Counting Your Worth On Stage: What It’s Like (Not) Having Autism


A person’s identity does not consist in how they respond to pressures to conform (to others’ expectations of them), but in the fact that they are a person.










In the movie, Rain Man, the character, Raymond Babbett, played by Dustin Hoffman, knows cars. He also knows his brother, Charlie, though he seems not to show a hint of recognition. The brother, Charlie, played by Tom Cruise, not only doesn’t know Raymond is his brother, but doesn’t know that Raymond is actually the living image that he tells his girlfriend about: his ‘imaginary friend’ who, when he was a boy, “came and sang to’ him when he was scared. Charlie didn’t think such a strange and comforting person had actually existed in his life, so he had ‘maturely’ assumed that it had been something he somehow conjured up out of a boyhood need for comfort. So, it is the more ironic that, within Charlie’s ‘mature’ psychological theories, as he meets Raymond and finds out Raymond is his brother, he still doesn’t recognize him as the reality of his long-ago ‘Rain Man’.

It was, however, palpably ironic to Charlie that, despite that Raymond had inherited all their father’s millions of dollars, Raymond ‘had no concept of money’. It was within the context of this irony that the deeper irony was hidden to Charlie: Raymond had been his ‘Rain Man’ precisely because Raymond’s sense of personhood was too simple to ‘appreciate’ certain ‘finer things in life’.

Raymond’s ‘autistic profile’ is typical of so many real people with the disorder: he has a certain empathy toward others which, though often unseen, seems far out of proportion to the simple and feeble sense which he has of himself. It is exactly on this note that I want to offer the odd final picture of this odd introduction:  

Imagine you’re counting a huge pile of coins, when your successful friends come up and start whispering ‘random numbers’ in your ear. You lose count, but they seem to think you’ll manage. In fact, they begin shouting the ‘random numbers’. You protest, but they ignore you. You try to explain that they are making it impossible for you to keep track, but they tell you not to worry. Then they tell you to stop counting. Out of fear and a wish-to-please, you comply. Now, they pressure you to invest your money like there is no tomorrow, in whatever they think is worth the gamble. You have no way of knowing how much to spend, and on what, but they seem not to care about your ignorance of your own finances. You know this is an insane way to live, but you feel utterly a prisoner to their assumptions, expectations, and disapproval. The only time you can count is when you are utterly alone. Over time, you learn more and more efficient ways to count. But, you never retain any memory of your count when approached each day by your friends, so you don’t know how much you even might have to spend when they pressure you each day to invest. And, you never get any of them to tell you how much money they have.


Imagine you have severely debilitating stage fright. But, imagine you don’t know it yet. So, you walking up on stage of a huge auditorium, and, for the first time in your life, you approach the microphone. Then, before you can say anything, a feeling of dread comes over you: all those people out there, looking at you, expectantly. You struggle to get your thoughts together, but your mind goes blank. Now you’re just standing there, drowning in all that expectation. It becomes so frightening that you stop looking at anyone; instead, you stare blankly ahead, out over the crowd, into the middle of the air, all those eyes seeming like swords ready to run you through. As the moments of your speechlessness pass like hours, you become horribly aware of every little sound in the audience: the crinkle of the candy wrapper, the cough of the baby. The silence is deafening. It feels like a crushing weight. It’s seems to tick by like a time bomb counting down to your doom.

Good for you. You’re experiencing autism.

‘What?’, you may say, ‘I don’t have autism.’ Ok. But you sure have it while trying to speak to all those people. You see, autism is not basically a developmental disorder, but a primitive debility we all have. The developmental version is simply a much deeper manifestation of the basic problem—so deep that the victim must find a way to live in spite of the near-constant presence of their debility. The question to you is, what are you going to do if you continue just standing there, frozen, on stage? Something is sure to snap.

The social-behavior component of autism is what gives the disorder its name: The lack of social behavior in normal social contexts is literally described by a term that means ‘one’s own person’. The root of the term ‘autism’, ‘aut’, gives us words like ‘autonomy’ and ‘automatic’, words that mean the ability to get on with things without external direction. In the early days of first documenting the disorder, socially normal persons naturally felt that the pivotal characteristic of the disorder was a kind of getting on with one’s personhood to the abnormal exclusion of other persons. Hence, the name ‘autistic’.

