a few surface similarities, or whether they are essentially the same thing.  L. Mottron, et. al., (Canadian autism researchers) are quoted as saying: "There are no available convincing data that autism with vs. without overt peaks of ability, with vs. without overt speech, or overall autism vs. Asperger syndrome, differs at a genetic level. Even language abilities cannot be used to distinguish autism from Asperger syndrome, as written language experts are as representative of autism as oral language experts are representative of Asperger's."

Nevertheless, some researchers do actually believe that a distinct difference between the Autism and Asperger's profile may emerge with further research.  If you do a Web search for terms like "Autism" "Asperger's" "Difference", you'll get a variety of articles suggesting different criteria by which the two conditions can be distinguished.  There's a pop-science notion, for instance, that seems to suggest that the Asperger's profile is typified in part by fine motor skill deficits not commonly found in autism.  There's another notion which suggests that Asperger's overlaps with nonverbal learning disability (which tends to result in people with good language ability but poor motor skills) moreso than autism does.  And there's a common (though not necessarily accurate) perception that Asperger's is just another way of saying "autism with normal intelligence" or "high functioning autism".  I don't know what the research will reveal eventually, but for now it's rather a
 confusing mess, which makes it very difficult to make definitive diagnostic or identification statements for the majority of people on the spectrum.

I "identify" as Autistic because I consider that to be an all-encompassing term that can describe any member of what is presently a rather heterogeneous population.  My official diagnosis is Asperger's, but I don't know how much that really means, especially considering I did have self-help delays and very idiosyncratic language as a child (including echolalia and pronoun reversal) which are more typical of Autism.  I also exhibited what is referred to as the "visual-spatial peak" in testing; my highest subtest score on the Weschler intelligence scale both times I took it (at ages 4 and 20) was in Block Design, which is a common autistic pattern.  So it's simplest to just consider myself and everyone else on the spectrum to be autistic at this point in time; though I am not attached to or emotionally invested in any particular bit of terminology and I fully expect that categories will probably be different, and possibly more refined, within the next 20 years or so.

> And autism is actually a hot fiction topic.  See "The Curious Incident 
> of the Dog in the Night-time," etc.

I've read "Curious Incident" and while the autistic viewpoint character (as presented by a non-autistic author) does seem to (in some respects) think and act in ways I can relate to, the book itself reads like a very gimmicky textbook.  It's almost like reading through a transcript of a video game ("Ooh, look, here's the Theory of Mind level!"); the book's overt references to pop-psychology theories of autism are a bit jarring and distracting.  Another one I've read is "The Speed of Dark" by Elizabeth Moon, which is a bit better than "Curious Incident" though still a bit irky in some spots.  So yes, I guess autism is popping up in fiction here and there -- the question I have is: are most people empathizing with the autistic characters when they read these works of fiction?  Or are they just seeing "autism" as a plot device or curiosity?  (I'm genuinely curious and not being cynical).

> You've got a chip on your shoulder and I completely understand why.

It's not so much of a chip as an acknowledgement that society has a long way to go before it actually manages to acknowledge autistic citizens as full and valid persons.  I'm sorry if I sounded overly defensive; that's what I get for writing such an off-the-cuff response to your initial message.  I mainly reacted the way I did because it seemed like you were making gross generalizations -- I have always liked *some* fiction, and the autistic people I know (or know of) also generally read at least a little bit of fiction.  Additionally, I grated at the comparison to narcissists -- narcissism is *nothing like* autism, and I suspect that the mechanisms that result in narcissism vs. the mechanisms that can result in autism are very, very different.  Narcissism seems to be a disordered form of personality development mediated by the environment in which a person grows up, whereas autism is neurodevelopmental and affects sensory processing and cognition primarily (as opposed to

> But not all non-autists throw rocks and the world doesn't always ignore 
> autists or how they think.  

I know this, and I did not say that all non-autists throw rocks -- I was just offering a counter-example to the idea that non-autistics have some special, intrinsic ability to empathize with others (and now I realize that this may not have been what you were suggesting; that's what I get for reading too fast, I guess).  I don't generalize about entire groups of people based on the actions of a few bullies, but I still think that the existence of bullying capacity in a neurotype supposedly distinguished by its empathic faculty is worth noting.

> Please don't think that research into this 
> subject is demeaning or degrading to autists.  

Where would you get the idea that I thought research was degrading?  I have no problem with research.  I like science; I just think that autistics deserve better science, and I think that it would be wonderful if more autistics were invited to take part in the research side of things.  Morton Ann Gernsbacher of the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently wrote on this very subject:  http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=2147.  I think that there's presently a lot of bias in autism research, which is problematic, but I also think there's plenty of potential to reform it.  

> It's all about trying to 
> figure out how the brain works and that means generalizing about the 
> majority of brains (but we've had this argument about generalization 
> before).  

I'm fine with trying to figure out how the brain works.  Generalization confuses me sometimes but I understand that it's not going away.  But I still think generalization algorithms and heuristics themselves ought to be up for constant and unrelenting peer review. :)

> If someone could explain to me why I'm different, with a 
> dyslexic, male-centric, wacky brain that makes some pretty crazy connections at 
> times, I wouldn't take it personally.  It would be illuminating.  

I felt very illuminated when I found out I was on the autistic spectrum.  Knowing what that means with regard to what the biological hardware inside my head looks like would be fascinating.  No argument with you here!

> My 
> daughter's thoughts generate music in her head throughout the day.  If 
> you met her, you'd hear her humming and singing it (although she's 
> learned not to do it while having conversations or in the classroom and she 
> knows she's unusual).  She doesn't take it personally and would like to 
> know why, too.

That's really cool.  Does she experience synesthesia or anything like that as well?

> Please don't take this the wrong way, because I have enormous respect 
> for you and your writing, but may I suggest less defensiveness and more 
> trying to see both sides of the same issue?  

I didn't mean to come across as so defensive, but I do tend to get a bit jumpy when it's not clear to me whether someone understands the difference between autism and sociopathy.  When I think of someone who "lacks empathy", I tend to think in terms of a person who literally doesn't care about the feelings of others even when s/he knows those feelings exist.  When I was growing up I got lectured on plenty of occasions about how I supposedly "didn't care about anyone else" or how I was "oblivious to other people's feelings", but the thing is, once I knew the feelings were there I DID feel very bad about hurting them.  This is an oversimplification on my part, but in some respects autism and sociopathy almost seem to be dichotomous -- the autistic person might have difficulty picking up on nonautistic emotional cues, but will feel appropriate emotions once s/he does learn of someone else's emotional state, whereas a sociopath (or bully) has no trouble reading the cues -- s/he
 simply doesn't *care* how the other person feels.  Hopefully that explanation makes sense.  

At any rate, I liked what you said in your essay about how reading books about different kinds of people can increase a person's empathic facility -- in some respects, reading novels is like a microcosmic version of travel, and I've stated myself on several occasions that if people want to improve their Theory of Mind, it is a good idea for them to purposely put themselves in contact with as many different cultures or cultural representatives as possible (through whatever means possible).

> Maybe if we put our heads together, we could come up with 
> something illuminating.

That actually sounds like a great idea...I would be very interested in such a project.
- Anne

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