The purpose of this blog: Candle In The Wind

There is a widely held belief that persons with autism spectrum disorders possess an at least normal level of personal/social autonomy—a belief based, in part, on these person’s markedly self-absorbed, non-social behavior. Additionally, there is a widely held belief that autism, and its basic causes, are perfectly distinct from various other neuro-social disorders and their causes, such as schizophrenia, Williams syndrome, and Borderline Personality Disorder. Finally, there is a widely held belief that autism is strictly neurodevelopmental in nature (in other words, that autism is an enduring disability, and that it is a disability that originates in childhood rather than occuring commonly to all humans).


The purpose of this blog is to argue that all three of these beliefs are mistaken. This argument is made by observing three things: 1) In a society dominated by ‘normal’ persons, and these dominated by males, it can be expected that abnormal or otherwise disadvantaged persons will have the greatest difficulties in life—especially if their disadvantages are misunderstood or unrecognized. 2) The appearance of doing well in life does not prevent relatively normal persons from experiencing mid-life crises, burnout, confusion, and even addictive, repetitive, or reclusive patterns of coping. 3) Autism is a behavior driven by a disability; and the disability, both with and without the behavior, occurs both in the non-autistic disabled population and in the ‘normal’ population. In short, autism spectrum disorders are as diverse as the forms of H20: snow, ice, liquid water, and water vapor; and the countless varieties, quantities, and unique individuations, of each.


In short, the purpose of this blog is to show that…


…disability is relative


    Autism is considered a disability. But, if by ‘autism’ we mean the non-social tendencies to which the name is given, then autism is not a disability, but a behavior. The question is what is/are the disabilit(y)(ies) that drive(s) the behaviors? Before we can answer that, we must first ask a far more general question: what is a disability, per se? But, to properly answer this general question, we may first have to answer the opposite question: What is normal?


   If you sprain your ankle, it’s normal to feel pain. But, pain is normal only within the context of injury. Life sometimes includes getting injured; but, occasional injury is not normal, it’s a consequence of life in an imperfect world. Certainly, if you never got injured—managed always to avoid getting hit painfully in the arm by a baseball, or avoid tripping and skinning your knee—then people might think you were oddly lucky. But, the commonality of injury in an imperfect world does not make any one of your injuries normal. While it is not always possible or practical to avoid injury, having an even lightly injured knee is not normal to your knee’s proper functioning.


   The basic reality is that you and the world are not in perfect harmony. This is what ‘life in an imperfect world’ actually means. Such a reality necessarily results in injuries. Injury is not normal to the proper functioning of an organism, but, once injured, the nature of an organism as such implies that it has a basic ability to learn to avoid the same injury in the future. 


    But oddly, once injured, the injury becomes, in some functional sense, part of the organism until a return to normal function is attained. During the injured state, the organism is in disharmony not only with the world, but with itself. This is why people have some tendency to assume that it is ‘the other guy’ who is in the wrong when injury occurs (their injury or yours, or both). But, if you could not heal from an injury, then that definitely would not be normal. An inability to heal would itself be an injury—a chronic disability. Even more disabling would be an inability to avoid injury in the first place. 


    So, whether by the inability to heal, or the inability to avoid injury, you would be living a life of injury. That’s not only abnormal, that’s profoundly disabled. But, the question is, how could either disability arise? The answer is both simple and complex: you’re alive not merely on the level of arms and knees, but on the level of your micro-biology. In fact, on the micro-biological level the distinction between the inability to heal and the inability to avoid injury is often quite blurred, if not absent. Normal, healthy function is thus not merely lack of injury, but of an ongoing ability to prevent injury in the first place on the most basic level of function. But, since we live in an imperfect world, we each possess this ability only imperfectly. In short, we each, and all, are disabled. 


    So, the question is not whether you are disabled, but whether your set of disabilities is disabling enough to prevent you from living a fairly normal, stable, healthy, balanced life. 