It’s ironic that people describe your predicament there on stage as being ‘self-conscious’. The fact is, you’re shut off from the conscious, dynamic self-knowledge that allows you to function as a social creature who has a brain. You’ve become, in effect, a ‘mere person’: lacking the mental ease that allows you your normal mental fluidity, and, hence, your social reciprocity. And, at the moment, you’re anything but ‘your own person’.

But, autism is not just about self-isolation in terms of other persons, but often includes other, non-socially related problems. These non-socially related problems are thought merely to co-occur with autism, since they seem strictly absent in many cases of the disorder. But, since these co-occurring problems have a higher rate than among the normal population, what do all the typical problems of autism, including these, have in common? How far down can a description of autism’s social features be pared, and, can it be pared down to terms so general as not hint at fact that the resultant description can apply to any one of central or co-occurring features of autism?

By the way, you’re still just standing there on stage, frozen in terror, staring blankly ahead. How long do you think you can go on like that? Hanging out with your friends would be easy, but not if you felt they were scrutinizing the quality of your attempt to hang out with them. Then you might feel the same basic anxiety that you feel on stage.

So, the stage is not a normal social context—which is why normal people struggle with it. In fact, the people in your audience are now looking disappointed, or embarrassed-for-you. Some of them even look uncomfortable at the fact that you seem frozen in fear. But, whether any of them is aware of it or not, you sure feel it: all their expectation. And, now, all their scrutiny as well.

In the throes of debilitating stage fright, you’d be lucky to read from a script, however stiffly. Your mind, not to mention your vocal chords, seem to have all-but-disappeared. This reminds me of a scene in the first Back To The Future movie, in which Marty McFly begins to disappear from existence, and begins having trouble playing the guitar since his hands seem to have become stiff as boards. The sounds he gets for his efforts are not at all melodious.

But, it wasn’t from embarrassment at a lack of melody that your brain shut down in front of the crowd. You didn’t get a feeling of dread from performing poorly, rather, you began struggling to perform because of your feeling of…something. Your brain began to freeze because you began to be overwhelmed by your sense of all those expectant people, and the effect simply magnified itself, like an echo that got louder the more silent your brain forced you to be.

There is a popular theory that stage fright is a fight-or-flight response inherited from distant ancestors who lived precarious lives. I think stage fright is more akin to the phenomenon of ‘two left feet’ experienced by many a girl on prom night when she unexpectedly finds herself dancing with her dream boy (or, akin to the boy being tongue-tied when he first asks her to dance). You see, the brain has only so much energy to allocate to all its various functions, and, when any one of those functions commands most of its energy, all the other functions take a back seat, at best, or, at worst, literally ‘faint away’.

So, what I think happened is that you became so ‘smitten’ by all those people out there in the audience that your brain went ‘weak in the knees and collapsed on the stage floor’. You only became scared when you realized your brain was swooning too much to remain standing. You can’t dance if you can’t stand.

But, what if all but one person in that audience were replaced by plush dog toys? Then you would be having a far easier time thinking of what to say. But, then, you would lose virtually all the sense to which you feel important, or significant, to the world. And, if that one lone person were your all-too-familiar, nitpicking aunt, then your sense of significance would be replaced by a sense within which you would find it far easier to speak, but not worth the effort.

So, naturally, you’re terrified: all those people, like a lover, having great things for your brain to accomplish for them: to speak to them like the lover they think you are. If there was no deeply felt expectation, or, at least, if you felt no pressure to perform, then you might be much less afraid. You should have been content to remain a wall flower. But, no, you had to accept that boy’s invitation to dance. You had to actually go thinking you could handle it. You even had to come here and wait, hoping he would ask you. If only you had stayed home.

