you’re supposed to play with your kids, you low-expectation-having motherfucker

I resent the fact that “special interests” are seen as a pathological sign of autism. It’s true that being “too interested” in things has been a problem for me, but it’s the part of me that’s considered a contribution to society (specialized jobs). Other people are ambivalent about expertise, and take it out on us.

There was a conversation about sports before a meeting got started at work. Everyone participating in the conversation seemed to know about many individual players in last night’s game, and their whole career trajectories and trials and tribulations and statistical record. I stayed quiet. Please don’t look at me please don’t look at me. I don’t want to think about how to account for not giving a shit about sports without offending everybody.

Nobody is accountable to me for their lack of interest in things I care about, which are what I was raised to believe are adult things to care about.

One of my white guy friends wasn’t clear on whether “Jim Crow” was the same as “the three-fifths of a person thing.” That’s more acceptable than not knowing what sport is on TV this month.

It’s getting off-topic that when my friend thinks about his family history, it’s not a black hole of terror. Or maybe not.

Erik Erikson’s daughter (lol at referring to her that way) wrote a memoir called In the Shadow of Fame, which has a chapter called “The Quest for Understanding.” It’s not a book about autism, but it’s deeply relevant.

I noticed, for example, how often childhood trauma preceded the achievement of fame in most fields of human endeavor. And this threw into question all that I was learning about the disorganizing and disabling effects of trauma in children’s early emotional development. Clearly, trauma made it more difficult for many children to function well or to achieve at all. Yet, for some, childhood tragedy seemed to provide a powerful impetus toward extraordinary accomplishment.

…I imagined (as do many others) that many public figures–including Laurence Olivier–had attained exceptional success, and had acquired their charismatic appeal, with the help of supportive and affirming early relationships. My close encounters with Olivier heightened my awareness of the paradoxical reality that early experiences of devastating loss, rejection, or abandonment characteristically fuel the drive to great achievement–not experiences of unstinting love and support.

[list of famous people]

I encountered one such story after another–in written as well as film biographies–stories similar in emotional tone to the description of my parents’ experiences as children. And I noticed how often losses such as the ones described above caused a child to retreat from the social world around him or her and seek refuge in a more private realm of experience.

Many future writers and intellectuals, like my father (and like Freud before him), begin to read extensively at an early age….

It became clear to me that possession of highly developed skills or knowledge in adulthood is often preceded by a childhood pattern of study or practice infused with obsessive intensity–an intensity reflecting not only an inherent gratification in the activity itself, but also a need for escape from an environment that has caused intolerable distress…

Absorption in such an activity is, on the one hand, an escape from the immediate social world; but it is also a means of connecting, on a grander scale, with other human beings. Children who turn to reading are drawn into the emotionally compelling worlds they encounter in books, where they can connect with characters who seem like safer companions than the flesh-and-blood people around them. Referring to his own childhood, James Baldwin wrote that “the people in books were more real than the people one saw every day…”

I think it’s more likely that the underlying “problem” has to do with shifting attention or motor behavior or thought patterns, getting stuck on intense feelings. The cliché “research is me-search” is true. My “special interests” have always been a kind of sublimation. I was getting bullied, so I got really interested in the history and variety of martial arts. My dad was an atheist and my mom was in a cult, so I read about philosophy. I needed a job, so I made it a quest to learn about programming.

Then there’s the fact that my dad was a clinical social worker who had The Myth of Mental Illness on the shelf and got happy when he talked about Nietzsche. That fit in with my interest in debate, and he strongly encouraged that. I was book smart in a way that he didn’t have the chance to be. I thought really hard about becoming a social worker at one point, which is what Sue Erikson Bloland did. It was a problem for my mom that philosophy is forbidden in the Bible, because nothing is ever simple…

Absorption in a passionate interest can also be a way for a child to connect with a parent who is not otherwise emotionally available. My father’s early intellectual interests were clearly stimulated by his mother’s devotion to reading and to philosophy. In this mother-son relationship, the emotional issues that most deeply affected my father’s sense of well-being were barred from communication. And so he bonded with his mother by studying and discussing the philosophical issues with which she was more comfortable than she could be in the realm of direct emotional intimacy.

As was the case with my father, the genius of the son or daughter often finds its outlet in an activity or art form loved by the parents, so that the shared passion contains within it a deep longing for connection with that parent. This is particularly poignant when the parent has died or succumbed to alcoholism or mental illness, leaving behind a grieving child whose commitment to the interest once shared is a desperate means of holding on to the lost object.

The passion for greatness has to come from somewhere. Ramon Y Cajal said science was all about pride…

Reading, learning to play an instrument, dancing, acting–all these pursuits provide children with a profound feeling of effectiveness and enhance their sense of self-worth. For children who have suffered from family circumstances beyond their control, who feel powerless to affect their own fate in the interpersonal realm, a sense of competence becomes a particularly vital source of positive self-regard…They dream that they are destined to rise above those from whom they feel alienated–to become truly extraordinary and greatly admired. This is the fantasy brought to life in fairy tales the world over in which those who feel they don’t belong in the world of their peers are eventually transformed not only into beautiful swans, but also into princes and princesses, kings and queens–now in a position to bestow good fortune upon, or to reject–to forgive or not to forgive–those who have mistreated them…

When lonely and emotionally wounded children look for solace in a passionate (obsessive) interest or activity at which they find they can excel, it is natural for their heroic fantasies to center on future accomplishment in this area of special ability. This is the medium through which they imagine they will someday reveal their greatness to the world.

