The United Nations has declared today World Autism Awareness Day. Excellent!
I had the opportunity to work with a group of young adults on the Autism Spectrum, and in order to get ready, I read everything I could get my hands on. Autism has been described as a form of “mind-blindness” by British psychopathology professor and researcher Simon Baron-Cohen … as a lack of function in the mirror neurons that help us empathize with each other. I thought, huh, will I be meeting people who are on the other end of the spectrum from me?
As it turns out, Autism isn’t that simple, and I didn’t find complete mind-blindness in my autistic friends. Rather, what I saw was a group of people who were dealing with incredible sensory stimulation, both from the outside world, and from their own brains. This often created a great deal of emotional turmoil, as you can imagine, but because there were so many communication and socialization challenges, it was hard for my friends to deal with their often intense emotions. Some would completely withdraw, some would engage in “stimming,” which is a repetitive action that brings some sense of peace and control, and others would sometimes lash out.
It is also not a concrete condition, which is why it is referred to as a spectrum condition. There are many possible versions of it, and each person on the Autism Spectrum is an individual, just as we (who are called neurotypicals) are. I love the term neurotypical. It makes us sound boring, which we often are!
I heard some of the parents of my friends use the word neurotypical as a kind of slam, “A neurotypical wouldn’t ignore a direct question, so wake up!” Ouch! I began to talk about neurotypicals in joking ways around my friends, “Oh, how tedious and neurotypical you are!” It was a good laugh getter.
If you’ve got an Autistic person in your life, celebrate them today (in a quiet way so you don’t overwhelm their ears!). It’s tough to be surrounded by tedious neurotypicals who don’t even realize that the whole world is engineered for their comfort.
I just finished a book called Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships by Sean Barron and Dr. Temple Grandin. It’s a fascinating look at two individuals who are on very different places in the Spectrum. Interestingly, Sean Barron, is a male whose inner experience of Autism was extremely emotional, while Temple Grandin is a female whose inner experience was and is primarily unemotional.
I found myself arguing with Temple as I read, because she’s holding on very tightly to the old “emotional versus rational” idea that isn’t supported by current neurological research. We can’t be rational without our emotions; but I understand her struggle to overcome an emotional functioning that was overwhelming and totally not helpful to her. It’s nice to have Sean’s more emotional perspective to balance the book and the portrayal of what people on the Spectrum deal with emotionally and psychologically.
It’s a great book to read if you want to understand more about the Autism Spectrum, and more about how we neurotypicals intuitively understand social rules even though we weren’t directly taught about most of them. Here’s the rub: We understand these rules because they were created by us, for our kind of minds … it’s not because our social functioning is objectively correct or better than any other way. This is a good book for opening the mind and discovering yet another “reality” (social rules and social functioning) that is merely socially created!