he kept talking, and my head hurt

I took the WAIS-IV as part of getting diagnosed. The numbers themselves were less interesting than the pattern: I’m average at everything except having abnormally high verbal comprehension.

I’m clearly bad at social everything, but not the worst. I’m basically polite. As long as I’m mindful or hypervigilant, I can remember to make eye contact periodically, stop lecturing, etc. The assessor noted that I made eye contact at first, but as soon as I was comfortable I was staring down and to the left and talking at her about my preferred topics.

I spend an awful lot of time reading things that tell me about how other people think: books, the news, comment threads, people’s blogs. It’s a sort of vicarious social experience, not exactly as isolated as spending this much time at home without the internet. Because I can read so much and for such extended periods of time, I can use the verbal superpower to partly compensate for the social impairments. The way I talk can be sort of formal and stilted, because I talk like the things I read.

Obsessive reading has benefits for socializing, but it has to be done ahead of time. In a face-to-face social interaction, the problem to overcome is lacking a sixth sense that tells me what other people are thinking and what the rules are in real time.

There’s one tool that plays to my strengths and sheds light on the mysteries of social norms and what other people are thinking: inferring the assumptions behind what people are saying. It’s extremely well-practiced and therefore fast, but not the same as having normal social intuition. I’m figuring things out within consciousness that might be unconscious to the people around me. You don’t automatically know everything there is to know about numbers because you learn the Peano axioms. Why would anyone know all the implications of what they’re saying? Logic still works, though.

The Black Lives Matter movement, and “political correctness” more generally, are about noticing how much dehumanization there is in the way we talk.

Socializing by logical deduction is how you know someone’s ideological slant, or how racist they are. The expectations they have about the world.

I guess it is like being tuned in to a different information channel. People involuntarily reveal all kinds of stuff about themselves, but you have to “read into” what they’re saying. Normal people would understand more about how awful our society is if they were better making the rules and priorities conscious.

I think “autism parents” routinely do harm with the implicit messages we pick up on from things besides their body language and tone. This autism mom’s take on ASD and honesty implies a lot that would be hurtful:

Many times, I need to remind myself not to take it personally when my son is correcting me or looking at me as if I’m one of the most ignorant people he has ever met. Now, I don’t know if he is thinking this, but I do get this feeling at times. His memory is incredible for past conversations that he has had, or what I call, random facts. What he lacks is remembering when I told him what we are going to do for the day or a chore I asked him to do. I contribute this to his ADD and tuning me out, which he honestly admitted that he does on occasion.

For example, he can be telling me a fact about history, or geography, that must have tied into something he had spoken to me about in the past. I will politely say, “That’s interesting, I didn’t know that.” Doran will look at me, with what I consider complete shock on his face, and tell me, “Mom, we had this conversation four years ago, don’t you remember?!” I want to scream out, “No, I don’t remember all the countries that bordered ancient China. I was probably thinking about what I was going to fix for dinner that night!”

I think our society’s contempt for details comes from a power imbalance. We violently dominate everyone else, so the details are beneath us. Someone who actually had to fend for themselves or be accountable for their decisions couldn’t afford the attitude that calls accuracy pathological. I love the suggestion that the ancient world’s priestly calendar keepers were probably revered autists:

Archaeologists ask why early societies needed such complex and far-reaching calendar systems. While that is a good question, a more interesting question (to me at least) might be, what kind of person could build and run such a calendar?

To find that answer, we need only turn to the autism community. Psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald has studied calendar calculating abilities and other savant skills. He’s found that calendar skills are almost exclusively the province of certain autistic people. In his experience the people with the greatest calendar skills were often quite disabled in present society, but they could tell you the moon phase or day of the week for any date 500 years in the past or present with complete accuracy.

Archaeologists and historians have puzzled about where ancient people got the mathematical skills to construct and run their calendars. After all, they were not even known to have written language. So how could they have higher math? The answer is simple. The math was in the autistics. It was inborn, in their minds. Practice makes better, but formal teaching was not needed. That’s evident in today’s calendar calculators.

