This Blog is written by a person with autism who is a careful observer of the Spectrum scene. Claudia Mazzucco is a writer, researcher, historian, editor and teacher of the history of golf. The hypothesis that she offers is that it is worth knowing the differences between the symptoms of possible autism and behavioral issues that look like autism but they are not.
It is quite odd. I would never have thought of having autism as a lifelong disorder until I came to the United States and became familiar with those in the social media who are inducing the disorder in themselves. Life is indeed full of contrasts and surprises. When I was a girl of seven years old, I was diagnosed with autism by my pediatrician Dr. Nazario. My grandma Irma shielded me, in those early years, from the knowledge of having autism. But she knew, although she could not then acknowledge it, that she was not protecting me; I had to fight it out for myself. This diagnosis was later confirmed in London in the summer of 2001 and in the United States last March.
Much as we might wish it otherwise, fake news on the nature of autism has been passed on in the last twenty years: that autism has a milder cousin called Asperger’s. Why should we think they are related? Neurodiversity is making the most of the “distinction” between being autistic and neurotypical, trying to mislead the rest of the world into believing that there is a real difference between the two. Though it is a plain fact that a great number of people are referred to or consider themselves to be autistic, the meanings implied by the term “autistic” in this context may be as many and as personal as the number of claimants. It may simply mean that the individual feels that he has traits of personality of a distinct characteristic which separate them from the rest of the people in this world. They may also use the term to indicate the sense of estrangement which runs deep in the modern world. We are reaching a state of affairs, however, where those who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s, especially in adulthood, and belong to the Neurodiversity Movement should have nothing to say about comprehending the essential nature of what I’d call classic autism, which is a neurological disorder, often resulting in lack of integration and synchronization across the large-scale cortical network.
I write from the experience of a person who has survived classic autism with the limitations and effects of the disorder still present in myself. When you have classic autism, sensation, reflection, feeling and intuition are different activities separated from one another. Things being what they are, perhaps it would be better if both parties – those who survived classic autism and Aspies – did not dispute on whether (or not) supporting a cure, ABA, mercury causation theory, or disability-model. Both parties should not misjudge or underappreciate the other. We have separate – not mutual – problem to be solved. That we are under the same category in the DSM is a mélange which excites ridicule and gives disgust.
The problem in autism is not so much in finding who is really autistic but in recognizing who is not. When people call themselves “autistic” these days, they usually do not conceptualize what they mean by that. I’ve made a constant effort to perceive their interpretation of autism as much as possible from within. However, each time self-described autistic people define autism as “a different way of perceiving and responding to the world,” I want to ask them immediately to present evidence that their way of perception and response to the world is unconventional. On the basic of lack of evidence, one is bound to ask whether they believe that two “neurotypical” people have identical ways of thinking so that the one could not be distinguished from the other. No two persons are completely identical in voice and thought, though they are built in the same way, so the mind of every person differs although it shares something common and universal so that the mind of one can make contact with the mind of another.
Neurologists and psychologists throughout the world could easily demonstrate that each human brain is unique. As psychologist Tom Kitwood said:
“The key functioning part is a system of around ten thousand million … neurons, with their myriads of branches and connections, or synapses. A synapse is a point at which a “message” moves from one neuron to another, thus creating the possibility of very complex “circuits.” So far as is known, the basic elements of this system, some general features of its development and most of the “deeper” forms of circuitry (older in evolutionary terms) are genetically “given.” On the other hand, the elaboration of the whole structure and particularly the cerebral cortex is unique to each individual and not pre-given. The elaboration, then, is epigenetic, subject to processes of learning that occur after the genes have had their say. Each human face is unique; so also is each human brain.”
There is no greater declaration than to declare the obvious. It is easy to declare that in the past it was common for people with autism to go undiagnosed or received no diagnosis at all; it is much more difficult to provide evidence because you don’t bother to look for medical records and take its non-existence for granted. Neurodiversity should have declared what is obvious: that they would only feel a connection to others by noticing they are the same people as everyone else. For if it is true that their self-definition as “autistics” give them a strong sense of common identity, what then constitutes an autistic identity? Is it an abstract identity or is it directly related to a specific culture?