She explains the reason impatience with our special interests is so painful for us. If I can’t talk about my real inner life, I can only be an awkward weirdo. I have to project confidence, but I’m discouraged from using the things I’m confident about because other people feel the way about science and politics, about human existence, that I feel about basketball. Normal people are so difficult I swear to God. My “narrow interests” are actually very broad. How is there anyone alive who can’t take interest in something about psychology? Why do I feel like normal are impossible and actually just don’t like me and I can’t win? A labmate in grad school once asked me if I ever did anything fun, and she was genuinely surprised I mentioned climbing. A postdoc looked at me with contempt (I’m bad at this but still) when we met in the parking garage elevator. I was headed to the top floor with my BMX bike to work on tailwhips or something.

For those who have embraced a passionate interest early in life and have made the pursuit of that interest the point of their life, work is not simply work. It is a universe within which the individual feels safer, more comfortable, and more purposeful than he does in the world of intimate personal relationships. For such a person, the moments of greatest intimacy occur in the sharing of their work–not only with an audience, but also with colleagues and students who are dedicated to the same passionate pursuits or with admirers who are deeply touched by the work. As awkward as he might feel in social situations where ideas were not the focus of attention, my father became strikingly engaged, animated, and self-confident any time he was called upon to discuss ideas, especially his own. There was nothing he enjoyed more than giving a personal tour of his universe. As a result, those for whom he served as teacher, supervisor, or mentor felt very intimately connected with him.

Kai could be close to Dad as a fellow intellectual, but I resented Dad’s primary commitment to his work, and rebelled against the competition. And when you cannot (or will not) relate to a superachiever through his work, you are forever consigned to living in a different universe. Only now, as I find myself increasingly able to appreciate and embrace the richness of my father’s special world, can I enjoy a deeper and more gratifying sense of connection with him.


If it turns out I’m autistic at age 34, it’s a fact in need of explanation that I didn’t turn out worse. Watching that video about “the Floortime method,” I’m struck that someone had a successful (and necessary!) career based on telling people to play with their children and take the initiative in entering their worlds. Because intersubjectivity.

It was a thing that I’d get a Matchbox car every time we went to a gas station, and the dining room table was reserved for me lining up the cars in a row around the edge and inching them forward one-by-one for hours. Except when it was mealtime. After that, Legos. So many Legos. I’m not, like, an engineer. My mom followed the instructions and put them together for me. Zoobooks. Carrying rocks home in her purse because I thought they were cooler than all the other rocks for reasons understandable only to me. Collections of seashells. Sets of cards that each have an animal and a bunch of facts about that animal and a map of its range. My dad building skateboard ramps for me and always giving me rides to and from the skatepark. Driving the vans for multi-day debate tournaments.

The groups of people I could relate to were the skateboarders and the debate team. Without my interests I wouldn’t have had friends, and those friendships were outside the “normal” social activities of the school. Often delinquent behaviors of questionable legality. It was actually most productive for me to go full drug obsession and just get a PhD in it. Thus I redeemed myself and became a respectable person.

This is part of what class privilege is. My dad was a GS-12, which in today’s money is $60-80k. I didn’t know I was “disadvantaged” until I got to college and girl-from-New-Jersey was talking about how she wasn’t rich but also talking about “summer homes.” Or in grad school, where my roommate went to boarding school in Connecticut. I always had new skate stuff when I needed it, and ate at lot of candy at home. I went to Gonzaga Debate Institute for two summers, which cost all of my college savings but resulted in a full scholarship.

When I tutored homeless children, they were playing with the stapler, trying to use it like adults because it was new to them. I showed a first grader how to use a paperclip. Another first grader was filling out her worksheets wrong because her answers weren’t on the same line as the questions. I realized how different it was that I watched my parents do paperwork instead of be homeless. Some of the assignments made me say WTF, but then of course Silicon Valley engineer families will make ABSOLUTELY SURE their 1st grader writes paragraphs. Oh, and they got yelled at for playing with the stapler. The other adults in the situation could only see “misbehavior” instead of normal, age-appropriate learning by imitation which all the rich kids DO AT HOME THEMSELVES. As a mere volunteer, I didn’t have standing to get a girl tested for dyslexia when I could SEE it and told somebody.

The kids were also being prevented from socializing (important for development) and moving around (important for development). The prefrontal cortex, i.e., a major substrate of self-control and abstract thinking, is doing really abstract MOTOR processing. Becoming coordinated and socializing are not unrelated to solving math problems, but the other adults in the situation think that the way to get better at sitting down and doing homework is to sit down and do homework TO DEATH until the meaning of learning is pain and the children grow up like their teachers.

