High Functioning Autism (Including “Asperger’s Syndrome”), Memory, and Time

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Time

Time (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

Do you have some memories that are so vivid that they are like three-dimensional realities re-playing in your mind? I think most people have some memories like that–a death in the family, a romantic breakup, one’s wedding day–but what if your collection of such memories was larger than just a few? What if, even if you lacked a photograpic memories of everything, had entire groups of memories dating back twenty or more years that could re-play so intensely that it feels as if they fill your heart to bursting? For many people with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (including what in DSM-IV was called “Asperger’s Syndrome), time flows differently from most people who do not have autism. More memories are preserved intact than are found in so-called “neurotypical” people, and when they are remembered they are so real that one feels as if he were participating in reality once more.

I noticed this at my thirtieth high school reunion in 2010. Although people generally remembered one another (and they remembered me and I them), they lacked vivid memories of high school. But for me, although I had forgotten most days, I remembered much more concrete detail and many more events that most of my fellow class members. Most were not memories of earthshaking events that number in the hundreds. Some examples: Walking down the hall looking at the class photos from the 1950s and early 1960s, thinking myself part of a larger tradition at my high school and wondering about the days my aunt and mother went there. Playing chess in the cafeteria at lunch and some of the conversations and insults players hurled at each other. Feeling overwhelmed at the end of a semester and talking to a fellow student about it–he signed my annual that day and wrote, “Keep studying and you’ll make it.” I’ll not bore you with more examples–the point is that no one else had that many vivid memories of high school. One student remembered arguing with me in history class but did not remember another student who argued with her constantly. To me, that was amazing, and it was other people who were different, not I who was.

Does time and memory function differently for the (high functioning) autistic person? Why are my memories (and the memories of other students I know who had Asperger’s traits) so vivid that one re-lives them as if they were the present moment? A student from another local school from chess tournaments with Asperger’s traits talked to me about twenty-five years after a tournament and remembered the specific game we played including the opening and the moves! Such vivid memories are a gift–and a curse. Memories of times I was bad come back to the point that I feel guilty as h..l over things I did when I was a small child. Memories of swinging on a tree swing at Granddaddy and Granny’s are so powerful that I feel like I am there and am heartbroken when I realize that I am not. I have heard other HF autistic people say similar things. Time, to us, seems compressed, with thirty years in the past at times seeming like the present. We certainly do not experience time as God does, an eternal present, but it may the closest someone gets to that on earth. Sometimes memories, even the good ones, hurt so much that I shut them out. Each good event that is in the past seems like a little death that I want resurrected–I wonder if others with HF autism have had the same experience–reply to this post if you have and/or if you think this is an autistic trait. It seems like autism itself–wonderful and terrible, a blessing and a curse, God’s gift and God’s scourge–and something I would not want to live without.

Chess and Mental Illness

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Morphy

Morphy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the game of chess. Over the years I have enjoyed playing in tournaments and in informal games at chess clubs and other venues. Now I do not believe there is any necessary relationship between any particular game and mental illness. It does happen to be the case that in studying the history of the game, one finds a number of cases of brilliant players who became mentally ill. Paul Morphy, the great nineteenth century American player and unofficial world champion, is one classic example. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world champion and, since he became a United States citizen in 1888, the first U.S. world champion, sadly, became mentally ill in old age, allegedly offering God odds of pawn and move in a game. Akiba Rubenstein, a great player from the early twentieth century, also became mentally ill in his old age. The most famous contemporary example of mental illness in a chess player is Bobby Fischer, the first U.S.-born world champion. After he won his championship match with Boris Spassky, Fischer’s behavior became increasingly unstable, and his rabid antisemitism seemed to be a strange form of self-hatred given that his mother was Jewish, and recent evidence indicates his father may have been Jewish as well. Shortly before he died in 2008, I looked at Bobby Fischer’s personal website–it was clearly the work of a sick man–paranoid, raving, and incoherent. I disagreed with the U.S. Chess Federation’s throwing Mr. Fischer out after he supported the 9-11 attacks because those were not the statements of someone who was mentally “all there”. Why is the case that many chess geniuses suffer from mental illness?

Such problems are not unique to chessplayers–mathematical and musical geniuses sometimes have similar problems with mental illness. It is as if the brain is wired for one type of thinking and does that thing at a genius-level, but other forms of thinking are truncated. I am reminded of the extreme of savants, who can do one thing well, but are profoundly mentally handicapped in other areas.

