Another Face in the Crowd — Face Blindness

My mornings are spent scouring a dozen or so news sites, so I see the same faces over and over again. I’m mildly face blind, so it can take a while for me to associate a face with a name and with the reasons that person is in the news. But one particular face that’s getting a lot of coverage lately has proven almost impossible for me to recognize. Some of the photos show him with bleached blond hair, which alerts me, but others don’t, and I have to read the headline to find out who it is.

I realized just today that he has a face which would probably called handsome by many people. For me, handsome or not, it’s a face that just fades into the crowd, so similar in its features to millions of other men that he might as well not exist. I’m sure I’d learn to recognize him if I knew him personally and had reason to meet him many times. But the first two or three times, he would still be a complete stranger.

Which brings up a point that I’ve never seen discussed: most humans, within particular ethnicities, look very similar to each other. The human face only has a few features, and only a few ways in which those features can arrange themselves. The majority of people you meet in your life aren’t really that different from each other in their looks. What distinguishes them is your ability to discriminate between them on a rather fine basis. For anyone with face blindness, the degree of its severity will determine how well you are able to make those distinctions.

One of the interesting things about actresses (or female actors, to be more politically correct) is how alike most of them appear to me, almost as if there was a template for how actresses should look. To a lesser degree, the same thing is true of male actors.

Watching movies has always been an exercise in frustration because of my inability to keep track of all the characters. The actors (male and female) who appeal to me have one or more features that stand out enough to be recognizable even with changes of makeup and hair style. Unconsciously, I’ve also used voices as another way to keep the actors straight.

Humans like to believe that they are truly individual and unique. It’s a comforting delusion; they are similar not only in looks, but in how they think and behave. Much of society functions on the basis that those similarities are largely predictable and reliable. For anyone who is face blind, that similarity is a lifelong challenge to deal with.

Questions and More Questions

I probably shouldn’t use “meltdown” for how I’m feeling, right now, and all too often, but that really is how it feels when my brain can’t cope with the invisibility of things that are perfectly visible (and obvious) to me. The thing is that I do see things that most people overlook. A lot of that is a form of pattern recognition, and it can take a lot of strange forms that send me off chasing for more information.

I don’t intend to get into politics, but here’s an example from yesterday’s news. I imagine everyone who follows the staggering path of our new “president” is aware that on Saturday, he held a love-in for himself in Florida. And during his speech he talked about the terror attack in Sweden that was apparently going on even as he spoke. Of course the lie hit the news and the internet immediately.

Whoah! Hold on there, folks. Here’s what he actually said:

“When you look at what’s happening in Germany, when you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden — Sweden! Who would believe this? Sweden!”

“They took in large numbers, they’re having problems like they never like they never thought possible,”

Do you see “terror attack” anywhere. I don’t. He merely implied it, and everyone fell for it. As I’m sure he knew they would. I’ve seen any number of posts, articles, tweets, etc., talking about the Swedish terror attack lie, but I haven’t seen one single bit of evidence that anyone realized that’s not what he said. Am I being nitpicky? Not if you can understand that it’s an example of how easily people can be led to believe in something that didn’t happen. I guarantee that anyone you ask will remember Trump saying there was a terror attack going on in Sweden.

So that’s the kind of thing that constantly gets stuck in my craw and gives me mental meltdowns.

Here’s another, much more relevant to anyone on the spectrum. It isn’t something I was looking for; the bits and pieces just accumulated until they formed a pattern and a question. So — why is it that when I Google “autism comorbidities” all I get is information about medical and psychiatric disorders? Because what I’ve noticed over the years is that a lot of the problems people on the spectrum are dealing with are very different. A few years back when I was immersed in my autism learning curve, traits like face blindness, poor executive functioning, auditory and other sensitivities weren’t included in any list of comorbidities.

As far as I’ve been able to discover, they still aren’t. What do they have in common? They’re all pretty much invisible, and problems with them are easily attributed to other causes. Hmm. Could this possibly have anything to do with why, of all people on the spectrum, aspies are the least visible? Why they struggle with mild to severe disabilities that are never diagnosed as part of their aspieness? Why they are so easily brushed off as attention-seeking or just plain fakes?

You gotta wonder. I’d love to know if anyone with an “official” diagnosis was asked about those invisibles. Prove me wrong, or let’s explore it further.