It ‘so happens’ that your brain’s ‘collapse’ on the ‘dance floor’ of the auditorium’s stage is a function which exemplifies the ‘winner takes all’ theory of autism. This is a theory attempting to explain all the cognitive peculiarities of autism, both the cognitive weaknesses and the cognitive strengths. Within this theory, one might even say that autism’s strengths and weaknesses are two sides of one coin. But, I say this ‘winner-takes-all’ function/theory of autism is just the obverse of a coin the other side of which is all the other ‘competing’ theories of autism. In fact, I say that what sort of ‘metal’ this ‘coin’ is made of is the key to every direct and associated feature of the disorder. At risk of confusing the reader, you can’t dance if you can’t stand.

I’m aware that many autism researchers object to putting all the various ‘competing’ theories of autism into one ‘impossibly’ coherent package. But, the fact is that none of those theories explain the abnormal rate to which certain other problems co-occur with autism. I think not only that I can link all those theories together, but that I can boil them down to something that allows them to be matched perfectly to all the typically co-occurring problems. My job, then, is to communicate, if possible, my theory of autism. It boils down to one word: boundaries. In fact, all the rest of this article is about nothing but boundaries.


Raymond Babbett took the ‘Don’t Walk’ sign seriously, and paid no mind to people in their vehicles honking at him to get out of the way. Maybe he was acting in a particular ‘rule bound’ way with which he was only comfortable. And, maybe he didn’t relate to why anyone would expect him to violate those rules. But, the world was more complicated than the rules he had learned, and he was too simple to have a motive for learning why.

But, Raymond also was not so bound to that ‘rule of safe passage’ as to protest when his brother gently coaxed him to the sidewalk. The rules of safety and civility—the boundaries—were not that fixed or that simple. There were a lot of them, everywhere, shifting constantly, but Raymond could only sense a few of them. That’s why he needed help, and he was fortunate to have a brother who recognized his disability for what it was.

The people honking at him to get out of the road seemed not to care about him as a person, but simply that he would get out of their way. They were, after all, so focused on getting on with their very advanced lifestyles that, like the autistic person who can’t hear you speak when he’s not listening, they didn’t act simply as human beings toward this stranger standing non-aggressively in the road. They were that intent on the job of advocating for themselves, like the gods that they were in comparison to that stranger’s own self. They felt he was either as capable as they to stand up for himself, or had no right walking across a busy street unattended.

Their lives had to run smoothly, and they likely would honk angrily at anyone whose car stalled in their way, forcing them to drive ten feet around it in the otherwise empty four lane one-way street. If something doesn’t go your way, complain. If your coffee isn’t exactly the temperature you like it, go grudgingly light on the waitress’s tip despite knowing her co-worker is in the hospital, since ‘her problems shouldn’t have to be your problem.’ And, when you finally get to work, chew out the first person who complains that your service is slow, since you know that he knows that your co-worker is in the hospital. In short, pass every buck of hassle and pressure onto someone else, if you can—unless, of course, you’re struck by the mood to impress someone with how understanding you are, since ‘self-esteem has to be earned’. Then, once you’ve ‘paid your dues’ to your blindly selfish satisfaction, make sure others respect you for it. One wonders, therefore, what good autism does for the world, and why good, competent, hard-working people like that guy who honked at Raymond, could end up with a son who is born with autism.


I assume it is undisputed that the living organism is made up of things from its chemical environment. I assume, also, that is undisputed that the living organism is not its environment. If these two assumptions represent biological reality, then it means the job of ‘being an organism’ is to maintain an active balance between 1) drawing its needs from its environment and 2) keeping the environment from compromising its integrity as an organism. This active balance is what I call ‘general dynamic autonomy’. If my assumptions here about the nature of a living organism are correct, then this ‘general dynamic autonomy’ is simply the basic autonomy (or, very identity) of a living organism, the function of which is to maintain healthy boundaries between itself and all other things. And, since this job takes place in the context of an in-process cycle between the organism and its environment, that job cannot be defined or understood in simple static terms. And, if it cannot be defined in static terms, then it cannot be accomplished by a ‘mindlessly indifferent’ set of concrete functions which, on only some level, seems to pin down as to what is the exhaustive set of functions inviolably sufficient for continued health.

In autism, there typically is an abnormal problem both of distinguishing self from other and of distinguishing self as such. Whether the ‘other’ is as much as a person, or as little as the force of gravity, there is an abnormal struggle on the part of autistic person both to advance in a well-rounded way out into the world, and to keep the world from encroaching beyond a healthy personal boundary. You walked up on stage and suddenly your personal mental boundaries were flooded by your sense of the audience.

