Autism?

By Shamus
on Jul 23, 2017
Filed under:
Personal

Back in October of last year this question arrived in the Diecast mailbag. A lot of people have asked me this same question over the years and so I figured it was probably worth answering. On the other hand it felt a little too long, involved, and focused-on-me for the podcast.

Dear Shamus,

As an autistic person myself, I couldn’t help but notice that the experiences you describe both on the diecast and in your life story series on the blog (especially regarding sensory rocessing disorder, such as your difficulty processing two auditory streams at once) are very similar to what is experienced by both myself and my neurosiblings in the autistic community. Have you ever considered whether you might be on the spectrum yourself, or possibly been evaluated as a child? (Autistic kids who learn to hide their symptoms to avoid bullying frequently slip through diagnosis.)

Edith

Edith is probably referring to the early chapters of the Autoblography. I won’t try to summarize all of that personal history here. If you’re curious, you’ll have to read the series. I certainly exhibited a lot of odd behaviors when I was young. And if I’m being honest, I’m still pretty eccentric at 45. In fact, there’s a lot of personal strangeness that I left out of the Autoblography because it would have taken too long to explain or would have been too personally embarrassing.

I began writing a response to Edith’s question months ago, but then forgot all about it until the topic popped up again on Twitter when someone said:

To which I responded:

On one hand, I know it’s really annoying when people go around diagnosing themselves with complex things that they don’t totally understand. On the other hand, when autistic people describe their struggles it sounds pretty familiar. So while I’m reluctant to go around claiming I was / am autistic, I can say fairly definitively that I had some sort of profound neurological dysfunction that greatly inhibited my social development. These days I would expect a kid behaving the way I did to end up diagnosed with something. My malfunctions were off-putting to the adults in my life and prevented me from forming stable relationships.

Whatever my problem is, I couldn’t have been diagnosed with autism because autism itself is a new-ish idea. Our current understanding of it didn’t solidify among academics until the 1970’s. Before this, it was lumped into schizophrenia, which seemed to be our catch-all term for “This person is strange and we don’t know why”. This was long before the internet, which means it took a couple of decades for that understanding to work its way out into the general public where it would be understood by parents and school systems. I didn’t hear the word “autism” until the 90’s or so, long after I’d become an adult.

I knew I was different, but I didn’t understand how I was different or where my problems came from. Just one example of countless memories in my life:

It was the last day of school and I found myself talking to the phys-ed instructor. She asked me, “What was your favorite part of the year?” I hesitated. Is she asking what is my favorite memory from the last 12 months? Is she asking what my favorite memory is since the turn of the year five months ago? Is she asking what my favorite memory is from this particular school year? Is she asking what’s my favorite memory from this school year, but limited to the events of her class? I have no idea what this person is asking. Terrified, I raced through all these possible interpretations of the question, trying to figure out which one she intended. I’d learned that people disapproved if I took too long to respond to a question, but I also hate having disastrous conversations where I misinterpret everything and cause confusion.

Just about any other kid would immediately understand what was going on here. It’s the last day of school, and looking back over the past school year is part of creating closure and determining which memories we’d like to preserve. Usually you didn’t need to ask people this question. People would reminisce without prompting. “Hey, remember that time in wood shop when Mike stuck a pencil in the band saw eraser-first and it flew halfway across the room? Remember when Janet was trying to open her pudding and the lid was stuck and when it came off she splattered it in her own face? Remember that one awesome fight between Big Chris and T-Bone?” This is a completely common ritual, and everyone understood it intuitively. It was never taught. The rules were never written down. Everyone knew how this ritual worked. Everyone but me.

Now, this moment alone wouldn’t be a big deal. Everyone has moments of embarrassment and awkwardness while growing up. But this sort of caught-in-the-headlights bafflement was part of my day-to-day.

Getting back to the Tweet that got me thinking about this again:

Theory of mind is the understanding that the people around you have their own beliefs, intents, desires, knowledge, and viewpoints. This awareness usually develops in early childhood. VSauce has a pretty good explanation of it in his video Is Your Red the Same as My Red? The classic experiment to test for it goes like this:

You’ve got a couple of dolls and you enact a scene for a small child. Let’s call the dolls Bert and Ernie. Bert and Ernie have (say) a fidget spinner. Bert places the fidget spinner in a toybox. Then Bert leaves the room. While he’s gone, Ernie moves the fidget spinner from the toybox to a desk drawer. Then Bert re-enters the scene and says he wants the toy. At this point you ask the child, “Where is Bert going to look for the toy?”

If the kid’s Theory of Mind hasn’t quite formed yet, then they will say Bert will look for the toy in the desk. The thing we’re trying to show here is that they haven’t quite gotten the idea that other people have access to different information, and that there are things Ernie knows that Bert does not. Theory of Mind typically forms at some point before age 5.