Eugenics by Any Other Name –Eliminating Autism

Here’s a series of blog posts by Silent Wave that everyone on the autism spectrum should read. They’re based on her discovery that MIT will be doing research on autism, thanks to a $20m grant. The goal isn’t just to find the causes of autism, but to eliminate it completely. And, I suspect, by any means necessary.

Asperger’s / autism, genetics, & MIT ~ Part 1: Consent?

Asperger’s / autism, genetics, & MIT ~ Part 2: Jurautistic Park (nature likes us!)

Asperger’s / autism, genetics, & MIT ~ Part 3: The Lernaean Hydra

Asperger’s / autism, genetics, & MIT ~ Part 4: A (mistaken) “utopia”

And here’s the press release from MIT. Notice the language being used. And note (from other sources since MIT didn’t think it was that important) that the munificent donors have two grown autistic children of their own. One can only assume that they would have preferred to make sure those two could never have been born.

New Center for Autism Research established at MIT’s McGovern Institute


Pick and Shovel Work — Generalizations

I have a trait that annoys the heck out of most people, so I’ve learned to keep it out of sight– usually. But it turns out that this trait is what makes a lot of my writing  useful in helping people see things in new ways and understand them better. The heart of the trait is that generalizations make me twitchy. Almost every time I read or hear a generalization, my mind goes into high gear and comes up with objections — No, not everybody…, No not always… Then the drilling down begins. What does that generalization ignore? What are its implications? What unlike things is it lumping together and treating as if they are the same thing, or very similar?

Sometimes it feels like an addiction that I can’t control and sometimes it seems like the most useful and wonderful mental tool anybody could have. And… you probably know where this is going: Asperger’s as a subject of speculation, discussion, and controversy is my field of dreams. Picking apart the generalizations is going to be a big part of this blog, so be forewarned. If you hate messy details, you need to back away right now.

Issue: the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s, and what they might or might not mean, depending on whether you’re a therapist, a parent, or an aspie. There’s nothing like thinking something is perfectly clear and straightforward when it isn’t. People look at something like those criteria and go away thinking that now they understand it, when they still don’t have a clue. A lot of the time it doesn’t matter, but if you’re an employer who can’t deal with behavior that doesn’t fit your idea of normal, even from employees who are outstanding in their work, it does matter. If you’re a therapist with the power to have someone medicated or even committed to a hospital on the basis of your misunderstanding, it does matter. If you’re a parent trying to cope with a difficult child, it does matter. If you’re an aspie trying to live independently, find employment, make friends, it does matter. It all matters, and depending on generalizations isn’t the way to solve problems.

Temperament Makes the Difference

Extravert or introvert? Outer-directed or inner directed? I don’t recall ever seeing a discussion of temperament and the way in which it can affect how aspies adapt to a neurotypical world. So it probably looks like a way-out-there statement when I say that temperament may be the most important trait in the ability to adapt.

I’ve read a lot of “confessional” essays, “confessional” being my way of classifying essays and blog posts that are based entirely on the writer’s personal experiences. All too often, the personal essay/post slides seamlessly from being my experience to an experience we all share. It’s such a normal human way to function– generalizing from our own experience–that I doubt many aspies realize they also do it. It isn’t an exclusively neurotypical trait, and it produces, among aspies, and in their communities, such as they are, the same kind of stereotyping that is supposed to be the domain of neurotypicality.

I’m a very private person, an introvert, which makes this kind of discussion somewhat more difficult than it may be for others, but I still have to work to avoid generalizing from my own personal experiences. I’m also an extremely inner-directed person. In the light of those two statements, what follows is my attempt to lay out a theory that may or may not work for others on the spectrum. The intent, here, is to analyze how two different temperaments respond to interactions with the neurotypical world, and propose a possible way of making those interactions easier.

I have no way to determine whether introversion correlates strongly with inner-directedness or extraversion correlates strongly with outer-directedness, and don’t know if it’s ever been studied, but it seems a logical connection. If anyone knows of relevant studies, please point me to them.

What I propose, purely as a theory, is that introverts are more likely, on average, to be inner-directed, and thus will make less effort to conform to neurotypical expectations for behavior and accomplishment. Anyone who is primarily inner-directed, and this can include neurotypicals, places less importance on social demands than on their own inner needs. The problem is that introversion is so often seen as a problem to be overcome, and probably more so in people on the autistic spectrum, that its benefits are inaccessible. When you are constantly diagnosed as shy, unsociable, unfriendly, self-absorbed, even as oppositional, that is how you will see yourself. You will spend all your energy trying to conform to the demands others make. In the process, you will lose yourself and, as so many aspies confess, live a false life, wondering who you really are.

