Why we are looking at autism the wrong way
When I was diagnosed with Autism at the age of nine it meant nothing to me. The subject didn't come up again for the next fifty years.
My parents, like many parents in the 60s, had no idea what this diagnosis meant other than their child was somehow ‘broken’. The doctors had no advice as to what to do, but my parents actually made some common sense changes that had a positive effect on me, especially in the area of diet. Moving from canned, preserved, instant, sugar-filled food to healthy food made me a lot less ‘crazy’.
We lived in a small town in rural New Hampshire where the education system felt like it had not changed much from that which the Pilgrims put in place. There were not a lot of resources or opportunity for my parents to get educated about the subject of Spectrum Disorder. In addition, on the scale of ‘problem children,’ I was far from the worst since there was an unusually high number of children in the area who suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and inbreeding. So, I was simply classified as ‘brain damaged’ and dealt with it accordingly, as per the public health policy at the time in the town; they basically ignored me and put me in the class with the other ‘tards’.
Without getting into the details of my life in that town, suffice it to say I knew I had to get out as soon a possible. I left at the age of sixteen and moved to California - where things got a lot worse. But, that is not the point. The point is, I never gave my diagnosis any thought. I went about life as if I was normal and it was the rest of the world that was upside down!
I had completely forgotten that diagnosis until recently, at the age of sixty, when I was looking back at my life. Much the way one remembers the roller coaster ride they just took, I thought, “Wow, that was seriously crazy! How did I even manage to live this long?”
It was fairly easy to identify where and how my Spectrum qualities got in the way of my ‘normal’ life. But, I also saw something else in myself, something wonderful and exciting, something that had always been seen by others as a 'problem’ (but which I actually saw as an asset): a perspective of ‘reality’ that could actually change this world for the better.
It is safe to say that 99% of my problems were rooted in the fact that I was very different from ‘normal’ people. Each time I sensed that society was 'changing' me, I double-downed on resisting that change. This can never turn out well. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time I lost everything that I was able to see myself clearly. And, that is when I remembered.
It seems to me that one of the big issues with dealing with Spectrum People (SP) is that society is trying to get them to integrate into the existing social and cultural structures that we expect and demand that everybody live within. I was watching a clip from an ABS special on autism on YouTube entitled “Autistic Girl Expresses Unimaginable Intelligence”. The title gave me high hopes. But, I could not have been more disappointed. I was even angry at their coverage. What they referred to as “Unimaginable intelligence” was simply her ability to communicate via a keyboard in a way one would expect to communicate with a ‘normal’ person. What I found so offensive about this piece, behind the insulting patronization, was unimaginable ignorance on the part of the producers.
I do not mean to take anything away from this young woman or her family who have discovered a way to reconnect. It's important to build new skills so these children of ‘another world’ can share with us their insight and wisdom. How else can they teach us? But the entire ‘position’ of this piece was about how well she had adapted to ‘their’ reality, with not an inkling of whether there was anything in her ‘reality’ that we should listen to. This young woman had been raised in an environment where only well-defined popular cultural ideas are given merit, by parents and doctors who hadn't the foggiest clue or desire to explore her world and to learn from her perspective. The girl seemed to have no idea that she had talents and gifts that the world so desperately needs.
What could she possibly have to teach us? Well, let’s look at what we have learned already from some of the more high functioning autistics, such as: Bill Gates, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, James Joyce, Stanley Kubrick, Michelangelo, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Andersen, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Andy Warhol, Emily Dickinson
These people were not simply ‘really smart’, they changed the way we perceive reality. Each one of them has set the bar higher for their field. They had the ability to understand how to deal with this ‘reality’ enough to make their thoughts understood and manifest their visions. The not-so-high-functioning SP does not have that ability, so it is the challenge of society to do that for them: to listen to them and be their voice, write their words, and express their ideas.
