What to you think of when hearing the word autism?

How about truthful, knowledgeable, intelligent, just and skilled? not words you would normally link to a disorder.

Just below there is a picture of Dr. Temple Grandin –  a designer of livestock handling facilities and a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University (www.grandin.com or www.templegrandin.com the last one is on autism)

Unless you already know someone on the autism spectrum,” autism” might make you think of the movie Rainman or video clips of children flapping their hands, repeating sounds (stimming) or being lost in the observation of a washing machine. This is a very narrow view of autism, and does not really include the reality, that people with autism can be in either end of the autistic spectrum – and everything in between. We will now take a look at what this spectrum looks like:

Autism spectrum(from http://mypuzzlingpiece.com)

Note that this figure is a simplified version of what the spectrum really contains, but we need to start simple, to get the right basis for understanding this wholly other form of functioning.

For someone with an autistic brain, with average to above average IQ it can be a rather confusing thing to live in this world. These will usually end up getting diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome  (AS) or perhaps the more fuzzy terms such as Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) or PDD Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Most people in the world today have, what is usually called, a neurotypical (NT) brain. This term, however, does not take into account, that normal isn’t always just the larger number. Please take a moment now, to consider that before reading on.

I want to give the world another album to look at, when autism comes to mind. People with Aspergers Syndrome will in many cases never make their friends and family think along the lines of autism (unless they know, are diagnosed, and have told friends and family). They may seem somewhat unique or eccentric, but they will often be popular (with those who know them) because of their intense knowledge in certain subjects that they have a special interest in, because of their high IQ and thus brilliant problem solving brains, because of some servant skills like outstanding memory or magnificent drawing skills, or they will be a nice friend to someone they trust because of their ability to look at situations without emotional bias, therefore being very objective. They will not have the need to be at the top of some social hierarchy, and this makes them very easygoing. Most Aspergers also view truth as holy. They will not lie, or they will lie only for very good reasons such as saving lives and the like. They will also defend the truth, and thus at times do some socially very unacceptable things, because the truth, in their view, is more important than someone feeling good about some fake belief.

Aspergers in books and movies include the no-nonsense Lisbeth Salander in the Stieg Larsson book trilogy (Män som hatar kvinnor / The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (1), Flickan som lekte med elden / The Girl Who Played With Fire (2), Luftslottet som sprängdes / The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (3)) which can also be seen as movies in both swedish and american versions, forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan in the fox series Bones, and police officer Saga Norén in the danish-swedish series Bron / Broen / The Bridge – just to mention some of my own favorites. One could also watch the series Big Bang Theory for male versions in a comic setting, read or watch Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer for a young boy account (I’ve read the book and I loved it), or spend time in the company of Mr. Spock watching Star Trek.

I want to emphasize that autism should be viewed as a neruological diversity rather than a disorder. True enough there are autistic people with great difficulties, but they most times stem from  the clash with the world, and in particular other people, and not from autism in itself. It is rather the lack of knowledge and understanding of the autistic culture which causes these problems, more than it is autism itself. When autism is coupled with low IQ, however, then life becomes tough – as for any nerotypical (NT) with low IQ.

Being autistic also means having other values as first priority, than most other people (i.e. the NTs). It means placing truth over social unwritten rules, knowledge and logic over emotions and gut-feelings, dressing practically rather than cool / sexy / formal. But when you are outnumbered – bad things happen. Many get bullied in school or at work because they are misunderstood. Apartheid was ended in the beginning of the 1990-ies, still raceological minorities many places in the world are being mistreated in their societies. Different cultures and different ways of being in the world – are not inherently wrong! But many forget this.  This is also very evident in my home country, Denmark, where anyone with a different skin color might be seen as a suspicious person, no matter how well they speak Danish. Many cannot find jobs that match their education – I think we might have some of the best educated taxi-drivers in my country. Needles to say – it is not something to be proud of. So what about the autists? This is a minority with a slightly different situation. You cannot tell from the outside that someone has autism. Therefore people expect you to be ‘normal’ or ‘like the majority’ I would prefer to say. When you are different – you will even be rejected or if you are lucky, someone will keep an open mind and try to understand you.

A story:

The Alphapeople of Alphaland were a proud people with old traditions. They were warriors and strength and courage were amongst their ideals. In another place the Betapeople lived. They were the sofisticated inhabitants of the Betaland and held long standing traditions of inner strength and endurance. Nature was, to them, a holy organism and their ideals were to live in balance with all of the natural world around them. Located far from both Alphaland and Betaland was the posh people of Gammaland. These people were engineers of heart and loved to build. This had also become their means of surviving in their environment, since protection from the harsh conditions was vital. They were a practical people, yet with traditions of their own.  

Then came a time, when the Alpha-, Beta- and Gammapeople all had ideas of exploring. The Alphapeople made expiditions by foot and went strongly on crossing mountains and rivers. The Betapeople would walk slowly, but diligently and were able to maintain a constant speed with very few pauses. The Gammapeople had built boats and were sailing out on the sea. On one very special day – all three peoples met on a foreign beach. They were rather surprised to see others that looked to like themselves in one way – yet so different in other ways. Not so long after they had all arrived, the Alphas, Betas and Gammas were attacked by a large group of wild animals that had noticed the many newcomers. They all fought in their own ways, even helped each other where they could, but all three groups had dead relatives amongst them.

The Alphas, who believed the strenght of an individiual could be passed on through intake, cut their relatives in pieces and ate. Both the Betas and Gammas were disgusted by this sight. The Betas, who believed in the natural way, left their deads in suitable places and waited for birds and ants to devour their loved ones. Both the Alphas and the Gammas were horrified by the lack of respect they felt the Betas showed the dead. The Gammas were builders, and they started cutting down trees and building coffins. Then they put their dead in the coffins, sealed them and let them sail of into the sea. The Alphas and Betas thought the Gammas were rather mad to build these little prisons for those who needed to be set free for their afterlife.

Who did the right thing?

I will end this post by reminding us all that what is different is not wrong. There are many ways to live a life, but we should all have that in common, that we try to take different perspectives – even when we think we are right.

Autism should be viewed as a cultural difference within the human species. It has a neurological background, meaning autistic brains function differently from NT brains, and the emphasis is not on socializing and feeling but on knowledge and logic.

Next time you see someone doing something you don’t understand – just ask. Communicating and sharing knowledge will help us all.

NOTE: This blog post first appeared on my ‘everything’-blog sifschmidt.wordpress.com on February 9th 2012. As of today, however, I decided to make a blog exclusively devoted to autism, and I wanted this to be the first post, as a number of persons have found it presented autism in a way they highly appreaciated.