You will allow your opinions to be formed by the people around you, even if you sense, however dimly, that they are wrong, or not something you really agree with. You will make choices that make you unhappy, if not downright miserable, because those are the “proper” choices. You will waste whatever talents you may have by fulfilling society’s needs instead of your own. You will be left with what is known as the inauthentic self.

Inner-directedness may develop slowly, as the individual becomes aware of making choices that set them apart, and deciding whether to uphold those choices or give them up in the face of disapproval. Introversion has the potential for being a sort of mask, but one that protects rather than falsifies. It allows for a polite withdrawal that, with maturity becomes more self-assured, and less prone to seeing direct confrontation as the only way to maintain personal integrity. It’s a quiet corner from which to observe and analyze what goes on around them, and to make choices that encourage personal growth and risk-taking rather than acquiescence and conformity. An authentic, creative life cannot exist in a state of dependence on external value judgments and pressures.


Autistic and Proud?

How to get into the meat of a new blog when its purpose hasn’t quite jelled yet? How about doing what I so often do: take what neurotypicals would call a negative position. I’m almost always in opposition to something or other, it seems, so why not tackle the issue of pride?

When someone says they’re (fill in the blank) and proud of it, I wonder what they mean. Autistic and proud? I understand that on a purely intellectual level. But feel it? Nope. It’s one of those concepts that has never clicked with me. I am what I am and that’s all there is to it. Pride as a rejection of shame I can understand. Pride in accomplishment I can understand. But when it comes to my own feelings, both are abstractions. I can’t even say my lack of gut-level understanding is an aspie thing because the person whose blog post inspired this one is an aspie, a popular writer, and proud of being autistic, as are many individuals on the autism spectrum.

I recently came back around to an interest in autism and Asperger’s after a years-long burnout on the subject, so people like Samantha Craft are new to me. Her statements remind me once again of that old saying, in its autistic variation: when you’ve seen one autistic, you’ve seen one autistic. Or: when you’ve seen one aspie, you’ve seen one aspie. We can’t use our own state of being as a template for everyone else. We may overlap in many areas, but remain distinct in our own versions of selfhood. I bought her book, Everyday Asperger’s, and chucked it halfway through. There was nothing wrong with it, but it didn’t speak to me, except for a short section early on.

Sam says: “I am pleased to be part of a unit. I no longer feel like a lonely floating piece of a missing whole.” The concept of being part of a unit evokes something close to horror in me. I may be a floating piece, but alone, not lonely, and certainly not in the context of some missing whole. For all the things in which she finds pride, I would substitute words like satisfaction, enjoyment, or gratitude. There’s a whole range of vocabulary out there that would fit me better than pride.

What do I feel when a novel I’ve labored over is finished and available for people to buy? Pride? No. Satisfaction that my skills keep improving. Relief that the darn thing is finally out of my hair. Hope that it might sell a few copies, and that readers will enjoy it.

Maybe I’m defective even by aspie standards. Or maybe I’m just more analytical about how I function at deep levels. After all, I’m a writer. If I’m going to obsess, it will always be about something that further clarifies what it means to be human, whether on the autistic spectrum or as a member of the neurologically dominant segment of the human species. So my current obsession, for however long it lasts, is with the role of autism, and particularly, high-functioning Asperger’s, in creativity. And, since I’m a writer, the focus will be on writing.

Along the way, whether specifically or by implication, I’ll also be writing about, and illustrating, aspects of a particular type of Asperger’s mind that aren’t well-known or understood. Are they rare? Or are they so submerged in the more usual ways of looking at Asperger’s that they are invisible even to the people who possess them?

Consider this blog an exploration, complete with stops and starts, false moves, lots of uncertainty, and occasional gleams of light.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Just as Temple Grandin’s view of autism, in her book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, doesn’t speak to every person on the spectrum, neither does this blog speak to everyone. I write from my own experience as an 80-year-old woman, self-identified as high-functioning Asperger’s in my late 60s, and from what I’ve learned over the years, both before and after. Much of the learning has been about intellectual development and creativity, and that is what will guide this blog.

There’s a quote from author Toni Morrison that can apply to blogging as well as to writing books: If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. This is the blog I’ve wanted to read, but no one has written, so it’s time to write it myself.