How many more brilliant minds would we have to learn from if only there were those who could listen and understand what they were saying, in their language, in their world? A better metaphor (for me) is to imagine SPs as an advanced race of benevolent beings who have come to this planet but do not know how to operate the ‘space suit’ of the human body that well. Society must build the bridge to their world
But there is another element of their ‘reality’ that is so radical, so transformative, that to speak of it would be like telling Pope Paul V the earth revolved around the sun (he was the pope that imprisoned Galileo), because society would have to admit that our current obsessively linear, hierarchical model of the world is not only unsustainable for humanity, but threatening to all life on the planet.
When I was very young, I used to have very intense experiences where all my senses would merge together and I could not distinguish one from another. During these states I was unable to interact with the external world, nor would I have wanted to. The external world was pitifully dull compared to these episodes of sensory fusion. However, during these episodes, I felt more fused together than simply by my five senses. There was another sense, one I would call a spiritual sense, a divine sense. Unlike most autistic children who become overwhelmed by sensory input, I found it to be ecstatic, blissful, and perfect. This experience also led to what is called Out Of Body Experiences. This ability was drilled out of me eventually, especially when I had to sit on my ass all day listening to someone talk about something I had no interest in, but which they demanded I learn. Fortunately, these abilities came back in my teens, with rather unforeseeable consequences.
I imagine what could have become of this skill if it had been nurtured rather than suppressed. More so, I wonder if this is common among autistic children.
In this interview of that young autistic woman I mentioned before, the interviewer asked.
“Why do autistic kids cover their ears and flap their hands?”
Using a computer to answer she replied, “It’s a way for us to drown out all sensory input that overloads us all at once. We create output to block out the input ... Our brains are wired differently. We take in many sounds and conversations at once. I take over a thousand pictures of a person's face when I look at them. That’s why we have a hard time looking at people.”
But before the hidden talents and abilities of SPs can be seen recognized, parents, therapists, and teachers would have to recognize that autism is a disability only within the context of the environment SPs are forced to deal with. It could just as easily be a gift to humanity given a different environment and understanding.
In the past, the autistic geniuses were called geniuses because they found a way to model reality from a different perspective. But, even here we miss the true gift that is being offered us: to evolve past this archaic linear consciousness and move into a world that is ‘multidimensional’ (metaphorically, for lack of a better word).
One of the major debilitating factors in autism in children is what is called the “autistic defense”, which is brought on by “...unbearable early life experiences that force the infant to use autistic defenses often constitute a significant factor leading to cognitive impairment. These autistic defenses are self-generated (sensory) soothing devices that shut out the consciousness of the world…”
Quite clearly what is being said here is that the child is being traumatized by having to deal with sensory overload in his environment, and yet, professionals still work on ways to integrate SPs into society. They may need to think about how to integrate themselves into the SP ‘reality’.
It is a hopeful sign that significant research (with very positive results) is going on with SPs using the consciousness-altering drugs of LSD-25 [2,3,4,5,6,10] and MDMA (‘ecstasy’) [7,8,9]  because this shows that understanding consciousness is the key to understanding SPs. A good step would be for those with their hands on the wheel of autism research to look into their own consciousness and that of the society they live in.
Research results (of one research project) made it clear that there is nothing to ‘fix’ in SP subjects (i.e. it is not a consequence of some biological or neurological dysfunction ). Rather, they needed to be ‘freed’ from their imprisoning minds . From personal experience, I can certainly vouch for this. But, I would go a step further and say that their mind is a product of their culture, or at least, heavily influenced by it. This would imply that raising an autistic child in a completely different manner than what we are doing now, a manner that is compatible with their worldview (and incompatible with the existing pervasive one), would hold great promise - not only for the SP but for all humanity as we slowly free ourselves from the oppressive ‘mind’ that all people suffer with.
UPDATE (Aug 31, 2018): I recently ran across this video that talks about some new and (pointlessly) controversial research on autism and masculinity, and even though the point of the video is to debunk the idea of gender fluidity, it sheds light on autism in general, with respect to masculinity specifically. He does not come right out and say that the autism is a form of labeling masculinity as a dysfunction, but he does seem to be implying it.