The idea that I’m autistic came before I had a specific cause in mind for my autism. I behave a certain way, and my family behaves a certain way. Maybe there’s a vitamin D problem going on with my mom, but it’s impossible to say in retrospect.
I started reading about autism and scheduled a formal autism assessment (pending). The paperwork asks about prenatal complications, so I called my mom and asked. Preeclampsia.
The autoimmune connection is interesting to think about, because I’ve also got alopecia barbae. My immune system attacks the hair follicles on my face, so I’ve got patches missing from my chin, eyebrow, etc.
Imagine my relief at finding out I’m not like those other black autistic people! According to Nautilus magazine:
Another indicator of the role that prenatal development may play among prodigies is the increased occurrence of preeclampsia among mothers of prodigies-to-be. Preeclampsia is a condition marked by a sudden rise in blood pressure and swelling of the face, hands, and feet. It generally occurs during the late second or third trimester and may be caused by an under-developed placenta. That, in turn, may be due to a genetic defect leading the mother’s immune system to treat the placenta like an invader.
It turns out that preeclampsia, in addition to being associated with more than its share of child prodigies is also significantly linked to the development of autism. So the experiences of a mother during pregnancy, in addition to genetic factors, may bear on whether her child becomes a prodigy. Whether she battles an infection or is exposed to some sort of trauma or injury, in other words—not to mention when in the pregnancy such circumstances occur—may have a crucial effect. Just as acquired savants suddenly become exceptional because of a severe head injury, “jolts” that occur in the womb may inexorably alter the developmental trajectory.
Most intriguing of all, perhaps, is the consistent finding that prodigies share an outsize empathy: a finely tuned sensitivity to the feelings of others as well as the overwhelming desire to do good. One prodigy’s mom reflects that her son “just felt more from the time he was born. He just had so much emotion and feeling inside of him.” At age 2, another prodigy wept uncontrollably when he heard his father playing Rossini’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa. He later stated that he’d felt connected to each note of music he heard and “knew that music was an expression of his soul.”
Joanne Ruthsatz, a psychologist at Ohio State University, who’s studied prodigies for nearly 20 years, says prodigies are “the most morally sensitive and generous individuals” she’s ever met. They often have a deeply felt sense of justice and the determination to improve the world. Along with their other exceptional capacities, this assertive benevolence may speak to latent but universal capabilities. Treffert, for one, believes the suddenness with which normal people can be transformed into acquired savants indicates that everyone may have some “Rain Man” capacity within.
Because they are so rare, these remarkable individuals merit ongoing scientific scrutiny. The fact that individuals can acquire savant-like abilities almost instantaneously through a stroke, lightning strike, or other head injury suggests that such preternatural capacities must spring from biological roots, and understanding the mechanisms involved is bound to have large implications for the rest of us.
That description is better for my self-esteem, but how do I know it’s any more objective? Something seems dangerous about the idea that I’m more or less moral based on events before my birth instead my actions. I’m sure there are people with the same diagnosis and opposite political beliefs. How does that work? Is conservatism a comorbid condition? I’m exemplary because I possess a capacity for moral reasoning that’s universal?
Different scientists have cherry-picked different groups of autistic people and emphasized them to suit political agendas, ever since Asperger chose to present cases the Nazis would find sympathetic.
I was labeled “gifted” because I did well on “CTBS” tests. In 5th grade, a few of the smart kids went to something called “enrichment” once a week. We glued together a model of the Kremlin (DoDDS school in the 1990s!). Smart kids would tend to get clustered into certain teacher’s classes, and I’d get placed in those. I had social problems and stimmed a lot and had terrible handwriting and excellent grades. No short bus for me, but is that because I was already in middle school when the DSM-IV came out? What a difference an adjective makes…
On the one hand, introducing a label and establishing a cause was one of the deepest things to happen during therapy. On the other hand, the labels are politics, and mostly bad politics. Functioning labels don’t seem to be doing us any favors, for one thing.
How many problems do patients have because of mental health professionals lacking awareness of their own politics, clinging to pretend objectivity? It’s almost like I, as an autistic person, can read what someone writes about autism and use it as a projective test of their empathy.