Friday, April 9, 2010

Autism: Deeper

Like normal people, autistic people can suffer many different problems. In fact, the kinds of problems typically felt by autistic people are the same as those felt by normal people. The main difference is severity. In fact, just like normal people, autistic people are not all the same in the things they suffer and the things they enjoy. For example, not all normal people are easily depressed; so, too, for autistic people.

As an autistic person working with my social service coordinator, the question often comes up, either expressly or implied, that I may be depressed, or become depressed, for some particular reason. I always have to say that I don’t get depressed.

I do sometimes get a soothing ‘blues’ feeling that makes me want to hum sweet Southern melodies, but this is an inspiring feeling, like the sight of sparkling water reflecting the sun. I suppose that my facial expression during those times might make my social worker depressed and thus make her think that that is what I’m feeling, too. But it’s just not so. The one thing that for me is unpleasant which I would call depression is when I hear certain pieces of music.

Years ago I was shocked to learn that some people actually get depressed by the sight of even a tiny cloud on the horizon. I had no idea that clouds of any sort or number could be depressive, because they are anything but unpleasant to me. I’m quite simply invigorated by any kind of weather at all. To me, clouds are to clear weather like meat is to potatoes; or like one inspiringly beautiful work of art is to another, very different, inspiringly beautiful work of art.

So, the term 'autism', like the term ‘normal’, is unfortunate: it suggests a single simple personal profile. What I mean is, if you take for granted that you are normal, and if you get depressed easily by just about anything 'negative', and if you’ve never had the thought that anyone could NOT be depressed by so many such things, then, to you, the very idea of ‘normal’ simply and inherently includes often being depressed. And, a look of sadness on someone's face may make you assume (in some cases mistakenly) that that person feels some particularly unpleasant feeling, specifically that which you typically feel and by which you know as 'depressed'.

But, more unfortunate than the term ‘normal’, the term ‘autism’ suggests that, as a rule, autistic persons have an excess of a sense-of-self. After all, autistic persons tend to act somewhat as if other persons don't exist, that they wish to keep mainly to themselves (like me), or that they noticably try-but-fail to connected with others. But, the reason the term ‘autism’ is unfortunate, for its suggestion that autistic persons have an excess of a sense-of-self, is because an adequately strong sense-of-self is exactly what so many autistic persons do not have. In fact, that’s what makes them autistic. It’s a matter of being unable to maintain effective personal boundaries, both in face of many normal social pressures and under various merely physical and chemical pressures. In short, for autistic people, the typical world outside their heads is, in some critical ways, simply too much to take.

So, autistic persons are those who, whether deliberately or automatically, shut out a normal, but, what is for them, an overwhelming, world. They shut out either or both the normal social and normal sensory worlds, either or both consciously and autonomically. In some instances, they may find that they must make special effort to maintain a basic functional integrity, that is, to be their own persons, in contrast to other persons or to non-personal physical forces. When they at all succeed in that effort, that’s when they are autistic: self-preserved in some way by being abnormally low in their interaction with the normal or typical world.

It’s when they fail in that effort that they are crushed, in pain or fear, forced into contorted, truly malfunctional ways. The 'mal' in 'malfunctional' is from the Latin word for evil, unpleasantness, destructiveness. But, what is normal for a normally healthy person can be a malfunction for someone who is too weak, or too injured, to simply behave as a normal person would. So, what may look like an improvement in a person's condition, by the way they act, may, in some cases, actually be an injurous contortion for them. For the simplest possible example, while it’s normal for an adult human to be Ok with a ten-pound cat on his chest, even a perfectly normal baby would not find the weight of the cat OK at all.

I can't wear some of what is considered normally-fit clothing, because the close fit while in articulated motion overwhelms my otherwise automatic sense of effecient motion, the result being extreme discomfort, strain from poor motion, and great mental/emotional distress comparible somewhat to clostrophobia, drowning, or getting helplessly beat up. Other people 'like me' (like me in terms merely of autism) can nevertheless have an opposite reaction to tightly fit clothing, the pressure it causes being relaxing to them. And, not all of them find it so without regard for variability in the amounts of pressure across their body. And, there are still more variables, and each possible variable can have an effect.