I would venture a guess that more geniuses have high-functioning autism (which I do not consider to be a mental illness) than other people. It is well known that people on the autistic spectrum tend to focus on one (or only a few) special interests, and they tend to excel at those. In other areas of life, such as social ability, they do not do as well. I am not chess genius, but only an average tournament player of around the 1500-level, but I have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (now called high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder). When I go to chess tournaments, many of the players seem more socially inept than I am–that’s saying a lot. I have also noticed some players having interests upon which they focused almost exclusively–chess, of course, but also collecting fantasy action figures, Dungeons & Dragons, war games (board games), science fiction, science, and mathematics. This is not a bad thing–society needs people with talent in many areas who can channel their interests in a positive direction. If that tendency to be antisocial goes too far, however, to the point of debilitating autism or true mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, as well as personality disorders, then that results in players such as Mr. Morphy or Mr. Fischer.¬† These serious cases are sad, and such individuals require treatment which is all too hard to come by these days. Plus, the person or person’s family must take the initiative for the individual to get treatment. I do not believe chess itself will do them harm–it may do them much good in channeling their energies into one of the great strategy games of history and an intellectual contest par excellence.

I will continue to enjoy chess, and continue to enjoy playing over the games of the great players of history regardless of their mental difficulties. Morphy’s and Fischer’s games are masterpieces and are a great joy to go over. I believe that the contributions and beautiful games of chess these men offered more than make up for anything they may have said due to their illnesses. In the end, they have made the world a richer and more joyful place by creating objects of beauty.

Asperger’s Syndrome is not Why Adam Lanza Committed Murder

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Autism Awareness

Autism Awareness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Members of the media often love simplistic thinking–it makes it easier to create headlines and “talking points.” As I have watched and read the media coverage of Adam Lanza’s horrific murders of young children and adults, including his mother, there are more stories about Mr. Lanza’s having Asperger’s Syndrome. Although, to be fair, some of the stories have a disclaimer that points out there is no causal connection nor any correlation between Asperger’s Syndrome (soon to be labeled as high functioning autism spectrum disorder) and violence. From the online comments sections, it is clear that many people do not read the disclaimer, nor do they have any understanding of Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s Syndrome may account for Mr. Lanza’s shyness and his membership in his high school “Tech Club,” but it does not account for his committing murder. He clearly had other, much more serious, mental problems that were heightened by his parents’ divorce. God only knows Mr. Lanza’s motivation for sure. The act was that of a twisted mind–Mr. Lanza may not have been legally insane, but his view of reality was skewed. I believe he retained free will and was thus morally responsible for his actions. His actions were evil and represent a mind so utterly focused on self that the lives of twenty-seven human beings did not matter to him. The cold-blooded way in which the murders were carried out reflects a mind that was most likely incapable of feeling emotional empathy for another person–the classic sign of a psychopath.

Although some individuals on the autism spectrum have less empathy, at least that is visible to others, people with Asperger’s Syndrome often have a great deal of empathy, and children and adults with Asperger’s Syndrome are capable of great love. They share the tendencies to good and evil that all human beings have, but their levels of crime and violent crime are no higher than the rest of the U.S. population. What I fear is that the news stories that lead people to falsely believe that Asperger’s is a sign of a tendency to violence will encourage mistreatment by civilians and by law enforcement of individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome. The coverage may also cause children who are “different” or “strange” to be signaled out for surveillance. Adults may face the same treatment–and that would raise problems of civil liberties. It is simplistic, ignorant, and dangerous to link Asperger’s Syndrome with the brutal murders in Connecticut. The press has a moral responsibility not to mislead, even if unintentionally, people to falsely associate Asperger’s Syndrome with a tendency toward violence.

Should the Label “Asperger’s Syndrome” Have Been Removed from the DSM?

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Published by the American Psychiatric Associat...

Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-IV-TR provides a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association will be without the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.” Instead, what was once called Asperger’s will be grouped under “Autistic Spectrum Disorders” without a specific name attached to it. Although there will not be an “official” label, it will most likely be informally considered “high-functioning autism,” or “mild autism.”

As someone formally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, it makes no difference in my condition whether I am labeled as “Asperger’s” or as being a high-functioning person (or someone with “mild autism spectrum disorder”) on the scale of Autism Spectrum Disorders. It was difficult to distinguish between patients diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and those diagnosed with “high functioning autism,” so the American Psychological Association (APA) decided to simply matters by grouping Asperger’s as a form of autism.

