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Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Age of Autism: Letter from Ibiza


Washington, DC, May. 6 (UPI) -- As part of United Press International's ongoing series on the roots and rise of autism, we invited readers to interact with us via e-mail. As a result, we have received loads of insightful, informative, sometimes critical comment; we printed a selection in a previous column and will make it a regular feature of the series.

One letter we found particularly interesting is from Alan G. Carter, who describes himself as a high-functioning autistic person.

We do not presume Mr. Carter speaks for anyone but himself, but his comments are worth sharing. We hope this encourages other people on the "autism spectrum" to share their views as well.

Mr. Carter's name is used with his permission.


I know you've attracted some negative responses from some within the autistic community, but I think the questions you are asking could lead somewhere useful because you really do seem to be keen to begin at the beginning.

So if I may, I'd like to offer a perspective from the point of view of a "high functioning" autistic person who is sympathetic to your approach, and who has spent many years pondering these issues in commercial contexts - before withdrawing a few years ago because conditions had got so bad it had become impossible to achieve anything useful and seriously health threatening to try. I think this will suggest a very different approach to the medical conceptualization that you have primarily been exposed to.

First off, I do not regard myself as disabled in any way. I'm very much aware of the cognitive differences between myself and the majority -- I've been coping with them for as long as I can remember - and I see no evidence of disability on my part at all. I shall speak plainly about how things look from my point of view in what follows. I think this is only fair, since some others are so forward as to call me a disease, and assert that I must be "cured" -- i.e. exterminated -- and expect to be applauded for this.

If you look into the matter, I think you'll find that what I'm about to say is echoed in psychoanalytical theory, the various spiritual traditions, the Deming approach to industrial quality which produced such spectacular results in post WWII Japan, and even in the writings of Ayn Rand. One book that I'd particularly suggest you look at is a small volume of management theory called "Narcissistic Process and Corporate Decay," by Prof. Howard S. Schwartz, New York University Press. Personally I don't agree with the mechanisms Prof. Schwartz proposes are in play, but the social phenomena he describes are certainly real.

I'm a software engineer, and I'm very good at it. Typically, problems start when there is a clearly stated objective that I must work towards along with others who are not "on the spectrum."

I look at the task in a holistic way, where no step is any more important than any other, since we must execute them all to complete the task. There are always areas of risk and ambiguity which we presently possess no proceduralized method for dealing with. These areas of difficulty can however be "herded" - much as I imagine you, as a professional writer, "herd" the pieces of your own product together.

There's an abstract "space" in which you shuffle your paragraphs and sentences around, as you simultaneously develop and express your conclusions. That's what I'm doing now as I write to you, and I imagine that to be able to write a whole article which hangs together in its parts and also as a whole, you must do something similar. (Has it occurred to you that to do your job, you may very well be "on the spectrum" yourself, whether or not your abilities and awareness have thus far been categorized and discounted with a "diagnosis"?)

So before I start, I must contemplate the whole task, running backwards and forwards in my mind until a derisked and viable course is apparent.

If I do not do this, I'm just stumbling around in the dark. I must then implement my creatively produced plan in a pedantic and rule following way, if I am to preserve the assurances the first, contemplative stage yielded. (The bits where a mathematician might say "in any case" and really mean "in all possible cases" rather than "if we ignore the issues".)

In contrast, my colleagues do not see that many steps ahead - or are not interested in doing so. Instead they are more concerned with acting out their "fitting in" with whatever random and ill-thought-out approach happens to emerge from a kind of chimpanzee jabbering session. This behaviour appears to be encouraged in schools, and is known as "taking turns and making points." The play-acting seems to be more important than the content of the "points" that are made.

So often we hear that the problem with ADHD children is that they "blurt" - no one every mentions that their swiftly produced answers are usually correct. To the teacher, maintaining the singsong matters more than the stated purpose of asking the question, but these highly intelligent children are responding sincerely and effectively to the stated purpose. For this they are labelled mentally retarded. Similarly the wretched glancing from side to side as my colleagues change their nonsense in mid-sentence, depending on the threatening grimaces of others, indicates the lack of rigour and sincerity in their speech.

I can do creativity, and I can follow the letter as well as the spirit of rules. All too often, I find that my colleagues do not even attempt to do either.

There's an element of asinine uniformity in my colleagues' behaviour - even in the phrases used to celebrate it. "Taking turns and making points." "Looking professional and playing roles." "Being very clever and playing games." "La di da di da and da di da."

There's a stage when they "all-agree" a blatantly doomed approach. I point out the logical inconsistencies in their plan, but I find that they don't have sufficient attention spans to think ahead more than a couple of steps. Instead of making an effort to follow, they commence unpleasant jeering, subject-changing avoidance behaviors. Sometimes, they announce that I am mentally weak, that I "just don't get it," and am unable to keep up with their cleverness. They seem to believe that it is I, not they, who is deficient in attention span. Worse, this deeply habituated evasiveness prevents them from ever learning from their mistakes. Hence the high proportion of software projects which run vastly over budget if they are ever implemented at all.

