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.

On a the Publication of my Novel, END OF SUMMER

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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

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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.

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.

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