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

10 Comments

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.

The Unpredictability of Human Behavior

1 Comment

When you think of mental illness, is this what...

When you think of mental illness, is this what you see? (Photo credit: JenXer)

Some of the comments on Internet discussion boards suggest that mental health professionals should have been able to tell that Adam Lanza was dangerous and that they should have had him detained at a mental health facility. Such statements reflect a fundamental ignorance about the nature of mental illness and the predictability of human behavior. There are a few–and only a few–cases in which mental health professionals can be reasonably certain that a person will break the law and/or harm another person. Pedophiles are notoriously difficult to treat–it is well known that their recidivism rate is high. Psychopaths, who lack empathy, often hurt people, although most do not become murderers. A person known to have a violent temper who has behaved violently all his life is likely to engage in violent behavior again. However, in most cases of mental illness, no one can predict with any degree of accuracy whether or not a person will engage in violent behavior. The vast majority of mentally ill individuals, even those with psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, never engage in violent behavior. Even a paranoid schizophrenic who is aware of his condition and realizes that any hallucinations he has are not real may not be at serious risk for violent behavior. Sometimes “normal” people engage in terrible acts of violence, such as a North Carolina man a few years ago who, without warning, beheaded his eight-year-old son. To say that psychologists and psychiatrists and others around Mr. Lanza should have predicted that he would become violent is both unrealistic and ignorant. Mental health professionals cannot read people’s minds. There are many unusual or quiet individuals who do not fit into society’s pigeon holes of normality, and almost all of them will lead peaceful lives. On the other hand, someone who robs and murders multiple people over a period of time may do so without any sign of mental illness per se.

Eccentrics often are the most creative people in a society–Beethoven, Einstein, Thelonious Monk–all were eccentric people who made incredible contributions to science and to music. To say that people who are different or who have certain “mental disorders” should be locked up because of an alleged potential for violence is a view that is not based on facts. Americans want predictability, want order–they want reality to fit into a pigeonhole. Evil actions are often what philosophers call a “surd,” something that cannot be explained. How can someone, without getting into Mr. Lanza’s mind, have possibly known he was going to commit such an act. If his mother had heard him brag about specific violent acts, then there would a problem, but thus far, there is little evidence of that occurring. These murders point out the limits of human knowledge, limits that people do not want to acknowledge–and such a failure to acknowledge limits is used to justify stereotyping the mentally ill (including, as I noted in my previous post, people with Asperger’s Syndrome) as violent. People should do good research before expression opinions that are both wrong and potentially subversive to the rights of entire classes of people.

Asperger’s Syndrome is not Why Adam Lanza Committed Murder

4 Comments

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?

5 Comments

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.

On a the Publication of my Novel, END OF SUMMER

1 Comment

Farmhouse, Dent

Image by tricky ™ via Flickr

The feeling after a novel is first published is different from the feeling when an academic book or article is published–at least for me. There is a greater sense of accomplishment, perhaps because a novel is the product of a different kind of creativity than is involved in academic writing. I can say from experience that creative and academic writing involve two different skill sets. Now before I forget it, here is the link to the site where the novel is offered for purchase: https://www.createspace.com/3719267. It will be available on Amazon in both hard copy and e-book format in a few days. Crass advertising out of the way, I continue….

Novels are works of love, or at least they should be. Anyone who writes a novel for the sole purpose of making money will most likely write a sorry novel. Fiction writing delves deeply into the author’s heart and is a highly emotional experience. An author must bare himself emotionally to the world since fiction, though made up, by necessity is based on events, thoughts, and feelings from a person’s life, sometimes deep feelings. End of Summer is a coming-of-age novel, a fictionalized account of my childhood. I feel guilty for killing off the parents when the main character is two-years-old, but in my first novel I wanted to have fewer characters–and the death of the parents fit the plot of a young boy obsessed with death. The boy has Asperger Syndrome, but has no idea since the story is set in 1968, long before Asperger Syndrome was known in the United States. He desires things to stay the same in his life, but has to face the sickness of his grandfather and the threat of the ultimate change, death. But there are funny moments and moments of great beauty in the main character, Jeffrey’s, simple rural life. Without giving away the ending, the book ultimately affirms meaning and transcendence in the face of a world that all too often changes for the worst. It is Southern fiction with Southern Gothic elements, literary and nonpreachy though Christian in world view, and valuing rural life without falling into sentimentality. I think it is a good read–it was the distillation of my heart, not my mind, going into the depths of the reasons I eventually became a philosopher through the main character I named for my twin brother who died two hours after he was born of pulmonary hemorrhage. When I wrote the first draft, it was as if I had been transferred to another world, living it, with my surroundings in my small room at the beautiful Weymouth Center disappearing and the world of Jeffrey’s childhood surrounding me. The editing later helped refine what had already been written from the heart. If you read it, you will discover it is a novel written from the heart in more ways than one. I am thankful to God that it has finally been published.

How Police Officers Should NOT Treat an Autistic Person

Leave a comment

Dallas Police Department (Texas)

Image via Wikipedia

At  http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2011/10/03/autistic-mans-acting-odd-lands-him-in-jail/ is a story that reveals the way police officers should not treat an autistic person. Police officers have a tough job, and they deal with the worst people in American society. It is not surprising, then, that they are cynical. Sometimes such cynicism is necessary and can save their lives. However, sometimes officers can become so cynical that they do not believe what anyone says, even an autistic person who informs the officers of his condition. If Mr. Blake did tell the officers that he had Autism (and Mr. Blake was wearing a medical alert bracelet), then they should have realized that they were not dealing with the usual troublesome drunk. If an officer did call Mr. Blake a liar, and this would not surprise me, then this was unprofessional conduct and is worthy of disciplinary action. One would think that after the Ryan Moats incident that Dallas police would have more common sense, but apparently these officers did not learn from their fired fellow officer’s mistakes. Do Dallas police get training in dealing with special classes of people, those who have Autism or Tourette’s Syndrome or other medical conditions that can cause behavioral problems? If so, the officers dealing with Mr. Blake apparently ignored their training, and they certainly lacked the virtue of prudence, the ability to adjust to particular circumstances in order to make the correct moral decision. Mr. Blake now sits holed up in his room, afraid a police officer will come after him.

