[extropy-chat] fiction and autism

pjmanney pj at pj-manney.com
Wed Apr 25 06:33:46 UTC 2007

Anne C. wrote:
>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.<<

I appreciate your point.  I will address it more below.

>I get your analogy, but just remember that unlike either cancer or diabetes, autism is not a disease.<<

I certainly apologize.  They were the only examples I could think of for symptomatic groupings off the top of my head.  But as you note, symptoms or behaviors do not imply disease and I didn't mean to imply Autism was a disease, because I don't believe it is. 

But as a related note to both Mike and Keith's posts, I knew (many years ago - we're college alums) the co-founder of the organization that created the autism sticker Mike saw.  He and his wife, who has written books on their experiences, are good, decent people.  And he and his organization came up in a conversation I had last year with a top VR scientist, who also works with autism, ADHD, PTSD, etc. (he's discussed in my paper -- I am purposely not mentioning any names to avoid blowback).  Their son is, according to this psychologist, an extreme behavioral example of autism and said it has been a heartbreak for his family.  From what I can see, they have moved Heaven, Earth, and a great deal of money out of people's wallets to "cure" autism, because they perceive it as a disease, as indicated by their own son's, and other's, symptomology.  As far as their site is concerned, they do not see it as a neurodiversity issue.  I am certainly not taking sides.  But as Keith said, it's tough to put yourself in the place of a parent with a child who is wired so differently, that there is no way that child will grow up with any form of self-sufficiency.  Honestly, knowing you'll be taking care of your child, as a child, until you or they die is right up there on a parent's list of "worst nightmares."  But as parents, you do what you have to do...

>Nevertheless, some researchers do actually believe that a distinct difference between the Autism and Asperger's profile may emerge with further research...  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.<<

What I find interesting is the difference between conditions that are caused by the same trigger, but manifest differently vs. conditions that manifest similarly, but are caused by different triggers... The entire autistic spectrum issue seems to fall into both simulanteously!!!

>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... -- 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).<<

Well, according to a stroll through Amazon's comments on that book, people seem genuinely involved, more than just curious.  I saw real examples of empathetic responses, so... I have to believe there is empathy generation there.

>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 can't argue with you.  It's true.  Just know I'm not one of them.  :-)

>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<<

Yes, I'm apparently notorious for that!  :-)  I had a discussion last night with someone on this list who respects us both.  He found our discussion an excellent example of two people wired differently trying to talk about what we think are the same things, but not necessarily succeeding or connecting.  What he and I came to was this: I tend to generalize.  You tend to bring it back to the specific example.  When I use language, I expect it to have an emotional effect.  When I read your language, I am assuming an emotional effect that you may not have implied, since you may not have an emotional intention in your statement, but the words we would use are the same.  We just see them in different shades.  I noticed it first in our discussion on Michael Anissimov's blog about women in H+.  We argued past each other.  It's very interesting.  Now that I'm conscious of it, I will try to write with it in mind.

>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.<<

Again, I am generalizing.  And you are specific.  Of course you can like fiction!  The discussion began about the differences in fiction reading and writing between autists and non-autists.

>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 personality).<<

Absolutely.  I agree 100%.  If you notice, in my paper, I don't say narcissism has anything to do with mirror neurons.  No one knows anything about that.  It was just an interesting thing, that emphasizes being able to empathize with different people is important.  [Now, I do know several card-carrying, out of the DSM narcissists (yes, I do live in "Hollyweird") and most don't have a taste for fiction, because they don't think it matters.  Because it's not about them.  Only when they get to act in the role in a script do they care.  Because it IS about them!]

>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.<<

So do I.  It's why I wrote a paper on it.  :-)

>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.<<

That link was fascinating.  I agree with you -- and it -- completely.  I've been doing a good deal of research on certain sensory deficits recently, like blindness.  It would be like ignoring John Hull's writings and discounting his knowledge about blindness, because he's blind!  

[BTW, Damien, I'm very curious about your perception issues.  I'd like to discuss them with you some time.]

>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. :)<<

I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to stop generalizing for good.  I'm a "big picture" kinda gal, who looks for the big connections, and I've always been.  It's how I'm wired.  Please be patient with me...

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

Not that I can tell or she's said.  However, my TV writing partner is synesthesic (she tastes in colors) and she didn't figure out she was unusual until she was 18 or so.  She assumed until then everyone did, so she never mentioned it.  (I think she said "This is tastes really bright yellow tonight" to her folks at dinner.  Being good, earthy Kiwis, they thought she had lost her mind...)  But my daughter's pretty hip to this stuff, living with me, so I think we'd know.

>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...  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.<<

Yes, I agree.  And I never, never, never meant to imply that autism and sociopathy are related.  Never, never, never, never, never.

But... and here is the big 'but'... As you said in the first paragraph, it's about the definition of empathy.  For me it is simple: it's the ability to imagine yourself in another's shoes, so that their concerns become your own.  Some autists can do this using different techniques than neurotypicals, as you describe.  Some can't, no matter what they do.  But the percentage of autists who can't are not who I'm concerned about.  I'm concerned by the neurotypicals who DON'T, rather than can't.  They far outnumber autists approximately 150 to 1, and by their sheer numbers in this world, will make it or break it.

How you get empathy is unimportant.  That you get it is what's important.  For neurotypicals, storytelling is a proven and powerful method of creating empathy.  Again, I'm sure there are many autist who respond to certain types of fiction better than others, but not all do, by your own description.  I just want to generate empathy at all costs, in as many people as possible.  To my mind, it's an integral part of the big solution to the big problems and the only way I can see clear to have any real 'future' whatsoever.

>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).<<

Thank you.  IMHO, trying to understand the diversity of our world, whether you read about it or go there (and I highly recommend both), is the only way to fly.  It's probably why I have always identified with Cosmopolitanism.  

>> 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.<<

Cool!  Let's talk!


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