Thursday, March 10, 2011

What Is Autism?, or, Who Was Marylin Monroe?

In a normal person, debilitating stage fright is effectively a part of the disability that drives autistic behavior. I'm referring not only to the behaviors of those with developmental autism, but to your own potential behaviors as a normal person.

Autism is a behavior, typically driven by a disability. But, the behavior can be produced merely as an 'act' without any disability. Likewise, the disability can exist without there being any autistic behavior (such as when you find you are able to strain against the stage fright and give your whole world what it wants from you).

So, the behavior, and the disability, of autism are distinct from each other, both essentially and causally. And, they are distinct from, and independent of, a given developmental status.

When you, a normally developed person, walk stiffly off stage after having utterly failed to perform to the palpably expectant crowd, you are behaving autistically, even though your debility is the result of a specialized social context. Developmental autism is, in large part, driven by some of that same sort of debility, but in regard to a normal social context.

Up on stage you had faced what could be thought of as a 'million pounds of social pressure'. You collapsed under it precisely because you were so in mind of it. And, you were so in mind of it because you felt it. You found yourself caught up in it, and it compounded itself like a cruel echo.

When you talk with people face-to-face, they are part of your environment, specifically the social half of your environment. You have a sense of them as conscious beings, and you sense that they sense that you, too, are a conscious being. And, they really do sense that you sense that they sense that you are a conscious being. So, they expect you to act like it. And, if their intentions are friendly, then they most naturally initially assume that their actions will effect you agreeably.

So, imagine, if you can, that no one in that huge, oppressively expectant crowd had any concept of stage fright. If you then failed to act within the range of their expectations, they would find your behavior horribly alien. It is, therefore, fortunate for you that real audiences, made up of normal people, do  have a concept of stage fright. Which is why, when you stiffly stand there as if facing a firing squad, you're not seen as a freak, nor as a malevolently non-responsive monster.

But, sometimes, when faced with an audience that does refuse to grant that you may have debilitating stage fright, a possible course of action is to respond as best you can, in whatever ways that you think they demand of you. But, if you succeed, then a possible outcome is that you become their captive, made to perform every trick for them just so they can continue in the delusion that you are their shining star. In that case, you would be better off if, instead of having this immediate social disability, you looked like the elephant man. At least then they wouldn't be so eager to breath down your neck.

But, as a normal person, think of the difference between that huge pressure of the crowd from on stage, and the pressure you would usually feel from speaking to just one person, in an informal setting in which he does not require a 'performance' from you. The pressure from that one lone person would be so slight that you might not even notice it. And, if you don't notice it, then it isn't there.

Because, when it is there in overwhelming force, its essence is easily seen to be in cruelly ironic contrast to its common name. For the burdensome kind of 'self-consciousness', the stronger it is, the more it obliterates your dynamic and complex sense-of-self in all the most important ways: you can’t think, you can’t remember your lines, and you may even not be able to read a simple note that's been passed to you from side-stage. Then, you're like a deer in the fog lights of a freight train that's all too happy to meet you. Then, Bam! you're flattened into a vertical pancake, and held there by the near-omnipotently accelerating engine car.

So, that's essentially the disability that most naturally drives autistic behavior: such a lack of a sufficiently dynamic sense-of-self, in face of pressures from a given environment, that the promising performer is, in effect, pushed right off the stage. Only, for developmental autism, the stage in question is the one which normal persons take for granted as inherently manageable: an innocent set of railroad tracks in a quiet middle-of-nowhere. The more merciful option is to avoid the tracks like the plague; because, if you meet that train head-on, then you're stuck on stage. Good Bye, Norma Jean.


Autism as Counting
Imagine the debilitating effect of having someone whisper random numbers in your ear while you try to count a large pile of pennies one-by-one. Struggling to keep track of your count is the essence of the disability of developmental autism. Locking yourself in a room alone in order to complete your count is the essence of genuinely driven autistic behavior. The person whispering random numbers in your ear is what so much of the normal world is to those who have developmental autism. The pile of pennies is your soul, and you must count them all over again every #@! time someone is so #@! pleased with themselves for having made you lose your count---or when, God forbid, they add to, or subtract from, that pile.


The Organics of Autism

The living organism is made up of things from its environment. But, the living organism is not its environment. The distinction here is singularly pivotal to all dysfunctional conditions, perhaps to none more importantly than to autism.

The environment is that from which the living organism obtains the things it needs in order to maintain, and build upon, its integrity as distinct from its environment. Part of an organism's integrity is its ability to opt out of specific kinds or instances of interaction with its environment when those interactions would produce a net loss to the integrity of the organism. If some part of the environment chronically does not allow it to withdraw from such interactions, then the organism becomes dysfunctional. Because, its ability to selectively opt out is what distinguishes it from its environment. This ability may be called General Dynamic Autonomy, the merely cognitive manifestation of which is known as 'Central Coherence': the ability to perceive the 'bigger picture' rather than being stuck on the level of the 'pressing details'. What underlies this ability is a general, dynamic, sense-of-self (in both cognitive and biological terms) that's at least as strong as the pressures of the environment. People with developmental autism are simply those whose general central coherence is weak.

Disease and dysfunction might be defined as conditions in which the organism fails to sufficiently opt out. These conditions then require the organism to opt out in abnormal ways in order to recover, or, failing that, to thrive on a sub-normal level of overall function.

Autism is a way of thriving on a sub-normal level, motivated by a shortage of the ability to selectively opt out. So, autism is not just a dysfunction, it is the most profound act of self-preservation.

For an individual of a social species, others of its kind are an especially dynamic part of its environment. Its social feeling is not by choice. Like having stage fright while being force-ably held on stage: you can't opt in, or opt out, at a given moment, for a given reason. To borrow a line from the fictional Johnny Rambo in 'First Blood', "You don't just turn it off." It's usually there whether you like it or not, sometimes especially when you don't.

Walking stiffly off-stage, and into a back room, without having carried out the expected performance, on account of debilitating stage fright, is the essence of autism. So is fleeing back to Earth in the Space Shuttle after having found all of outer space suddenly monopolized by a race of very friendly aliens who are so advanced that they have long since forgotten how frail can be the spacecraft of any race that has only recently ventured outside its own atmosphere.

Compared to lower life forms, the human organism is normally highly complex in the ways it interacts with others of its kind. And, only humans have a social intelligence high enough to produce in the would-be speaker a stiflingly self-conscious sense of the collective expectation of the crowd.

In some ways, being autistic is like being an opossum. Except, that you look like a human. Trapped in a world of normal humans, all of whom think that you think-and-perceive just like them. And, you're the last one to know that they think so.

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