Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Autistic Spectrum

Autism has fascinated me ever since I first learned about it in middle school. Why? Because at the time I was able to see a little bit of myself there. Autism comes on a spectrum, and so it was possible for me to see myself near the top, high-functioning enough that I could pass for normal.

I constantly questioned myself as to whether I was really on there, or whether I was being a hypochondriac, or whether in the back of my mind, I really wanted that gift that comes with being a savant, even at the expense of a normal life.

I don't think so anymore. Nowadays, I think I can say that the last bit is probably not true, but what about the first two? I mean, sometimes I think I fit, but I don't know where to draw the line.

How wide is the autistic spectrum? What does it cover? On the far extreme, it can be pretty obvious. Those children who cannot bear the onslaught their senses throw at them, who are unable to interact with others, who feel emotion but cannot empathize and catch others reactions. The ones who spend their days rocking, drawing, solving puzzles, all while locked in their own heads.

But what about the other end? How brilliant does one have to be in order to be placed on the spectrum? How much geekish, nerd-like, or introverted behavior is necessary to push you in that direction?

Temple Grandin's particular way of thinking helped reinvent the way people took care of cattle and livestock. This is a somewhat long video, but I assure you, it is worth it to hear her experiences and perception of the world (click through for the video; it's not showing up in Reader).

If it's just about thinking differently, though, I do that. I've found in class discussions that my ideas and thought processes often surprise people. They are often met with, "Well...that's an interesting take on the subject." At the same time, however, I can usually tell what kind of answer is expected, and I often give that one instead.

That shows that I can catch social cues, and that I have an idea of how others think. I have plenty of friends, an outer circle of acquaintances, an inner circle I talk to often, and a couple of best friends whom I love. Yet where most people interact and exchange pleasantries without thinking about it, I have had to work at it. Most of the time, I don't think anyone can tell the difference anymore, but when I encounter a new situation, it takes much more conscious effort for me to fit in.

Autists, however, tend to have a specialized type of intelligence. They are very very good at one thing - at the expense of another. For most, it is the ability to interact normally with people that is lacking.

Where am I there? I'm good at many things, including being humble ;). I pick up new skills easily. In academics, I'm pretty good at math and science, but I also do well in writing. My weakness is certainly not physical - I have done martial arts, played various sports, and even danced. All of that doesn't seem an equal trade-off for a little social awkwardness.

Autism also tends to rear its two-faced head at a young age (which happens to coincide with the age children receive a number of vaccinations here in America, leading to disproven accusations of vaccines causing autism). I am told that when I was younger, though, I was a very gregarious child, outgoing and constantly full of questions. So my progression is likely not that of autism.

Yet I have those little OCDs, though they usually apply to how I think, rather than what I do, and so are not outwardly visible. But how can I know that these are not normal? How do I know other people don't think this way as well? I see parts of my thought processes reflected in those who are able to talk about their autism. In some cases, I feel I identify better with them than with "normal" people, but it may be that non-autists are simply able to hide these eccentricities, as I do.

Near the high-functioning edge, the distinction between autistic and not blurs; it becomes a slope rather than a series of steps. To be diagnosed, you may have to have all of a list of characteristics, but that doesn't mean those traits can't spread beyond a clinical diagnosis. As a result, I cannot label myself. And you know what? I don't want to.

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