If you struggled to distinguish between yourself and the action of gravity, then you might feel almost that gravity is a living thing trying to keep you from walking as efficiently as you would wish. The audience is not trying to stop you from thinking, but it can sure feel like when some of them start booing at your failure to speak. You might find walking (off the stage) to be a frustrating activity. In fact, the dynamics of the bipedal locomotion of normal toddlers is so complex in terms of this self/other distinction that it has taken hosts of robotics engineers and computer programmers decades just to make a humanoid-mass-distributed two-legged robot that can do more than fall over when caught in a light gust of wind as it travels across an uneven green surface strewn with toys and past party guests milling about every which way.

The active balance of successfully identifying both self and other allows not only survival of the organism as such, but allows the organism to recover from injury or other sub-normal function. When you fall over, you can get back up and continue on through the patio doors into the kitchen, where your mom bumps into you for not seeing you there so soon after she’s called your name. With a sprained ankle you can limpingly carry your very-heavy-to-you plate of food out onto that same uneven green surface, along with a cup brimming with juice, and sit down on a brick planter without dumping your plate all over the curious little dog that’s come to beg you to share.

This ability to self-manage and self-heal begins on the microscopic level. If that ability functions well enough on that level, then it literally gives the organism the sense when its own sub-normal activity is not an injury as such, but a necessity in face of an injury. You actually stop eating so you can run to your mom for a band aid when the little dog accidently punctures your finger with its sharp teeth as you offer it food. You walk funny the whole way because your ankle hurts from having tripped in a mole hole in the yard. And, even your mom knows that it’s not ‘your ankle hurts because you walk funny’, much less ‘you walk funny independently of your ankle hurting’. So, she takes to the doctor.

In order to continue to survive, much less regain its pre-injury state, the organism ideally will avoid functioning at its ‘top form’. You avoid running with the dog as before, because you ankle hurts. In fact, you end up getting an x-ray to find that one of your ankle bones is fractured—though the pain wasn’t that bad—so you walk on it only when you have to, and, otherwise, not at all. Now it’s in a cast, to make sure your activities don’t aggravate it.

But, the structures underlying cognition are far less obvious even than the bones that are hidden from direct view under skin and muscle. Only a robot, or an ideal soldier, is going to just press on with ‘ideal functions’ when one or more critical parts has just shut down or been destroyed. If you need your brain for the job of thinking what to say on stage, yet, at some point in your fright-frozen state, your brain is going to stop caring about speaking, or even about the fact that all those people still expect you to. Too bad you can’t get a cast for your brain, just so all those people can see that you have a problem thinking with all of them sitting there so eager to hear you—think. At this point they may as well all be standing in your kitchen, reading over your shoulder as you open the morning paper. Because, maybe, you feel that your audience hears the utter, stricken silence that’s ‘going on’ in your head.

So, the active balance of identifying, and distinguishing between, self and other applies as well to the social organism in terms of its social environment: You are not the audience, even though you may have originated from it. Other people are an especially dynamic part of your general environment, so even more so now that you’re on stage. In fact, the reason you have stage fright is partly because your ‘fellow feeling’ is not by choice: you can’t just magically opt out of it whenever it becomes inconvenient for you. You can’t even regulate it any which way you please. Usually, the best you can do is work with it.

And, when you can’t work with your sense of other people’s sense of you, that’s when you struggle to keep your mind from going completely ‘blank’—or, to keep from doing a host of other things which are congruent to the social circumstances, such as you and your sophomoric friends trying not to laugh out loud during church service. In the movie, First Blood, Rambo shouts, “Nothin’s over! Nothing! You don’t just turn it off!” Social feelings are like that: they’re usually there whether you need them or not, and sometimes especially when you don’t. That’s how people can intentionally provoke those feelings in you, whether it be a ‘guilt trip’ calling you ‘chicken’, or catching your eye with a stern look.