Paul Craig Roberts has claimed that American police are frustrated with not being able to catch the real criminals, so they turn to intimidation and violence against law abiding citizens or those weaker and vulnerable. I do not believe that this is generally the case; officers do catch a significant number  of criminals who end up being convicted and sentenced to prison. There may be some officers who fall into the class to which Mr. Roberts refers. Part of the problem may be lowered police recruiting standards due to a dearth of qualified applicants. It becomes more difficult to weed out the smart-alack, power hungry,  searching for an adrenaline rush officers who cause many of the problems departments face. Funding difficulties may prevent courses on special needs individuals from being taught to officers, even at large police departments. I am sorry if police who may be reading this think I am being overly harsh; since I have Asperger’s Syndrome, I have particularly strong feelings about such incidents. There are times I will talk to myself in public, usually when I am reasoning out some problem to myself. Suppose someone complained about my behavior. Would I be dragged out of a place of business and arrested? I suppose incidents such as this one are understandable; Americans are overly rule-oriented and do not focus sufficiently on the ancient virtue or prudence, or practical reasoning (Aristotle’s phronesis). But a failure to recognize the unique nature of unique circumstances is a moral failure, not merely a technical failure, and that is what, in my judgment, occurred in the treatment of Mr. Blake.

Are Some Temptations Too Difficult to Bear?

Leave a comment

Orodruin ("Fiery Mountain")

Image by Richard Sugden Photography via Flickr

Is it possible to experience such a powerful temptation to evil that it is practically impossible to resist? St. Paul does not think so; in in I Corinthians 10:13 (KJV) he writes: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”

Normally I would accept such a statement as is–after all, St. Paul is in the canon of Scripture, and I am not. So what he says must be taken seriously. Some distinctions are necessary, however, before proceeding. First, what would it mean for a temptation to be “impossible to resist.” Possibilities include the following:

1. Temptations logically impossible to resist–This does not make sense, since whether a person resists or does not resist temptation is not a matter of logical necessity or logical impossibility–there is no logical contradiction to say, “No temptation is impossible to resist.” Nor is it a logical contradiction to say that “Some temptations are impossible to resist.” Logically these are contingent statements that may be either true or false.

2. Temptations naturally impossible to resist: This is not a likely interpretation either. Natural law may be involved if certain temptations are impossible to resist, but it is not the only or deciding factor.

3. Temptations practically impossible to resist: This is the most likely meaning of there being some temptations that a person cannot resist. Some have such power that no human being, short of Christ Himself, could resist them. Theoretically a person could, but de facto this is not practically possible. The issue arises of whether there are such temptations.

J. R. R. Tolkien believed that some temptations are practically impossible to resist. He says explicitly in his letters that Frodo Baggins could not have resisted the temptation of the Ring, and that some radically contingent act such as Gollum‘s cutting Frodo’s finger off and falling into Mt. Doom was the only way the Ring could be destroyed. Tolkien had no problem extending this reasoning to actually existing human beings as well. Thus, he did not agree with St. Paul on this issue. With deference to the authority of the Catholic Church if I am wrong, I must agree with Tolkien. There are some temptations which a person cannot practically bear. I will give some examples.

1. A person who has, but is unaware of, a strong genetic propensity to alcoholism takes a drink. He craves more, and figures another drink is okay. He continues to drink until he is thoroughly plastered. Now if he knew he had such a propensity, perhaps he would not have begun to drink in the first place. But it is, I would argue, practically impossible for him to stop drinking once he starts due to the strong craving his body has for the drink.

2. A married man meets a married woman. She is charming and manipulative, and he trusts her. She has an almost intuitive grasp of what he wants in a woman, and plays that particular role to perfection. He feels safe, figuring that they are both married. She, however, leads the man along slowly, flirting very little at first, but raising up the seduction level so slowly that the man does not notice the web being spun. How he should know better–but perhaps he has mild autism or Asperger’s Syndrome and does not read people well. He is drawn in and starts to have feelings for the woman, and she encourages those feelings, backing away when he gets scared. When she finally offers him her body, he finds he cannot resist the temptation.

Now there is no logical or physical impossibility to resisting these temptations. But I would argue that at a practical level, some people simply cannot resist them. Everyone has a particular issue concerning which they are tempted the most. With some people it is money; with others, power. Others may be tempted by sex; still others by envy or malice. Apart from a near supererogatory effort, the person cannot resist a strong temptation in his most vulnerable area of temptation. Now I am not tempted by money or power, but I have other areas in which I would be vulnerable, and in the right (or “wrong”!) combination of circumstances, it would be practically impossible for me to resist temptation–mea maxima culpa. The sin would still be my fault if I committed it, and I would blame myself and pray for forgiveness–even if a temptation were too hard to bear, I would still be responsible for the sin–there is no logical of physical necessity in my yielding. At a practical level, though, the difficulty in fighting off some temptations may be so high that it is practically impossible to resist such temptations. If someone yields to temptation in those situations, he should take responsibility, repent, and find strategies to avoid such temptations in the future. Human beings are “miserable sinners,” fallen creatures. The fact that with their damaged (but not destroyed) nature they are unable to resist every temptation to sin should be no  surprise.

Older Entries