    J. Wishart writes:

In our earliest studies, our focus was purely cognitive but the emphasis has now shifted to investigating social cognition and how specific socio-cognitive skills influence how children with Down Syndrome (DS) learn from and with others. This shift mirrors a recent move in mainstream psychology to recognising the central role of the social environment in determining developmental outcomes (Rutter et al. 2006) and to investigating cognitive functioning in its social context rather than in isolation from other areas of functioning. Several theories of child development in fact place social cognition right at the heart of development (Bukowski et al. 1996; Flavell et al. 2002; Carpendale & Lewis 2006) and while developmental trajectories clearly diverge in Typically Developing (TD) and Intellectually Disabled (ID) populations, there is little reason to assume that socio-cognitive skills are any less important to ID development in general, or DS development. Despite the centrality of socio-adaptive skills in defining ID, empirical investigations of social cognition in DS are surprisingly rare, especially at older child ages (for overview, see Cebula &Wishart 2008). Social understanding is nevertheless generally thought to be relatively ‘protected’ and to underlie the outgoing personality characteristically attributed to the children. Evidence of subtle but important difficulties in some aspects of sociocognitive functioning – in the ability to understand the behaviours, intentions and feelings of others – has emerged in a number of our DS studies, however.
WISHART, J. (2007). Socio-cognitive understanding: a strength or weakness in Down’s syndrome?. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research


Autism is primarily about an enfeebled general dynamic autonomy, which explains both the social and non-social features of autistic (dis)ability. But, as social creatures, human persons who have developmental autism are simply those who, while having a chronically weak general dynamic autonomy in the face of normal stressors, find a way to escape normal human contact. 


An analogy may help make clear the nature of this escape. Imagine that the human Space Program found outer space suddenly monopolized by a race of very friendly, star-faring aliens that, despite its great technological knowledge and power, continually failed to see just how comparatively flimsy are our own spacecraft. That alien race is so advanced that it has no memory of what it can be like to just begin learning to fly.  A Wright brothers flyer would be blown apart, if only slowly, by the downdraft of a typical modern helicopter. The damage we would suffer from the friendliness of such a race of aliens would make our Space Programs all head back inside Earth’s atmosphere and stay there. The aliens are the normal social stressors as far as the aliens are concerned, but native Earthlings don’t find it so. So, it’s far easier—and perfectly natural—just to remain earthbound. Sending up so much hardware all the time is already very expensive. Having to keep replacing all the stuff that gets damaged by contact is far too costly. 


The power of the emotional-empathy faculty, without a commensurately strong sense-of-self, is occasionally-and-temporarily experienced by neurotypical (normal) people. As many young people know, the very presence of one’s love interest sometimes can more-or-less drown out all other senses. It is not uncommon on prom night for a girl known for being a good dancer to find she is ‘all left feet’ upon first dancing with her ‘dream boy’. The immediate prospect of performing for a huge adoring crowd can have a similar effect. 


For persons with developmental autism, and also for those with any one or more of a host of related disorders, they are too often extraordinarily high in at least some facets of social intelligence, usually including social emotion. The problem is that most of these persons have, by comparison, too little dynamic self-posession. Call it a lack of healthy personal boundaries. 


If that lack of personal boundaries is too deep, then not only do their social sensitivities pose no ultimate benefit to them, it poses to them a great threat. And, precisely because of that social sensitivty, the threat they feel may be a rather amorphous one of more-or-less unknown origin, or otherwise too much beyond their control: the ‘slow-motion’ panic known as social anxiety. In other words, when a person’s very sense-of-self is more-or-less crushed or paralyzed by the weight of other’s demands, expectations, and wishes, she is in a very real, and readily quite complicated, state-of-emergency. When this happens, she may be her own most problematic moving target; and few—if any—other persons may really be helping her sort out the nightmare. “Do this. Don’t do that.” 


Naturally, she tries to escape by any means, and at any time, by which she feels she can get some relief. Some who have the debility that underlies autism cannot escape, at least not in any sane, directly autistic way. They are captive to the threat or reality of others’ disapproval, or to other’s approval—or to both. 


In a case of debilitating stage fright on your part, if your audience prevents your escape, then, despite your terror, you would be fortunate, in a sense, to somehow push yourself through the outward debility and give them what they want. But, you cannot live a sane life of always mainly giving people what they want in the hope they occasionally will let you escape to a place where you can actually function as your own person. 


Stage fright is a disability. Some people who suffer it simply fail to hold up under the pressure of the ‘reality’ imposed on them. Others find means of coping which cumulatively destroy their physical or emotional integrity, often destroying their reputations in the process. Still others are so ‘loved’ for their abilities despite their bad habits, even if the ‘love’ is often largely selfishness-in-disguise. So, while civil society requires a lot of give-and-take—a lot of ‘dancing with them what brung ya’—the human social instinct is sacred, not to be made the effective slave of greedy agents and handlers, or of the admiring crowd. Good Bye, Norma Jean.





2 Responses to The purpose of this blog: Candle In The Wind

  1. Hey there! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my good old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this page to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

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