The Advantages of Autism, Part II
Autism is called a “disorder.” I’ve always wondered what it means to be “ordered” instead of “disordered.” Order suggests rules, structure, and some kind of ordinary set of qualities that is commonly shared, whether that’s in a circle of friends, a family, the neighborhood or local region, and even a nation. This emphasis on norms seems to have something to do with the way our social communities are set up. An important effect of this focus on norms is the process of exclusion. Every community relies to some degree on identifying those who don’t fit in: at the periphery of every group is a shadowy crowd composed of everyone who doesn’t quite correspond to the given order of things.
For everyone inside the circle, the order seems natural. How we talk and dress, what we eat and how we think are all shaped by these norms. It also provides a measure for judging what fits in this circle, and what doesn’t. The shadowy peripheral group outside our normative culture is defined by all the things that don’t correspond to these mostly unspoken codes. Despite all the changes we have seen in the United States in the last century, we continue to struggle with this habit of exclusion. Within the past two generations of American culture, we have had plenty of outsiders who didn’t match up with accepted cultural standards, whether they were gays, Jews, women, African Americans, or the “disabled.”
Off the Normative Grid
Being on the spectrum means being off the normative grid. For me, this has been a complicated experience, because I look pretty typical in many ways. I’m a white male, thirty-five years old, educated, and yet I’m very aware of the fact that I masquerade in public. The social norms aren’t my norms. When I walk into a room, the first thing I notice is not the people or the social point of interest, but rather some minor detail like a book or a fly buzzing against the window pane. I don’t attend to the conversation, but rather I hear the hum of electronic equipment. Unimportant gestures and slight interruptions such as a cough or a giggle distract me and send my mind off in unrelated directions. I can talk endlessly about what fascinates me, but I have a hard time with the small talk and social routine that makes up our codes of daily interaction.
Chances are, you’ve met someone like me in your lifetime. For most Americans, this kind of behavior comes across as rude or thoughtless, but this kind of behavior is actually a pattern of thought and feeling that has its own consistency and its own logic. AS seems like a disorder because it is measured against different standards, not criteria that are necessarily better or more coherent.
The Hello Test
Here’s an example: If you have an acquaintance who doesn’t always say hello when he or she sees you each day, then that person might very well be on the spectrum. I call this the “hello test.” If your neighbor launches right back into a conversation you had three days ago without a greeting, they are registering on the “hello test.” If your colleague walks by you in the hallway with a barely audible mumble of greeting, as though they were distracted, then they register on the “hello test.” From my perspective, it’s taxing to have to say the same thing each day to the same person. While saying hello is part of a social ritual that belongs to the larger communal codes of our culture, to me it seems redundant. Why would I greet you today when I already did that yesterday? Why not get into the more interesting part of the conversation right away?
When I point out to my NT (Neuro-Typical) friends that they have the habit of asking how someone is doing without really wanting to hear an answer, they often say that this is “normal” or “expected” behavior. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t make sense: these are the rules. From an AS perspective, I would even say that habits like these come across as hurtful. When I engage in conversation, I give it my everything: I want to tell my counterpart everything that fascinates me, and I want to hear the same from them. I always enjoy conversations in which we can skip over all the chatting and dive into an exploration of what matters to us in that particular moment.
Dinosaurs and Philosophy
AS is a detail-oriented way of seeing things. The simplest topics become virtually infinite under the curious gaze of someone on the spectrum. Like so many AS boys, I was fascinated with dinosaurs when I was nine and ten. I could tell you all about the triceratops, which lived in the late Cretaceous period in what is now the North American Midwest. I had theories about what the triceratops ate, what its major predator would have been, and why it went extinct (most dinosaurs could fly in this period, giving them an advantage). Today, I gravitate from one fascination to another. I’ve learned various languages; the history of photography; all kinds of national literatures; 20th century American history; the history of philosophy; and so on. Going to college, and then getting my PhD was like having a small universe dedicated to my fascinations.
I felt very at home in the intellectual atmosphere of the various universities I’ve attended over the years. For me, the university is a magical space in which I was, for the first time in my life, praised for my ability to concentrate and problem solve. Being socially awkward was not so noteworthy, and the tendency toward self-exploration helped to mask my own uncertainty about who I was in a world that seemed so alien to my tendencies and needs. Unlike most young people, I didn’t have any role models or idols with whom I could identify when I was growing up. In college, by contrast, I met fantastical, brilliant, unkempt professors who were lost in their own fixations and could talk intriguingly for hours.
The university was a utopia for me, and it made me wonder for the first time in my life what the world would look like if it were more AS and less NT. In my next blog entry (The Advantages of Autism Part III), I’ll conduct a thought experiment in which I imagine what a world on the spectrum would look like.