Although I understand the reasons for the change in diagnostic terminology, the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” served a useful purpose by distinguishing individuals who could function well overall, yet who had excessive interests and quirks, the inability to look people in the eye, the “little professor syndrome” and so forth, from those individuals with more severe forms of autism.

The new labeling system wreaks havoc on the various Asperger’s social groups online, and some say that they will continue to use the older label. In addition, although autistic people deserve the same respect that any other individual deserves, sadly, there is a stigma attached to the word “autism” that has not yet been attached to the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.” If someone were to notice eccentric behavior and ask me, “What in the world is wrong with you? Are you having a complete conversation with yourself?” it would be difficult to say, “I’m sorry I disturbed you. I’m mildly autistic.” The natural reaction is either to (1) consider me a liar since “everyone knows that autistic people can’t communicate with others, or to (2) think that autistic people are “crazy” and back away. The implications for encounters between law enforcement and individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome–which has been a mixed experience at best with some people with Asperger’s being shot to death–are unknown. How would a police officer react to a self-report of high-functioning or mild autism? Would the reaction be different from an officer who hears the words “Asperger’s Syndrome?” In the case of students, would teachers use a different methodology teaching a student with “mild autism” vs. teaching a child with “Asperger’s Syndrome?” Would parents react differently? What about companies–would they be less likely to hire someone diagnosed as “autisic” than someone diagnosed with Asperger’s? Although autism has an organic basis in structural changes in the brain, the classification of conditions and diseases by medicine is in part objective, in part subjective. Labels may have a basis in reality, but they also help shape public perception of a disease or a condition. Consider the term “AIDS” and the negative connotations it brings. “Autism” also has emotional connotations that are not as evident in the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.

Overall, I see no need for the new changes in the DSM to go into effect. It would be better to keep the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” with all its ambiguity rather than to replace it with another, even broader label.

Aspergers and Taking Responsibility: A Two-Way Street

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Aspergers Bag

Image by TheTherapist via Flickr

As I have mentioned in previous posts, about five years ago I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism. I think it is probably closer, at least in me, to a variation on normal, but there are certain personality traits that I have that characterize Aspergers–focusing on one or two interests to the exclusion of others, failure to understand small talk, failure to understand the nuances of human communication, saying exactly what one thinks regardless of the social propriety. The ultimate problem is a failure to understand adequately other minds. But the diagnosis should not be used as an excuse for social impropriety. There are times I have been rude, not realizing that I was rude, because of my habit of saying exactly what I think, and to my surprise, the party whom I addressed was offended. But I, like all human beings who are not prevented by drugs or certain illnesses, have free will–whether I have Aspergers or not, I, like all people, have a moral responsibility to be tactful and to avoid being rude–and the proper reaction when someone is hurt by my actions is to apologize for being rude. The reason I have been open about Aspergers is not to make excuses for the times I have behaved in a rude fashion, but to encourage those who have known me over the years or who remember me from the past to understand me better. Those of us who are Aspies also should learn enough social graces to get by in the world–we do have to find jobs, and hopefully get married and have families. Many of us teach, and that means learning how to interact with students, faculty, and staff.

There are some personality traits that I find practically impossible to change. I do not not like small talk, but I have learned the mechanical rules of small talk enough to get by in most settings–at least for a short period of time. And although I, like many other Aspies, enjoy certain intellectual pursuits, not all people enjoy those pursuits as much as we do, and they may not be as interested in hearing all about our particular interests. Even though we do not mean to come across as full of ourselves, we do.

I have never liked the term “neurotypical” as used by some advocates of Austistic and Aspergers people. I know those who originated the term are trying to avoid Aspergers being considered a disease rather than as a variation of normal. But some people think that we are trying to set ourselves apart from other people as a special class due special privileges, even though that may not be the case at all.

While those of us with Aspergers should not make excuses, this does not excuse those who make fun of our diagnosis or who are cruel. It is human nature to fear that which is different, and sometimes the toughest looking people are those who are the most afraid–at least in my experience. I attend many chess tournaments, and although most chess players are not Aspergers, I have seen several who are. I can understand why they might be off putting to someone who is “normal.” I am sympathetic to the child who constantly talks about Dungeons & Dragons figurines when he is not playing chess, or to the child who is so fascinated by astronomy that it is all he talks about. Sadly, there are people in the world, both children and adults, who are not sympathetic. They demand of people that they should meet their expectations of “proper” behavior about matters that should be matters of indifference. We do have feelings, and the lack of acceptance hurts. If we do our part to function better, to learn some small talk, some social graces, and some tact, others should do their part to realize that just because we are different does not mean that we are bad people, it does not mean we are frightening or threatening in any way. It just means that we are different on matters that, unlike morality, do not make much difference in the long run. We can be too serious, but most of us have a quirky sense of humor. Many of us are successful in our chosen fields. Some of us have a lonely existence. We can get by for a few minutes in a social setting, but we often feel more comfortable at a party, say, standing off to one side by ourselves. We probably should mix more with the crowd and make an attempt to talk, but it is quite difficult–I have difficulty even in academic settings, my own field–in a party of people from many professions it is extremely difficult to gather the courage to walk up to a group of people and talk.

