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.