The Basis of Autism: Common Biology

The living biological organism is a set of elements which cohere over time, and in space, within a larger environment with which it interacts so as both to maintain its core coherence and to expand its interactive coherence. Together, these two kinds of coherence may better be referred to as biological autonomy.
   Biological autonomy may be defined as the set of core processes and outcomes that preserve both an organism's functional (autonomous) and interactional (dynamic) integrity while permitting normal engagement with its environment.

The integrity of the living biological organism depends on its ability to selectively opt out of, and also opt in to, all the possible interactions with its normal environment. It must opt out of interactions that would produce a net loss to its integrity; and it must opt in to interactions that maintain, if not develop, its integrity, but which the environment itself does not constantly impose.

The ability of a living organism to selectively opt out of its environment is what distinguishes it from either a dead organism or a non-organism. And, its ability to consistently select for its own integrity is what keeps it healthy.So, in order to live and thrive, the living organism must ‘dance’ with its environment in a certain coordinated, constant give-and-take way. The ability of the human organism just to walk properly is a matter of its sensing how to ‘dance’ with gravity: the brain’s ability to process all the stimuli of the body’s upright motion and mass, and in an efficient and proficient way, and in real time. The brain's task of processing merely the mechanical input that allows a toddler to proficiently negotiate a bipedal path from the back yard to the kitchen, around multiple party guests milling about, over toys and wrapping paper strewn everywhere, and through random strong gusts of wind, is so dynamic that the entire world of robotics engineers have spent decades figuring out how just to make a rather poor robotic copy. 

Autism: Profoundly Feeble

If your brain often lacked the force-of-processing sufficient to match the force of the stimuli caused by various normal stressors (gravity, atmospheric pressure, air movement in your ear canals, clothing, etc.), then you would have an unpleasant sense of being controlled or oppressed contrary to your basic wishes and needs to breath and to move about. If you had found these kinds of normal stressors oppressive as an infant, then you would have all but stopped moving.     And then there are the normal social stressors.

The normal physical and social environments each constitute a set of dynamic forces that impinge upon the brain's ongoing self-monitoring processes. This implies that in order for a person to learn and mature, the brain's act of self-identification must have a dynamic forcefulness sufficient to counterbalance these external forces.

Try counting a large pile of pennies one-by-one while someone whispers random numbers in your ear. If you struggle to keep your count, then you have some idea what the general external world can feel like to many persons diagnosed as ‘autistic’: they lose count of their very selves, mentally, physically, emotionally. They lose track even of their personal/social identity as distinct from the expressed emotions    and emotion-bearing opinions    of others.

In many, if not most, cases of autism, what drives the self-isolating behaviors is not a lack of social feeling, but precisely because the autistic person is so easily and overwhelmingly effected emotionally by other people. [see Adam Smith, 2009; The Empathy Imbalance Hypothesis; The Psychological Record]. As an autistic person, I experience my social identity as essentially a state of socio-emotional exhaustion, in which I am so drained from my past social interactions that I have no capacity for the kind of social feeling that drives a person to seek company with others.

So, there is triple irony here. First, there is the irony of the very term ‘autism’: it suggests to socially normal persons that the autistic person’s principle dysfunction is an excess of personal autonomy. After all, the ability of autistic persons to engage in lone activity is evident to any passerby.

Second, there is the irony that the supposed personal autonomy of autistic persons is a function necessarily of a core deficit of ‘fellow feeling’. After all, the normal person takes for granted that ‘fellow feeling’ is what drives persons to seek each other for companionship, and that, since autistic persons seem usually to lack either empathy or social behavior, the autistic person therefore must at all times lack empathy in both kind and degree.

Third, there is the irony that autism, in every case, is treatable primarily by behavioral means. After all, it is common among normal persons to experience a gain of emotional, and general cognitive, functions by being commanded (by self or other) to perform as if they already felt, or otherwise understood, the normative behavior being commanded. For example, if you are sad, then ‘Smile, and you’ll begin to feel happy.’ But, the proverbially exhausting, if not irritating, ‘perma-smile’ is not the special province of normal persons, but is entirely relative to the emotional capacities of a given person, normal or not.