Hopefully most people will strive to understand those Austistic and Aspergers people they encounter, and hopefully we Aspies can do our part to bridge the gap.

People’s Reactions to Aspies

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Hans Asperger

Image via Wikipedia

More often than not I overhear a conversation among young people in which someone says, “Did you see that weird guy over there?”

“Yeah, I took a picture of him. Lookin’ down at the floor all the time, not lookin’ you in the eye, talkin’ to himself.”

“What a creep!”

When I hear this, my first reaction is that my view that American young people are among the least accepting of difference and the most conformist of all groups in American society. They are fed an ideological-based view of multiculturalism in school and university that has little to do with the actual diversity of real, concrete human beings living in the real world. Despite being taught to be non judgmental (which is dead wrong, for judging certain acts to be wrong is part of our common humanity), they become judgment in a nasty way. They look down on those people who behave differently, those who do not understand social norms–people who may not look them in the eye when speaking, people who look at the ground, people who may talk to themselves from time to time. I would bet, being an Aspie myself, that many of these individuals have Asperger’s Syndrome (what the new edition of DSM, it is rumored, will refer to as “mild autism;” the photo on the right is of Hans Asperger). I will not claim to be “holier than thou” on how I have treated people–like every person, I have said hateful and hurtful things to people. Mea maxima culpa, first of all. But I do have some advice to those people, especially teenagers and traditional-age college students who seem to identify difference with evil, and some advice to those persons with Asperger’s Syndrome, since some of our behaviors do tend to “put people off.” I also note some of my own experiences with people in my past who failed to understand my “odd” behavior.

1. If you label someone a “creep” who behaves in a way you consider to be strange, remember that you do not know that individual personally. Suppose that person is an Aspie. He may be a good moral person and a kind person, but a person who has difficulty relating to people, especially strangers, in public. That is true of many Aspies individuals. And if you say, “He should have worked on his social skills,” my answer is, “How do you know he has not.” For some Aspies, it is difficult enough to go out in public, much less to train themselves to deal with social norms with strangers. Perhaps he has worked to improve his social skills with family members and friends, but has not gotten to the point that he can relate well to strangers. Perhaps, no matter how hard he tries, he will never pick up the proper social skills to relate to strangers. Does that make him a “creep”? One day you may have an accident that makes you behave differently or appear differently than so-called “normal people.” Imagine how you would want to be treated in that situation. Then apply that lesson to dealing with Aspies and other people who are “different.”

2. When I was in high school I pulled up to the drive through window at a fast food restaurant. When I drove up to the pay booth, the woman told me the price–I fumbled around to find the correct change and muttered to myself, “I guess I find the exact amount here somewhere.” The woman opened her mouth wide and looked at me as if I were insane. Besides being unprofessional to a customer, it was cruel, and it hurt deeply. Some Aspies talk to themselves because it helps to calm them and helps them to think through the issues and events of the day. Sometimes I will talk to myself because I am thinking of ideas for an academic paper or for a creative story or poem. Remember that just because a person talks to himself, this does not imply that he is talking about you or insulting you. I can understand why seeing someone talking to himself can make you nervous; it even makes me nervous! But I try my best not to judge the person’s character or sanity because I realize my own habits. And I have worked on it–I talk to myself less than in the past–but often I slip. I am sure this is the case with other Aspies.

3. Now some advice to people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Aspies have particular areas with which they are fascinated, and they love to talk about their eccentricities. This is something they should work on avoiding since this tends to bore people or make them nervous. But it is easy to slip. One of my fascinations is collecting skulls of various animals. One bit of advice if you share this fascination: Do not talk about that interest if you have met someone for the first time. I made that mistake and the woman thought I was a freak who was interested in bones for some nefarious reason. When I heard her reaction (second-hand) I was in tears. Later, I heard than when someone explained to her that I was an Aspie, she then understood and no longer felt threatened by me. But of course I am wary of her now. Perhaps if I had approached her differently, we could have been friends. Now that is not possible–and I admit I will not open the door, even though that may be unfair and unchristian. Aspies, take note–if you have an odd interest, find some other Aspie that shares that interest online or in person–then you can talk your heart out about it. For you who are not Aspies, try to understand that those of us who are Aspies have difficulty in not steering the conversation¬† to our special interests. Kindly change the subject and avoid being rude.