But, there’s a very profound and complex reason why you can’t just shut off your sense of other people. It’s not simply that you are a ‘social creature’. Rather, it’s what it all means to a social creature to be a social creature. Enter the world of social intelligence:


People naturally are attracted to individuals whose demeanor promise an enriching inter-personal connection to themselves. It’s because of this very attraction that people feel that such individuals promise an especially strong connection to the collective humanity: everyone is attracted to that individual. So, social intelligence potentially connects its possessor to the entire collective resources of humanity.

So, people are compelled to wish to connect with individuals whom they think will respond favorably to them, including understanding them more deeply than they understand themselves. In other words, people most admire such individuals. So, the value of social intelligence, and of its underlying emotional empathy, is incalculable, both to the interests of its possessor, and to the wider interests of the world. This is, after all, why they gave you the stage: they believed in you. Or at least, they believed in the ‘you’ that they think you are, and now you’re faced with the pressure of not disappointing them.

But, partly because social intelligence, of every kind of intelligence, gives its possessor the most potential for reciprocal connection to collective humanity, social intelligence tends to be the most complex, and mentally demanding, kind of intelligence. So, social intelligence tends to be the one kind of intelligence with which the human brain is most occupied: it’s not only potentially so beneficial, it’s so demanding. That’s part of the reason why, when you first stepped on stage, you felt your brain at risk of fainting away.

So, the human brain does not simply cultivate social intelligence. Rather, it is designed specifically for social intelligence. Or, you might say, the human brain is designed for the emotional empathy that drives social activity: you can feel the crowd’s expectation of you, and, if you’re feeling OK, you think you can just walk up there and deliver.

But, as you can see by stage fright, emotional empathy is not necessarily all roses. It depends on your sense of yourself as your own person. It depends on how much you can maintain a sense of your right to refuse what people are all too happy to get from you. Maybe the audience doesn’t know how much it costs you to perform. Maybe they feel you shouldn’t be free to decline the opportunity—or at least, not just whenever you see fit without at least explaining to their satisfaction that you really need to. Maybe they even find it unmentionably obvious that they’re on your side, since it’s palpably clear to them that they ‘believe in’ you. But, maybe you’re the last one to actually know anything of why people do what they do differently from you.

So, you stand there, on stage, hoping it will all end. And, maybe you push yourself to perform, and even to try to feel happy about it so that, if you feel happy enough, and for long enough, then maybe really good things will actually happen to you: things you really need, though maybe you don’t know what those things are. Or, maybe you know what some of them are, at least vaguely, and that you hope all those people will begin to actively care about the real person behind the smile—without, at the same time, expecting you to so much as smile like the puppet that you know you’ve become. Maybe, if you work at performing enough, then the crowd will finally reward you with a limousine-to-a-fancy-quiet-dinner out of there, with no cameras, no hangers-on, and no ambitious managing agents.

But, imagine your audience doesn’t relate to stage fright. Imagine they have no concept of it; that it would never occur to them that anyone could feel uncomfortable in talking to a crowd. What would they think of your frozen silence, then? Would they feel you are trying to insult them? Would they feel you are a monster? Would your silence, and the odd look on your face, be so alien to them that they would be frightened of you? Would they feel you need to have some decent sense beaten into you?

And, what would you feel if, in getting the impression that they didn’t seem to care about your fright, they showed displeasure at you for not speaking? Maybe you’d refuse to speak, to punish them for being displeased with your debility. After all, you know it’s not sane to live as the puppet of a greedy crowd—if only you could get enough time away from it all to realize that most simple fact. Good Bye, Norma Jean.

So, despite its incalculable value, social intelligence, and its requisite emotional empathy, can have incalculable drawbacks. It can be as simple as the random numbers whispered in your ears as you try to count a huge pile of coins; or, as severe as being forcibly prevented from counting those coins. And, as shown by stage fright, those coins are you.

So, here’s what you do instead of just standing there on stage: you ‘snap’ into not caring to talk to all those people. And, then, you simply—and stiffly—walk off stage. Fortunately for you, your audience is virtually assured to understand you for such an act—because they do relate to stage fright; and the stage is not a normal social context; and you don’t have autism. But, sometimes, even not having autism is not enough. After all, you’re a person.


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