Sunday, March 16, 2008

Hyperfunctioning Neurotypicals

Very often people speak of the "autism spectrum".

The general notion is that both a little girl so intensely autistic that she nearly beats herself to death and someone, by some views, merely intensely eccentric suffer from different manifestations of the same condition.

Sometimes this is expressed as a line that extends from "low-functioning" to "high-functioning", with - if I understand it correctly - the lowest functioning being those utterly incapable of meaningful communication with speech, signing, or computers, and the higher functioning being individuals who can speak but would be utterly incapable of knowing what to do if a smoke alarm went off.

Now, suppose we extend this line. Suppose we extend this line through the "hopelessly average" - the ones called "neurotypical". Of course here we find people who CAN speak, CAN order food at McDonald's, CAN make eye contact, CAN make small talk, but - if you want to think about it this way - actually start to pick up some "deficits" - the inability to precisely remember long lists, for instance.

Now, suppose we extend this line even FURTHER. Of course this is a little difficult to get a handle on because, when contemplating autism issues one might speculate that if one has conquered the issues of Activities of Daily Living AND employment that one has "gotten to the finish line", but, just as one person can be hyperglycemic and another can be hypoglycemic, I'm wondering if one actually can go too far "the other way" on traits associated with autism.

Believe it or not, there is a group of people that come to mind.

What I'm thinking of course is that as we contemplate, say, one just starting to slip from "neurotypical" to "autistic" (and, unlike certain people, I DO believe this can happen in adolescence or adulthood), usually the first thing that starts to break down are issues associated with employability.

In other words a person can be PERFECTLY capable of driving a car, paying taxes, ordering food from a restaurant, making a speech in front of hundreds or thousands of people and yet be UTTERLY incapable of understanding or coping with the BIZARRELY complex set of relationships that go on particularly in a white-collar environment.

That being the case, in our quest for what might be the "opposite" of someone with low-functioning autism, we are possibly led not to the hopelessly average neurotypical, but rather a HYPERFUNCTIONING neurotypical - someone who does exceedingly well at the very first thing someone with an autism spectrum disorder would have trouble with - work issues.

Now who would be a candidate hyperfunctioning neurotypical? Well, of course someone who is exceedingly good at forming complex social relationships and good at making sickening amounts of money. Many sales managers come to mind as well, of course, as President Bush.

Now I got to thinking what's remarkable about these individuals is that they actually start to pick up some traits ordinarily associated with autism - communication issues for instance. They tend NOT to be terribly eloquent. They certainly have SEVERE issues working with the written language.

And yet somehow they are absolute masters of non-verbal communication. Somehow through a skillful combination of clothing and projectile vomiting, in their own choppy use of the English language, reactionary tripe that would make Hitler blush, they are able to pursuade anywhere from several hundred to several million people to give them hundreds of thousands to MILLIONS of dollars.

So perhaps, although the communication issue is generally the thing that "catches someone's attention" about autism, that may not it's most important trait at all.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, it is primarily an anxiety disorder that is just so intense that it causes communication issues ...

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At March 16, 2008 at 7:10 PM, Blogger AnneC said...

I wouldn't say autism is an "anxiety disorder". Autistic people can certainly be anxious, but you can't turn an anxious autistic into a nonautistic person by alleviating their anxiety. And not all autistic people are all that anxious to begin with. Etc.

Based on what I've read, heard, and experienced, I personally think that autistic brains are autistic because of very fundamental, deep-level perceptual and cognitive differences that exist due to physical differences in how parts of the brain are configured. And these differences in information-processing underly everything that is often considered an observable "feature" of autism. I think this actually provides us with a reasonable explanation as to why not all autistic people present the exact same way -- the underlying "autistic-ness" is there in all autistic people, but people are still individuals. I mean, you will certainly find extreme variation among nonautistic people whose brains fundamentally process information in very similar ways, and yet nobody seems to think this is particularly odd -- for some reason there's this weird assumption that autistic people are going to all be textbook entries when we're not, we're people.

I know we're not a different species or anything, but honestly that is actually the best analogy I can think of that correctly captures how autistic differences manifest. As in, yes, there's something "common" (something deeply ingrained and pervasive) among all autistics, the way "cat-ness" is deeply ingrained and pervasive in all cats, but it's still possible for us to vary widely in terms of what high-level skills and personality traits and such that we tend to present.

Also, with regard to the anxiety thing again: I've personally had a lot of trouble -- some of which actually put me in danger a few times -- as a result of people insisting to me that I was "just nervous" and that if only I could learn to relax, I would be able to do X, Y, or Z. I've learned a ton of "relaxation techniques" (deep breathing, meditation, etc.) and CAN actually relax when I want to, but relaxing does not magically grant me the ability to do things that I can't do for neurological or developmental reasons.

For example, I can't drive a car. I tried to learn to drive and practiced rather a lot, but it never got to the point where I could keep track of all the "proper" simultaneous variables, movements, and actions so as to allow for safe and effective driving. If I'd kept trying and trying to drive (out of a conviction that I was "just nervous" and that I "just needed to practice in order to gain confidence") it's possible that I'd be dead now, because of how bad I am at reacting to incoming data "appropriately" in real-time.

When I look out at the road when riding in a moving vehicle, I don't see "macro-objects" all relating to each other in particular ways -- I see things like letters and colors and leaves and shapes, and I can't sort out "on the fly" which things are connected to which other things, and which things I need to pay attention to in order to assure I can react safely to them. Heck, whenever I go to a new place it always feels like walking into a kaliedoscope and I tend to be really clumsy and confused until I get really familiar with where all the shapes and objects in the room are. And that has nothing to do with being anxious, and everything to do with my brain just taking in information in particular ways and at a particular speed.

At March 16, 2008 at 7:14 PM, Blogger AnneC said...

Oh, and related to my last point: when I was a child I actually thought that rearranging the furniture was "child abuse", and that it was something only a "crazy person" would ever do, because obviously all sane people would want the furniture to be in the exact same arrangement all the time.

It wasn't until I was much, much older that I learned that some (sane) people just rearranged furniture sometimes because they liked to.

At March 17, 2008 at 7:36 PM, Blogger Axinar said...

"... people insisting to me that I was 'just nervous' and that if only I could learn to relax, I would be able to do X, Y, or Z ..."

The anxiety, however, I would have to point out is one of the major features of my father's Asperger's and my "light smattering" of whatever it is that I have.

My dad, for instance, without any specific fear except that something is "out of order" will bloody well keep garbage cans in the house to make sure he will be able to get the trash out every week on schedule when it's icy outside.

Me - well of course I know "if you can just learn to relax" is something that is just about impossible to do.

However, let me tell you, in the right doses DEPAKOTE can calm you the f*ck down ... :)

I made it all the way to Florida on that.

I would have NEVER attempted such a thing straight ...


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