4. Aspies, do not say the first thing on your mind to a friend without thinking about it first–you may, like me, have problems with being tactful. If you send a personal e-mail to a friend, re-read it several times. Aspies tend to be literal about relationships and oftentimes they lack tact. I have been in more than one situation in which I lacked tact in e-mails (without even realizing it), and then I was surprised at my friend’s defensive reaction. This is good advice for everyone, not just for Aspies. If you are a friend to someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, be patient and forgive–your friend will be loyal to a fault, but will sometimes say what he thinks without realizing that what he said hurt you. Point out why you are offended–then forgive–not seven times, as Jesus said, “but seventy times seven,” that is, without limit.

5. Although not all differences are good (a serial killer is “different” but is also evil in his difference), the fact that people have different personalities makes the world more interesting. Instead of calling the odd looking person who won’t look you in the eye and who talks about trains or physics or whatever his special interest is (or interests are), be friendly and talk to the individual. You may find a friend for life.

Is Asperger Syndrome a Real Condition?

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Hans Asperger

Image via Wikipedia

In 2006 I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a condition, first identified by Hans Asperger, on the autism spectrum in which social awkwardness, a focus on particular interests to the exclusion of others, and physical clumsiness are combined. But does the term “Asperger Syndrome” refer to a real phenomenon in humans or is it a product of the modern tendency to attach labels to normal variations in personality?

My short answer is “Yes, Asperger Syndrome” is a real set of behavior patterns in some individuals”–but there is more to be said. It is true that Americans, especially, love to label. They love to medicalize. Although Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a real condition that truly handicaps some children, there is a temptation to apply the label to children being children, especially by tired teachers or by parents looking for an excuse for their child’s poor behavior. But misdiagnosis does not imply that ADHD is a myth; it means that diagnosis must be done with care and conditions such as ADHD must be carefully defined. Otherwise, some children may be placed on Ritalin or some other drug of which we know very little about long-term effects.

Now Asperger Syndrome can be socially damaging since individuals with Asperger’s do not read other people well. Thus there are some negative effects of the condition that have practical consequences, especially for social relationships, friendships, marriage, and job interviews. There is some evidence that, like full-blown Autism, Asperger Syndrome is correlated with changes in the brain–but one must take care about such correlation. Correlation is not causation. In addition, there is the “chicken-egg” problem of whether changes in the brain affect behavior patters or whether behavior patterns remold the brain. The truth may be a combination of both. Parents with Autism or Asperger’s are more likely to have children with these conditions, so there seems to be a genetic link. A critic, however, may point out that if parents who model behavior for their children have Asperger’s, then the child may model his behavior after the parents and engage in Asperger-like behaviors. Science may not be able to answer every question about Asperger’s and heritability, but from my own experience, watching my maternal grandfather’s behavior, I believe that a tendency to Asperger Syndrome can be inherited, but whether science confirms this conclusively will depend on future research.

Asperger Syndrome is not a disease. In part, I think of the term as a pragmatic label that helps people “wrap their minds around” a certain combination of behavior patterns. Placing those patterns under the Asperger’s label helps both scientists and individuals with Asperger’s and their families to place past, present, and future behaviors into a meaningful “pigeonhole.” Pigeonholes are not always bad things as long as people are not overly legalistic about them. If a pigeonhole helps someone make sense of his life or his loved one’s life, and if it points to an actual pattern of natural human behavior, then the pigeonhole is pragmatically useful.

But is the label “Asperger’s” true? Does it refer to a “natural kind” with stable properties? I lean toward that position. I realize the dangers of over-medicalization of normal variations (and I think Asperger’s is an extreme of normal personality) and of labeling. From my own experience and from the experience of others, Asperger Syndrome does refer to a pattern that is ontologically real–“really real,” so to speak. Now whether Asperger’s is overdiagnosed is an empirical question that can, in principle, be resolved by careful study. More rigorous tests can make diagnosis more accurate. But for those who are accurately diagnosed, they should take comfort that their condition is not just a label–and accept the strengths that arise from having Asperger’s–and work on the weaknesses.

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