Autism: Too Much of a Very Good Thing; Candle In The Wind 

According to many accounts, many persons with autism have an abnormally high, if infrequently expressed, sensitivity to the expressed feelings of others (Smith, 2009). In some cases, this sensitivity seems particularly focused on deliberate attempts by others to hide, or mask, their own negative feelings. In any case, the point is that many autistic persons are known to have an unusually strong sense of 'fellow feeling'; of emotional empathy; of deep, if uncomplicated, senses of companionship.

Emotional sensitivity to others is the most important element of social intelligence. This is because others have feelings: they have a sense of things, especially of themselves. They are happy, or sad; angry, or content. They see, hear, and touch. They feel the wind and the sun. They have hopes, wishes, and ideas. They think and know things.

But, rocks and clouds, and snow boots, do not have a sense of anything   any sense of anything    so these mere objects do value companionship, nor those who act companionly. They don't care whether you are a human, a horse, or a haybale; nor whether you are smart or dense. They are, quite simply, indifferent to any things or conditions whatever. They are non-persons.

Empathy underlies all social ability. And, social ability is the most advanced form of intelligence. But, social ability is not particularly 'intellectual'. Rather, it’s a kind of strength. For at least most people, a sense of others is what holds a person together, and what motivates the person. Even if there is little, or even no apparent, interaction. Just being with others, or even imagining being with others, so that, even in the back of their mkinds, they sense that others sense things. Even if only in watching people on TV.

So, it is natural, even compulsory, that people admire those who, by a high level of empathic responsiveness, seem to possess social intelligence in abundance. As a consequence, a high general social intelligence potentially connects the possessor to the entire collective resources of humanity. The value of social intelligence, therefore, is incalculable, both to the self-interest of the possessor, and to the wider interest of the world.

But, when a person has a strong sense of others without having a commensurate sense-of-self, then that person's social intelligence becomes a burden to the person. If you had a particularly strong sense of others, but almost no sense of yourself, then either you would  be so captive to others' whims and needs that your health and sanity would suffer, or you would be so stricken with 'stage fright' that you would try to shrivel up inside yourself and hide.

Since a high general social intelligence potentially connects the possessor to the collective resources of humanity, the emotional part of high general social intelligence normally indicates great over-all competence in the world. Normally. In other words, a person who is known easily to relate to a wide variety of people, each of whom finds her most agreeable to their own person, is naturally assumed to have a ready ability to make her own way in the world. In fact, most people assume that such a person knows herself apart from others, and that she knows that others do not find obvious about her what she alone knows about herself short of having told them. And, they assume that she knows that each of them are as independent of each other as they assume that she knows that she is independent of them.

So, a person, by her behaviors of dynamic social empathy, normally is assumed to have a high general intelligence, period. This means she is assumed to be highly competent to obtain from others whatever she might ever wish or need for herself. But, contrary to all this admiration and envy which she receives, her social intelligence may be profoundly disabling. Despite its incalculable value, social intelligence not only can have drawbacks, but its drawbacks can likewise be incalculable. Goodbye, Norma Jean.

There are four basic concerns in social intelligence. And, the mutual interaction of these four concerns makes a given level and kind of social intelligence impossible for a lower level and kind of social intelligence to produce. An instinct is a function of the internal forms which it involves, and of the connections between the forms. And, the initial and end point of the feeling of an instinct is not an abstraction, but is a result of the forms. If you have neither a hand nor a pre-conditioning of the brain to a hand, then you’ll have no instinct of having a hand, nor to throwing a basketball into a hoop. The problem of over-analyzing, or over-calculating, is caused by an under-connectivity of the forms that are already tired of arbitrary repetition.