Need evidence of that? Ask an autistic with calendar calculating abilities to show his work. He (she) can’t. It’s like asking me to show my work when I added musical waves in my head. It’s a thing we can do, but we can’t necessarily set down a written path for someone else to do it. Newton did for calculus, and changed the world. I’ve yet to see something similar for calendar calculation.

In the absence of that, it’s reasonable to turn the traditional archaeologist’s question around and ask: Who but an autistic person could have run the calendars of ancient times in his (her) head? The historians say, “there was no evidence they had math” and they may well be right. They didn’t need math. They had autistics.

Getting back to the autism mom, she calls her son’s interests “random facts.” Special interests are not random (“research is me-search”). Special interest time is probably when her son feels most like himself. It’s painful that everybody hates that part of you. I bet she’d be closer to her child if she started asking him questions to tease out why he thinks the countries bordering ancient China are so interesting. Instead, she admits on the internet to tuning him out. When he does the same to her, it’s the “ADD.”

In another post, she writes about how it feels to be autistic:

Since my son, Doran, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the early age of 3, I have watched him grow from a child to a young man. I have read countless books and watched numerous videos from autism specialist. I even traveled to Las Vegas to a conference held by Dr. Tony Attwood, one of the world’s leading experts on Asperger’s syndrome. I can rattle off what I’ve read in books, seen on videos, and my personal experience with autism. As most parents of an autistic child, we research ways of helping them and think we know how they feel.

The fact is; we don’t know how it is to feel being autistic, no more than we are aware what it’s like to navigate through this world blind, deaf or with a loss of a limb. This self-actualization didn’t come to me until a couple of years ago.You see, when you have a child with Asperger’s syndrome they are often gifted with being very smart, so you consistently praise them on school work or having so much knowledge in certain subjects. Doran told me how well he did on a test. I was prompted me to tell him, “I wish I were you, Doran.” I didn’t expect his answer back to me, “Mom, you don’t want to be like me. Every day I have so much anxiety, I try to fit in, noises bother me, I get confused…”. He kept talking, and my heart hurt. He spoke so matter-of-factly when he told me again that I would not want to be him. Furthermore, he said, “Unless you have lived with this all of your life, you would not be able to handle it.”

It was after this brief conversation with my son three years ago that I realized that unless you have autism yourself; no therapist, psychologists, teacher, parent or friend knows how an autistic individual feels. The only way to know is to ask them. They might not be able to express their feelings, but don’t ever assume you know.

“Be sure to ask people how they’re feeling” is the kind of advice that’s never wrong. “My kid must be A-OK because I’m invested in their school performance” is the precursor to this problem in adulthood:

I feel hated, ostracised, and silenced. There is this thing that happens, when autistic people like myself try to share our knowledge about autism, try to verbalise or somehow articulate these issues that we know about because we are autistic and because we can offer unique insight. We get silenced. We get told we are “too high functioning” to understand. We often get told that we are “nothing like” somebody’s autistic child (of course I am not like your child; I am an adult. But I was an autistic child once upon a time.) Predictably, just like many other minority groups from various places in history, we get called “crazy activists” a lot. We even get told that because we are autistic, we could not possibly understand. We get told that we are lacking perspective of the bigger picture, or that we lack the ability to see another point of view. When we say that we like who we are and are glad to have been born despite challenges, we get told that we must be one of the lucky ones. We are a hugely marginalised, silenced, and bullied, population. We rarely get the chance to have a voice. We also get regularly told things such as that our tone or facial expression, or means of bluntly communicating; is wrong, despite the fact that autism has inherent communication differences and that we constantly are working extremely hard to exist in the non-Autistic world. All of this is hard to live with, because it is hard to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance when you know that most people think the world would be a better place if you had never been born at all, or if you would just shut up and comply with what they all want. Or if you could just change everything about who you are.