Then they start play-acting the implementation stage. Here, the objective also seems to be closely aligned with what happens in schools.

The idea is not to get a result, but to fudge, pass the buck, do or say anything that will pacify an unthinking "teacher" figure who is looking for a shallow outward "seeming" of work, without actually doing any work. When I question them, they all seem to harbour a belief that anyone who approaches the job with a sincere intent to complete it is an imbecile. They certainly don't look forward to the natural high that comes from seeing a beautiful system working as intended.

A typical phrase used at this time is, "Oh just put something and get on". Now what on earth is the point of "getting on" when one knows one has already taken a wrong turn - even done so deliberately? There is no point unless the intent is to at all times (until the project is canceled as a failure) maintain a sham of work that is visible from a distance (even if no-one is looking) rather than getting a result.

I know that I often find the noise of randomly shouted falsehoods, incessant subject changing, attempted bullying and so on to be very, very difficult to cope with. Add the hideous flicker of florescent lights, the perpetually ringing telephones in the open plan offices and the constant need to be on the lookout for insincere sneakiness, and the workplace can be a very unpleasant and overwhelming place to be.

It is certainly no fit environment for anyone to do productive work - but actually productive work is not the point. I often find myself "stimming" - rubbing my hands rhythmically backwards and forwards over my scalp, focussing on the regularity and groundedness of the feeling, to drown out the insincere insanity around me and giving myself some emotional support. I am not surprised that others find themselves banging their heads against the wall.

The situation is getting much, much worse with every year that passes.

This is the context in which the demonization of those who "fail to comply" with society going down the plughole is occurring. Do you believe that the 20th century would have known no totalitarianism if just a few people with names like Hitler, Stalin and McCarthy had not been born? Or that to make a Belsen guard it is necessary to do any more than take Jo Public out of the supermarket and stuff her into an SS uniform?

There's plenty of evidence that many of us "on the spectrum" have great abilities in any subject found in nature - except the "ability" to self-delude and behave in this nihilistic, herdlike way. The only thing we "fail" to do is deny reality for "social" reasons.

Many of us express our profound emotional distress in extreme ways because we are profoundly emotionally distressed by the madness and bullying to which we are subjected. How easy it is to assert that we have no emotions because we do not parade false affect, and have nothing to be distressed about because the world is almost at the point of total perfection. In fact, I believe the developed world is nearing the point of total collapse.

The modern affliction of adrenaline addiction offers a model of what I think is going on. These days some people have lots of leisure time, and some of them spend too much time doing exciting sports. They actually get hooked on raised adrenaline levels, and when their adrenaline level drops, withdrawal drives them to do dangerous things to raise it again.

They are not aware that they are seeing things in a distorted way, and that parachuting off buildings is something they would not normally choose to do.

To my mind, it's possible that most people are vulnerable to a (likely neurochemical) form of madness which can be induced by joining in with group behaviors in a manner similar to adrenaline addiction, but with

boredom as the behavioral extreme where they should not spend too much time. For various different reasons those of us "on the spectrum" are immune to this. We therefore retain the human normal faculties which are

everybody's birthright, experience great distress from what we see going on with our clear vision, and yet we are categorized, demonized and persecuted by the herd, particularly at times of maximal insanity.

The disease of the herd comes and goes in waves, improving after a period of maximal delusion has caused an economic collapse and war, then steadily worsening during the reconstruction ... until the next collapse.

Because machines now do so much of the work, the population of the developed world has been freed up to make this the deepest trough in history.

We are already deeply into the next Dark Age, but thanks to the machines most people haven't noticed yet. The slightest deviation from regularized herd madness is now quite intolerable, bureaucrats, teachers, and medical staff are the most ritualized and so bored and so herdlike people of all, and this is the context in which the epidemic of autism, Asperger's and ADHD diagnosis is occurring.

Even so, I am optimistic. This has been going on for a long time -- probably thousands of years, since we first invented division of labor and the first humans to go gaga fell into their group hypnotic disease state. I reckon we retain some awareness of this in our legends of the "Fall." Certainly something caused us to lose all our history and culture prior to around 6000 years ago. Perhaps the way out is through a time of maximal madness, when the insanity will become evident to even the most blinkered, even as they physically collapse from the stress of it all. Perhaps, as Dante described in "The Inferno," the road out of Hell is found in the deepest and most terrible part of it.

A full description of this viewpoint, as criticized and improved by many others who can see it too, is online at: reciprocality.org/thirdage.

Perhaps we who are "on the spectrum" are like miners' canaries, and you'd better get out of the mine now - because the canaries have fallen off their perches.

Yours sincerely,

Alan G. Carter

Ibiza, Spain


This article is the fifth of seven in a series UPI published earlier this year.


The Age of Autism aims to be interactive with readers and will take heed of comment, criticism and suggestions. E-mail: dolmsted@upi.com

Posted by Becca

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