Disorderly Minds isn’t a personal confession blog, nor is it a guide to living on the autistic spectrum. It will focus on the intellectual and analytical aspects of Asperger’s, with particular attention to imagination and creativity. For comic relief, it will also wander every so often into the stranger aspects of the neurotypical world, including the daily news.

What is it going to be about? Here are some of the ideas I’ve jotted down so far:

  • Aspie views of the world around us, how it functions, why people behave as they do
  • How the outsider view affects mental development, from early childhood through adulthood
  • If you are a writer, or want to be one, how the outsider view and a differently wired mind affect creativity
How undiagnosed Asperger’s affects intellectual development, creativity
  • Growing in wrong directions under “helpful” hands — or no hands
Is Asperger’s a basis for unusually original writing?
  • The influence of temperament — introversion/extraversion
  • Cognitive complexity
  • Identifying and learning to use the hidden gifts

Disorderly Minds will reflect my exploration of these topics, so I may change my mind about some of them over time, or pick up topics I’ve already discussed and look at them from another angle. I’ll be looking at what the “experts” have to say about Asperger’s functioning, and what aspies themselves have to say. If there is a central theme here, it is to help intellectually talented aspies do an end run around the concept of disabilities and learn how to use their differences creatively.

Those Self-diagnostic Tests

I became aware of the subject of autism very late in life. In the course of trying to determine whether the characteristics that had always set me apart and given me problems were signs of autism or just me being weird, I took several online self-diagnostic tests. And for a long time, they just complicated the problem of whether I was or wasn’t on the spectrum. Every test said that I was barely on it, nearly as neurotypical as autistic.

Why did I persist in my search until I was sure, one way or the other? Not to be part of a group, not to be officially recognized. Not to add to my already numerous physical and mental problems, to see myself as a collection of disabilities. It was to better understand who I was and what had made me the person I became, and, possibly, stop blaming myself for traits that are inherent in my makeup. To better understand them so that I might find ways to ameliorate some of the problems, as far as that’s possible.

I now understand that there was an important factor keeping me close to the edge on those tests. I answered the questions as the adult I was at the time rather than the child or adolescent I once was. The importance of maturity is mentioned now and then, in articles, but it isn’t given as much emphasis as it deserves. Depending on intelligence and the severity of the traits, we gradually learn ways of coping with our differences from the norm, not all of which have to be viewed as disabilities.

If you are an older adult with a high IQ you have a lifetime of learning and adapting behind you. Add to that, the design flaws of many tests, not just those concerned with autism. One major flaw is that most tests force you to make choices that don’t in any way reflect your personal reality. I can go all the way back to high school in my memories to support this. On a job aptitude test that all students were forced to take each question had two choices: either this or that. Every question had to be answered. The result was that I supposedly had an aptitude for and would work best at a job that, in actuality, I would have hated and eventually rebelled against.

Why did this happen? Because the test was oriented to the standard jobs that the majority of people do, in fact, work at. There were no choices that would allow for creativity of any kind, certainly not the desire and ability to create your own job. No entrepreneurship, no chance of opting out of the pervasive work ethic and doing something else altogether.

In the same way, most self-diagnostic tests for autism force choices based on assumptions. – does take account of changes with maturity. But it also forces yes or no answers to poorly stated questions. A typical example is “It is difficult to figure out what other people expect of me.” You can’t answer sometimes; the choices are never, now and when I was young, only now, or only when I was young. Is a failure to understand caused by your supposed disability or because the other person hasn’t made it clear what they want from you? The assumption is that failure is an outcome of a disability. I retested myself on this one quite recently, and came out barely on the spectrum, just as I did when I took it several years ago. It was designed by Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at the Cambridge Autism Research Centre, and allows for the fact that whatever problem you might have you don’t necessarily have it all the time. But it is entirely present-oriented. “I am…” “I enjoy…” And that’s the crux of the problem. It tests for who you are now as if you never learned anything over the years about how to manage the factors it asks about.

If you are intelligent, analytical, and self-aware, you will have found ways to avoid problem areas, or to compensate for them. Which means that if you’re taking this particular test or one like it, you will get a more accurate score if you answer as if you are much younger, before you learned, either with assistance or on your own, how to work around the “disabilities.” Not that it will be completely accurate if the test requires you to answer every question. Why not? Because you probably won’t remember what certain things were like when you were younger. For instance: Question 3. If I try to imagine something, I find it very easy to create a picture in my mind. Today, I would slightly agree. But I have no memories about that kind of thing from earlier in my life.

Self-tests can be useful, but they may not be completely accurate. Proceed with caution and common sense.