People without special interests don’t realize all the tangents they can send you on. Everything is related to everything else. All is one. The boundaries between disciplines are artificially imposed. One day I wondered why Prozac doesn’t make you see visuals, and learning about that occupied my 20s. The reason is that there are many kinds of serotonin receptors, and psychedelics act on 5-HT2A/C, and to a lesser extent other serotonin receptors. Serotonin acts at all serotonin receptors, and Prozac increases serotonin. Tripping is an artificial situation in which there’s more activity at 5-HT2A receptors relative to other serotonin receptors.

But “learn about Prozac” can mean learning about Szasz and Foucault and Dostoyevsky and pharmaceutical regulations and anthropology and sea slugs:


This is how I feel when I see “play with your children” treated like an autism miracle cure. I thought my parents were just doing what they were supposed to:


“OMG, when I sat down on the floor with my son instead of screaming at him to be normal, and I spun the tire on the toy truck with him, he smiled and then he looked at me and I started crying and Dr. Greenspan is a genius. There’s a little boy in there my son has been rescued from the jaws of autism.”

LOL WUT?

Now I’m in my 30s and feeling like the society around me has no idea how to love. You just assume the normals have their shit together because they shame you so hard and do impossible things like become families with children and go to the park and everybody looks like they don’t feel it’s the end of the world. It might be the end of the world, but that’s unthinkable nonsense from crazytown in their universe. It turns out their inability to love and their inability to acknowledge the badness are related. If they can’t accept the basic reality around them, how can they push themselves to accept the more immediately “unacceptable” things from their loved ones? To try to understand them? They’re too busy knowing the world ends if a kid can’t sit in a chair all day.

The first grade “bad kid” spontaneously started talking about her older sister stealing several dollars from her and getting away with it. Nobody was doing anything about that, or acknowledging it, as far as I could tell. The girl was problem witnessing a lot of fucked up things. She used to sleep in a dog crate, she says. One of the other volunteers, a law professor (?), told her that she was “incorrigible” like that was a cute thing to do. There was one day when no kids at all showed up for the tutoring session. It was deflating, yes. Professor lady stopped coming around after that, even though they hired somebody knew and the kids came back. Girl-with-stats-masters stopped coming when she got a job teaching geometry to 8th graders in a private school. I never even went to school somewhere with anything about algebra I for 8th graders. She couldn’t deal with the boy who didn’t want to do the worksheets. Once when I worked with him, the magic words were to come over and say “You don’t have to like the math, you just have to get through the math.” They take everything so personally…

Another one of the “bad kids”, a 6th or 7th grader, wrote about some Ludacris lyrics for an assignment. They were about being depressed and people hating you. I don’t remember, exactly. The proctor lady was more concerned that Ludacris was “inappropriate”, not understanding that, like, pop culture is what people with English PhDs write about. Slavoj Zizek is a successful person. I’m not officially a child psychiatrist, but maybe get the kid to keep writing about his feelings. WTF is the matter with the adults?

It’s as obvious to me as my bad social skills are to them. If I go to a bar, I’ll look like an oaf, or at least visibly uncomfortable and out-of-place. But I just intuitively know what it is to be a reject. I pass for normal enough to have a job and pass a background check and pay for a TB test and be a volunteer, but it’s like I’m undercover. The environments I’m “successful” in based on ability are really designed to weed me out based on personality.

Some of the kids went to a “KIPP” school. It means “Knowledge is Power Program”, but the kids called it “Kids in Private Prison.” They’re real big on discipline. In today’s school environment, I would probably end up with criminal charges for the schoolyard fights that come with being the weird, small, sad kid. But I was the most successful person in the room, on paper. I’m always a sort of loose cannon person in settings like that. “Chaotic good.” I’ll have really good ideas that are obviously bad, like “let the kid write about obscene rap music instead of the assignment.” It subtly challenges everyone by obviously prioritizing the kid’s best interest, which is the stated goal of what we’re doing, so it would also be uncomfortable to challenge me for that reason. My constraint is that progress is measured in terms of “homework assignments completed per session.” There was a point system, where they could save up for toys. This has been shown to reduce intrinsic motivation and destroy curiosity. And yet.

A Mathematician’s Lament. “We’re killing people’s interest in circles for god’s sake!”

“I like circles. Do you like circles? Wheels are circles and I like going on car rides! My favorite planet is Saturn because the rings are circles. My mom told me a story about a square peg in a round hole. Why would you do that? Hahaha. At school we all sit in a circle for show and tell, and I bring my favorite circles. Some people say aliens make crop circles! I saw that on the Discovery Channel. I bet the UFOs orbit in circles. Hahaha.”

If that was a real little boy, talking about circles would make him feel ashamed to death by the time he was grown. ASHAMED TO DEATH. With the right enouragement, he could have done hardware design research to speed up the calculation of digits of pi. Elementary school teachers who hate math themselves don’t even know that’s a possible thing. He could literally buy his parents a house to repay the favor, if only.

Instead, he would be encouraged to learn EMPATHY so he understands why nobody gives a shit about circles, because there’s nothing interesting about them. It’s just this thing they make you do in school that it’s OK not to care about.

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