About this blog: Candles In The Wind

There is a widely held belief that persons with autism spectrum disorders possess an at least normal level of personal/social autonomy. This belief is based, in part, on these person's markedly self-absorbed, or otherwise non-social, behavior.

Additionally, there is a widely held belief that autism, and its basic causes, are perfectly distinct from various other neuro-social disorders and their causes, such as schizophrenia, Williams syndrome, and Borderline Personality Disorder.

Finally, there is a widely held belief that autism is strictly neurodevelopmental: an enduring disability that originates prior to full adulthood, and typically prior to age ten, rather than occuring commonly, and sometimes only in particular contexts, to all humans.

The purpose of this blog is to argue that all three of these beliefs are mistaken. This argument is made by observing three things:

1) In a society dominated by 'normal' persons, and these dominated by males, it can be expected that abnormal or otherwise disadvantaged persons will have the greatest difficulties in life---especially if their disadvantages are misunderstood or unrecognized.

2) The appearance of doing well in life does not prevent relatively normal persons from experiencing mid-life crises, burnout, confusion, and even addictive, repetitive, or reclusive patterns of coping.

3) Autism is a behavior driven by a disability; and the disability, both with and without the behavior, occurs both in the non-autistic disabled population and in the developmentally normal population. In short, autism spectrum disorders are as diverse as the forms of H20: snow, ice, liquid water, and water vapor; and each of these in countless varieties, quantities, and unique combinations.

In short, the purpose of this blog is to show that...

...disability 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.

J. Wishart writes:

In our earliest studies, our focus was purely cognitive but the emphasis has now shifted to investigating social cognition and how specific socio-cognitive skills influence how children with Down Syndrome (DS) learn from and with others. This shift mirrors a recent move in mainstream psychology to recognising the central role of the social environment in determining developmental outcomes (Rutter et al. 2006) and to investigating cognitive functioning in its social context rather than in isolation from other areas of functioning. Several theories of child development in fact place social cognition right at the heart of development (Bukowski et al. 1996; Flavell et al. 2002; Carpendale & Lewis 2006) and while developmental trajectories clearly diverge in Typically Developing (TD) and Intellectually Disabled (ID) populations, there is little reason to assume that socio-cognitive skills are any less important to ID development in general, or DS development. Despite the centrality of socio-adaptive skills in defining ID, empirical investigations of social cognition in DS are surprisingly rare, especially at older child ages (for overview, see Cebula &Wishart 2008). Social understanding is nevertheless generally thought to be relatively ‘protected’ and to underlie the outgoing personality characteristically attributed to the children. Evidence of subtle but important difficulties in some aspects of sociocognitive functioning – in the ability to understand the behaviours, intentions and feelings of others – has emerged in a number of our DS studies, however.

WISHART, J. (2007). Socio-cognitive understanding: a strength or weakness in Down's syndrome?. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 51(12), 996-1005. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2788.2007.01007.x

I believe autism is primarily about an enfeebled general dynamic autonomy, which explains both the social and non-social features of autistic disability. But, as social creatures, human persons who have autism are simply those who have a chronically weak general dynamic autonomy in the face of normal social stressors, while at the same time lacking a commensurately robust emotional- empathy faculty, constituting an imbalance which both forces and allows the person to withdraw from human contact by the dual hyper-empathic-response and hypo-empathic-state of the brain.

An analogy may help make clarify the nature of this imbalance. Imagine that the human Space Program found outer space suddenly monopolized by a race of very friendly, star-faring aliens that, despite its great technological knowledge and power, continually failed to see just how comparatively flimsy are our own spacecraft. The damage we would suffer from the friendliness of such a race of aliens would make our Space Programs all head back inside Earth's atmosphere and stay there. The aliens are the normal social stressors as far as the aleins are concerned, but native Earthlings don't find it so. The Sally-Anne test is conducted by these very 'aliens', so the autistic person may, at least on occasion, primarily be concerned with avoiding playing along with the test: so long as the autistic person avoids even thinking about himself as a differentiated person, he easily is able to remain on 'Earth'. Because, if he so much as effectively admits to these 'aliens' that he is a differentiated person, by admitting to them that he has an awareness that other persons are differentiated from him, he may feel vulnerable to these 'aliens' demands. It's far easier for us just to remain earthbound, anyway. Sending up so much expensive hardware all the time is very expensive as it is, let alone replacing all the stuff that keeps getting damaged by merely intentionally friendly/helpful contact. This is like encouragingly patting a friend on the back whose back is covered in third-degree burns' it has an effect opposite your ignorant intention, and then you, just as ignorantly, insist that his bad reaction to your intent is the real problem, and so he is forced to avoid you lest you insist on patting him on the back every damn time you get the urge to encourage him.

But, the power of the emotional-empathy faculty in face of a lack of a commensurately strong sense-of-self is occasionally-and-temporarily experienced by neurotypical (normal) people. As many young people know, the very presence of one's love interest sometimes can more-or-less drown out all other senses. For example, it is not uncommon on prom night for a girl known for being a good dancer to find she is 'all left feet' upon first dancing with her 'dream boy'. The immediate prospect of performing for a huge adoring crowd can have a similar effect.

But, for persons with developmental autism, and also for those with any one or more of a host of related disorders, they are too often extraordinarily high in at least some facets of social intelligence, usually including social emotion. The problem is that most of these persons have, by comparison, too little dynamic self-intelligence. The result is like being expected to enage in a complex kind of partner-dance in which the other person expects you to more-or-less constantly shift between leading and following. Autistic persons are those who, because they cannot easily shift between leading and following, avoid such dancing, which, by analogy, is most or all of social interaction.

If that imbalance between self- and social-intelligence is too great, then not only does your social intelligence pose no great benefit to you, it poses a great threat. And, precisely because of that imbalance, the threat you feel may be a rather amorphous one and the origin of which you may be more-or-less unaware or otherwise too much beyond your control: the 'slow-motion' panic known as social anxiety. In other words, when your very sense-of-self is more-or-less crushed or paralyzed by the weight of other's demands, expectations, and wishes, you are in a very real, and readily quite complicated, state-of-emergency.
When that state of emergency happens to you, you may be your own most problematic moving target; and few---if any---other persons may really be helping you sort out the nightmare.

Naturally, a person would try to escape such a nightmare by any means, and at any time, by which she feels she can get some relief. Some who have the debility that underlies autism cannot escape, at least not in any sane, directly autistic way. This is because they are captive to the threat or reality of others' disapproval, or to other's approval, or to both.

In a case of debilitating stage fright on your part, if your audience prevents your escape, then, despite your terror, you would be fortunate, in a sense, to somehow push yourself through the outward debility and give them what they want. But, you cannot live a sane life of always mainly giving people what they want in the hope they occasionally will let you escape to a place where you can function mainly as your own person.

Stage fright is a disability. Some people who suffer it simply fail to hold up under the pressure of the 'reality' imposed on them. Others find means of coping which cumulatively destroy their physical or emotional integrity, often destroying their reputations in the process. Still others are admired for their abilities despite their bad habits, even if that admiration is often largely selfishness-in-disguise. So, while civil society requires a lot of give-and-take---a lot of 'dancing with them what brung ya'---the human social instinct is sacred, not to be made the effective slave of greedy agents and handlers, or of the admiring crowd...


...Even if the performer thinks she wants it.

Good Bye, Norma Jeanet al