Another thing that struck me is the autism mom’s reaction of “He kept talking, and my heart hurt.” The things her son was describing are so basic to what autism even is, and SHE seems to get overwhelmed and shut down from hearing about it. Her son is probably right that she’d handle it worse than he does. This phenomenon is similar to white fragility.

Normal people can definitely picture the salient aspects: imagine that the whole world was run by autistic people who all seemed to understand why things work the way they do, but it’s mysterious to you. Even easier: picture yourself in a country where you don’t speak the language, or you only speak it well enough to get by but miss nuance and people have to talk slow for you and repeat things. Except there’s no concept of “foreigner” to help everyone understand why you’re so bad at communicating and need everything spelled out for you. Everyone is impatient. Add a lot of background noise. The ways that you relax or cope aren’t socially acceptable, so you have to hide them.

You’d probably start to wonder why everyone is being such a dick to you.

The problems are cultural. Frankly terrible things about our society are taken as the definition of the human condition:

Teachers must be especially cognizant of the Aspies desire to point out the facts. An Aspie might be compelled to correct what you have said in front of the entire class, but he or she is not trying to be disrespectful; they are merely pointing out that you made an error in what you said or did. You have to remember that aspies are very knowledgeable in certain categories. The chances are; you might not have your facts exactly right. Regardless, don’t get upset. Don’t get defensive and mark the kid down as a trouble maker. Your Aspie student is only saying what he believes to be the truth. Same with work and situations with friends.

I’m not saying that It’s okay for Aspies to blurt out the truth whenever they feel like it, or challenge what you have said [WHY?!]. Having Asperger’s syndrome is having difficulty understanding other people, or not having the ability to learn social cues by osmosis. Neurotypicals are wired to make friends, read a face and socialize. We have the ability, over time and maturity, to gauge when to tell the truth or how to say it. Aspies socialize by intellect and analysis, not by intuition. Just remember that social interactions and stress are two of the biggest challenges that they have. It’s quite common for them to point out what they think should be obvious to you. In their mind, they are doing you a favor or service. If this happens, don’t get worked up about it. Explain and teach them how to approach you on the subject, or just let it go.

Kant wasn’t wrong that we should think about the principles behind our actions and whether they’d work if everyone used them. Normal people are using black-and-white thinking, as if the normal state should be complete reliance on social intuition, and analysis should have nothing to do with it (or doesn’t occur to them).

This is a grown woman who doesn’t see why a teacher shouldn’t confuse the entire class. Or she’s describing teachers with the attitude that their personal authority is more important than truth itself. Upholding abstract values is so last century.

What does she think school is for, if her understanding is that pointing out a teacher’s mistake is the wrong thing to do? Is she just perceiving that the teacher doesn’t like it, emotionally, and her instinct is to please the teacher. Probably. Getting the facts right would be a mere detail, to someone who doesn’t identify with the intellectual goals of education.

Anti-intellectualism makes intellectual people sad. Somehow “autism moms” don’t understand how they might be demoralizing their children, even when child abuse is the default:

Purpose: This study investigated how often mothers of children with Asperger Syndrome and nonverbal learning disorders reported using either psychological aggression (shouting, cursing, name calling) or corporal punishment (spanking, hitting) when disciplining their children, and also examined the correlates of these methods of discipline.

Design and Methods: A descriptive study of 41l mothers with children between ages 4 and 17 years. Mothers were recruited by placing an invitation on two national Web sites; one for parents of children with Asperger syndrome and one for parents of children with nonverbal learning disabilities. An anonymous, mailed survey was used and a 70% response rate was obtained. The Conflict Tactics Scale-Child Form was used to measure psychological aggression and corporal punishment. Univariate analyses were used to describe the child and maternal characteristics and maternal rates of discipline. The correlates of maternal discipline were measured using bivariate analyses.

Results: The overall reported use of any corporal punishment (slaps on the hand, arm, and leg; hitting on the buttocks with a belt or brush; spanking on the buttocks with a hand; pinching and shaking) during the past year was 58%. The yearly use of any psychological aggression (screaming and yelling, cursing, threatening to hit or spank, threatening to kick out or send away, calling the child “dumb” or “lazy”) was 95%. Spanking declined with increasing age of the child and the mother. Mothers who used psychological aggression were more likely to use corporal punishment with their child.

