The Advantages of Autism, Part I
Autism is categorized as a cognitive disability. The most widely accepted term for the group of symptoms associated with autism today is ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder. As a high-functioning adult on the spectrum, I’ve always felt uncomfortable being classified as less capable than the “normal” or Neuro-Typical people around me.
Being told you have a disability or disorder is like being talked about in the third person. When I think of myself as having a disorder, it’s as though I stumbled onto a conversation between distant acquaintances who are making some pretty broad guesses about my thoughts and motivations. Then, the next day I find that whatever these folks have been talking about has spread to everyone around me, and suddenly a set of assumptions are floating around about who I am and what I’m like. The strangest thing about this experience is how little anyone asks me about it!
I understand that the term “disorder” is a diagnostic tool. The problem is that science uses the term as a specific point of measurement for behavior and cognitive patterning, but the culture I live in does not understand the term with this objective precision. “Disorder” seems to suggest that there’s an order out there that’s right, just as “disability” suggests that there’s a normal set of abilities that we should all have.
The NT World from My Eyes
I don’t feel like I’m less capable than my peers, even though I know that I’m different. From my perspective, there are a number of things about being Neuro-Typical that I’m quite happy to experience differently. At the top of the list are all those complex emotions that so often lead my NT friends into endless, self-contradictory loops. As far as I can tell, this subterranean emotional world predominates for most people. They feel before they think, which makes thinking a complex process of mediation between all the crazy feelings they have and the way they wish they would behave instead.
I still have feelings, of course, but they come to me through muffled secondary paths, like the reflection of an experience rather than the experience itself. Generally, I have one feeling at a time, and they are mostly unpleasant, typically some variation on a vague sense of irritation that NTs would call frustration. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to deal with my frustration by using breathing techniques and talking to myself in a calming way. Over the years, I’ve internalized these strategies by noticing what works best and consistently employing those methods. Now I’m that guy who can untie my four-year old’s knotted shoelaces or fix things around the house without cursing.
I don’t have the immediate, overwhelming world of emotions that NTs seem to have. Compared to my friends, I breezed through the social hazing of junior high and high school because I was mostly unaware of their tumultuous emotional world. I had my own challenges, to be sure, but they were mainly the result of being measured against standards that I simply couldn’t fulfill. I didn’t know how to read situations that were laden with emotional connotations, and this made me feel like I was always doing the wrong thing somehow, but the rest of the time I was free to explore my own mind.
Life on the Rational Side
As a child I could happily spend hours by myself, lost in my own pleasant universe. Today I am still very comfortable being by myself for long periods of time, and I find it amazing that so few NTs learn to be alone with themselves. Bookstores and websites are littered with self-help books, meditation CDs, DVDs that all try to provide something that comes completely naturally to me: comfort with the still, quiet center of life.
Without all those emotions cluttering up my mental cosmos, I have always felt free to develop what NTs sometimes call the rational side of my personality. On television, I strongly identified with characters like Spock and Data from the Star Trek series: they also seemed to have a mediated relationship to emotions that allowed them to weigh different options and make the best choice. I’ve never suffered from procrastination, for example, or the back-and-forth of emotional indecision. When I decide that something needs to be done, and simply do it. This has saved me so much unhappiness over the years, but when I try to tell my NT friends about it, they stare at me in blank incomprehension. “It’s not that simple,” they say, but for me there’s no other way of seeing the situation.