The first conern of social intelligence is that social activity requires more brain power than virtually any other activity. While a merely physical activity, such as walking, can more quickly exhaust the purely raw physicality of the organism, a worthwhile quality of social activity demands a far greater information-processing effort, including emotional information, commonly both during and after the social interaction. In other words, social activity is usually the most profound of all activities, in both numeric complexity and qualitative load. People 'chill out' after a day's work at the office not just because of the work's muscular demands, but because the value of the work depends on the qualities and quantities of interaction with other persons. The brain, as the most complex organ, and as the central organ for all social activity, requires by far the most complex means of recuperation in order to be ready for a future instance of social interaction conducted to a similarly high level of social productivity.

The second concern of social intelligence is that, in a social species, social feeling is not by choice. You can't opt in, or opt out, at a given moment, for a given reason. To borrow a line from 'the most resourceful man alive', the mythical 'Johnny Rambo' as played by Sylvester Stallone: "You don't just turn it off." It's usually there whether you like it or not    sometimes especially when you don't. Your best hope in a bad situation is that you burn out from it before anyone can do you any other kind of harm.

The third concern is that, as just suggested, the social world is imperfect: it is comprised not merely of social beings, but of social disharmonies of every kind, degree, and complexity. No two persons or groups are exactly complimentary in their respective sets of abilities, disabilities, needs, preferences, interests, repulsions, etc.    nor at a given moment. No two persons are alike in what they assume is socially normal, civil, etc.. In short, no one takes all the same things for granted.

The fourth, and final concern regarding social intelligence is the fact that the world includes greed: the chronically mis-qualified self-interest of others. There are all kinds of greed: greed for material things, greed for general economic power, greed for general or special kinds of social status, etc..

So, these four concerns, taken together, make social intelligence a profound problem. In fact, they make it a host of problems.


(Dis)Ability is Relative

Autism is considered a disability. But, if by 'autism' we mean the non-social tendencies to which the name is given, then autism is not a disability, but a behavior. The question is what is/are the disabilit(y)(ies) that drive(s) the behaviors? Before we can answer that, we must first ask a far more general question: what is a disability, per se? But, to properly answer this general question, we may first have to answer the opposite question: What is normal?

If you sprain your ankle, it's normal to feel pain. But, pain is normal only within the context of injury. Life sometimes includes getting injured; but, occasional injury is not normal, it's a consequence of life in an imperfect world. Certainly, if you never got injured     managed always to avoid getting hit painfully in the arm by a baseball, or avoid tripping and skinning your knee    then people might think you were oddly lucky. But, the commonality of injury in an imperfect world does not make any one of your injuries normal. While it is not always possible or practical to avoid injury, having an even lightly injured knee is not normal to your knee’s proper functioning.

The basic reality is that you and the world are not in perfect harmony. This is what 'life in an imperfect world' actually means. Such a reality necessarily results in injuries. Injury is not normal to the proper functioning of an organism, but, once injured, the nature of an organism as such implies that it has a basic ability to learn to avoid the same injury in the future.

But oddly, once injured, the injury becomes, in some functional sense, part of the organism until a return to normal function is attained. During the injured state, the organism is in disharmony not only with the world, but with itself. This is why people have some tendency to assume that it is 'the other guy' who is in the wrong when injury occurs (their injury or yours, or both). But, if you could not heal from an injury, then that definitely would not be normal. An inability to heal would itself be an injury    a chronic disability. Even more disabling would be an inability to avoid injury in the first place.

   So, whether by the inability to heal, or the inability to avoid injury, you would be living a life of injury. That's not only abnormal, that's profoundly disabled. But, the question is, how could either disability arise? The answer is both simple and complex: you're alive not merely on the level of arms and knees, but on the level of your micro-biology. In fact, on the micro-biological level the distinction between the inability to heal and the inability to avoid injury is often quite blurred, if not absent.
   Normal, healthy function is thus not merely lack of injury, but of an ongoing ability to prevent injury in the first place on the most basic level of function. But, since we live in an imperfect world, we each possess this ability only imperfectly. In short, we each, and all, are disabled.

So, the question is not whether you are disabled, but whether your set of disabilities is disabling enough to prevent you from living a fairly normal, stable, healthy, balanced life in the typical human environment.