Clinical Implications: Informed nurses working with these populations can use the results of this study to help address the stresses felt by these mothers, and to teach alternative strategies of coping to mothers who are in danger of using psychological aggression and corporal punishment.

In the great battle of autism moms vs. neurodiversity activists, the presumption in favor of autism moms seems unearned. I’m not saying this woman is any kind of monster, or that she even seems unkind. I don’t even know her kid personally. Still, different things will be obvious to different people.

And now for a real, live demonstration of these things happening to me.  I made a comment on the Psychology Today site, which ended with:

If parents base their whole approach on compliance for its own sake and getting the kid to act normal, that expresses a hostility the child can pick up on. If they struggle to communicate, what can they do but scream and hit themselves? How often is that what’s going on? I actually read in Tony Attwood’s “Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome” that autistic people can’t benefit from psychodynamic therapy, because supposedly I can’t see patterns in my own life. Parents (understandably) trust people like Tony Attwood, so they pick up harmful beliefs that affect their parenting. It’s a sort of betrayal, when you think about it. The assumption of neurotypical infallibility is false.

A flame war ensued.  I got my brand-new diagnosis questioned by an ignorant person on the internet for the first time!  I feel so special!

Having preeclampsia had zero to do with it. I come from a family where preeclampsia has happened often. Including with myself and my own daughter. Not one case of autism in my family or extended family. I know we are just one family, however knowing what preeclampsia is and how it effects pregnancy points to it not being able to cause genetic errors. Moreover there is no research that says otherwise. If you have autism it wasn’t caused by preeclampsia.
After I provided 2 sources, one from the primary research literature, and reflecting on how many advantages I had in childhood, which other people don’t get for political reasons we should change, the same person replied again.  She didn’t get the point that our families having different medical histories is only a contradiction if you assume everyone is the same:
You preach to much and your reply is all over the map! You do not show symptoms of someone with autism either! Preeclampsia does not cause autism and neither does taking medication. It’s a genetic defect that causes the attachment of the placenta to uterine wall to fail. So stop babbling on.
I’m autistic, diagnosed by 2 mental health professionals including a specialist in autism assessments, and officially qualified to have an opinion about the cognitive neuroscience of mental illness.  It means nothing once I’ve offended the autism moms.  Argh.
FYI, it’s not my fault that the comments section removes paragraph breaks. Still, it’s lame if you couldn’t read 6 sentences before getting to the actual scientific research cited in my last post. Reduced placental growth factor –> poor attachment to uterine wall –> reduced blood supply –> altered brain growth. If you think it’s implausible that changing norepinephrine signaling in utero could modify attention, perception, learning, mood, and sleep in adulthood, you can’t have read very much about norepinephrine or brain development. I’m sure you believe cocaine during pregnancy is a bad idea without seeing the contradiction, though. It’s almost like you said I tend to give encyclopedic information dumps that annoy people. You’re right that autistic people never do that. Can I ask you for help with my other medical problems?
Anecdotally, the person who diagnosed me says she sees a lot of “hypoxia, preeclampsia, and jaundice,” in terms of prenatal complications.
These autism moms and friends failed to pick up on important implicit aspects of the written (not social) curriculum in school.  They have no idea how to have an academic disagreement.  What’s important?  What’s not?  What counts?  What doesn’t?  Why?  Those things can (and are) made explicit, but you couldn’t say that the public has a good understanding of, say, the scientific method.  In this person’s universe, “your reply is all over the map” means something.  In an academic argument, making non-obvious connections is typically good, and the whole point.  This person has no sense that knowledge is structured, that the claims she’s making require background information she doesn’t have and hasn’t even heard of.  Does she even know how to check whether there’s medical research about something?
The only thing that comes through loud and clear from that person is her contempt for me.  Because I said it’s complicated and parents can still do damage that’s not strictly caused by autism.