It is the infinite variety that makes people on this planet interesting. America as a whole, which has become through its own history hospitable to all kinds of differences, accepts and understands their self-definition as “autistics.” In America, you are what you say you are. But if we read about those who have come to believe they have autism, or promote themselves as “autistic” in social media, as if there is a philosophy of life behind this “identity,” we will find that people in the spectrum of Asperger’s are prone to believe that what they experienced in their lives does not happen to other people and because of this (false) belief their experiences must be the result of a neurological difference.
Sometimes I look at the cover of John Elder Robinson’s book, Look Me in the Eye, and I perform a little exercise of thought and imagination. I try to imagine what I would do if I were the mother of this child, and if someone is yelling at him to produce such a reaction, I would first protect my child and tell the offender, don’t ever – ever – talk to my child that way again. And if you don’t apologize, don’t ever speak to him again. Now, don’t you think that it could be remotely possible that instead of suffering from autism, Robinson was a victim of child abuse? The cover of his book would certainly suggest that.
Obviously, in Asperger’s the “autistic” symptoms are a by-product of a great variety of psychological and psychosomatic factors. To know to what extent one’s auto-induced autism derives from the particular abuse they suffered at home, the people they encounter early in their lives who did not listen to them compassionately, what cultural factors have contributed significantly to their self-diagnosis, and so on, and to what extent any early traumatic event made relating to the other not possible, these are mysteries not given to us to know. Nonetheless, many were forged by trauma, which permeates much of their personal narratives and their very identity. With time the events themselves evolved into a core element of the person’s identity, incorporating a perpetual sense of loss – a loss they insist must be recognized not by the perpetrator but by society itself. Later, they would imbue themselves with a sense of exceptionalism; hence the baseless belief that they are “neuro-divergent” and see the world differently. I’ve come to the decision that it is a pointless act to persuade them otherwise.
The notion of Asperger’s as having its own pathology makes good sense. It stems from an unyielding faith in personal-spaces and a quickness to separate themselves from others by creating fake and divisive walls or borders. They are obsessed with not being like the other, and therefore tend to exaggerate the differences. They are terrified of the projection of the other onto themselves.
I’ve chosen to understand the origin of social deficiencies, which are currently misinterpreted as “autism,” in the context of the world situation. We live through a time of extraordinary turmoil and chaos. Images of alienation and isolation abound. How is it possible to establish meaningful relationships when your neighbor is a stranger? My theory is that when someone – with no development issues whatsoever – experiences extreme difficulty in communicating with other people which could lead to a diagnosis of ASD, it is not because, I’d suggest, their brain is “autistic” or he is suffering of Asperger’s; rather, it is because in this sophisticated technological age we have yet to define the rules of social interaction between people who are strangers to each other. If we cannot establish communication, neither theory of mind nor empathy will ever be possible.
For instance, what happens if your overriding concern in life is centered in the self? Well, in that case you might not be open to spending time with people who won’t agree with you in everything. You might be less likely to believe there are thousands of people who had had the same experience and don’t call themselves “autistics.” You might even begin to see other people as too ordinary – or worse, objects – in your quest for upward uniqueness. Gradually you might start to see everything as revolving around you, what you believe your condition is, and desire to be different.
It takes a deliberate effort to solve the “mystery” of how to be socially effective. While socially skilled people have an intuitive sense of social situations, Aspies, or awkward people have to be deliberate to understand other people’s intentions and figure out the appropriate social response. This is neither a disability nor a neurological difference. To have a “localized processing style” as Uta Frith at University College London says, which describes people who tend to narrowly focus on some of the trees rather than the entire forest, is neither a disability nor a neurological difference.
As to the idle speculation that many famous people had Asperger’s Syndrome: People have many mistaken assumptions about genius and autism. Some people have qualities not shared by everyone. Take the case of Thomas Jefferson. He was devoted to the ideal of improving mankind but had comparatively little interest in people in particular. Indeed, he knew very little of the nature of man. He rarely ever revealed his inner feelings. He was somewhat remote, subtle, and serene by all appearances. He scarcely said a word in Congress. Jefferson had many exceptional traits. But I have never yet been able to fathom why, instead of speculating that Jefferson was not diagnosed with autism because autism has yet to be discovered, why don’t we simply conclude that there have always been people with a lack of fascination for their fellow beings and that it is utterly unnecessary to describe them as having some form of autism?