Having said all that, I don’t know that a lack of “theory of mind” is how I’d describe my particular dysfunction. I was pretty well aware that people around me were other minds with their own thoughts and ideas. In fact, I remember being sort of acutely aware of this because I was never able to figure out what in blazes they were thinking or what they wanted from me. I only had my own mind to use as a guide, and my own assumptions never matched what people were thinking. I wasn’t indifferent to other people. I remember really wanting to win the approval of others and the maddening sensation that I could never really pull it off. I remember the terror of being thrust into an unfamiliar social situation (a new group of people) and knowing I was going to be flying blind. I wouldn’t know who to avoid, or who might be “safe” to interact with. I wouldn’t have previous experience to draw from with the new group, so I knew I was going to make a bunch of mistakes and accrue a fresh load of embarrassing memories before I got the hang of them.

I didn’t know how to answer questions, I didn’t know how to smooth over hurt feelings, I didn’t know what other people would find funny, and very often people got angry with me for (from my viewpoint) no reason at all.

The older I got, the more sophisticated the expectations became. All I wanted to do was avoid scorn and disapproval, but the game was ramping up in difficulty faster than I could learn. At the same time, the cost of failure was becoming higher. As a child, having a teacher rebuke me and act like I was an idiot was terrible, but once I hit my teens I discovered it was nothing compared to a few cutting words from a pretty girl.

Maybe this inability to intuit the expectations of others is simply a milder version of the lack of ToM? Maybe it’s a totally different problem. It’s hard to say.

At age 19, it all clicked into place. I’m not sure what finally did it. Maybe it was because I’d graduated high school, and social interactions were less terrifying. Maybe some important part of my brain just developed really, really late. Maybe my various successes have given me confidence. Maybe I’m still the same sort of doofus, but out here in the real world this awkwardness is lovable instead of off-putting. The rigid conformity of school cultivates a really ugly sort of tribalism, and maybe getting away from that was all I needed.

But if I had to guess, I think I’d suggest that I was born with some part of my brain not working right. There’s some app that’s comes pre-installed for most people, but was missing for me. After years of practice, I managed to get the rest of my grey matter to pick up the slack. It’s like a computer without a graphics card. Yeah, you can put the rendering load on the CPU, but it’s going to be slow and put an incredible strain on the machine.

For example: Edith refers to the fact that I can only listen to one person talking at a time. If I’m on the phone and someone else walks up to me and tries to speak to me, I lock up. I try to listen to both people, fail, panic, and find myself unable to recollect what either one has said. I need to stop both conversations and make them take turns, even if if the second conversation is something simple like, “I’m going to the store, ask [the person on the phone] if they need me to get them anything.” Trying to listen to two people at the same time in a live conversationIf it’s a recording I’m fine. It’s not deciphering the words that puts pressure on me, it’s trying to balance the social expectations of two different people. creates a feeling of panic and frustration.

I suppose this is one of the reasons I enjoy this kind of writing. I can communicate with lots of people at once without getting overloaded, because the whole things runs asynchronously.

The thing is, before I was married I sort of assumed everyone felt this way about being interrupted on the phone and so people interrupting me were just being thoughtless assholes. It wasn’t until I observed my wife negotiate two different simultaneous conversations involving three people on two unrelated topics that I realized there was something “wrong” with me. It’s not just that she can do it, it’s that it’s not even a big deal to her. It’s so natural for her that she found my frustration and annoyance to be completely inexplicable.

Brains are funny. I don’t know how mine would have been diagnosed If I’d been born 20 years later, but I’m glad I’m out of those rough years now.

Enjoyed this post? Please share!

Footnotes:

[1] If it’s a recording I’m fine. It’s not deciphering the words that puts pressure on me, it’s trying to balance the social expectations of two different people.


A Hundred!2015There are 135 comments here. I really hope you like reading.

From the Archives:

  1. Yerushalmi says:

    She asked me, “What was your favorite part of the year?” I hesitated. Is she asking what is my favorite memory from the last 12 months? Is she asking what my favorite memory is since the turn of the year five months ago? Is she asking what my favorite memory is from this particular school year? Is she asking what’s my favorite memory from this school year, but limited to the events of her class? I have no idea what this person is asking.

    Having the same sort of experiences myself, my way of dealing with it quickly became asking, “What do you mean?” and then running through the possibilities. I had, and still have, absolutely no shame in this regard.

    It can piss people off, but serves me really really well in my current job as a technical writer.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      I hate small talk like that and Ive learned to just say something just as empty.Its annoying,but its easier and faster to brush it off than to engage into something more involved.

      • Abnaxis says:

        Depends on the small talk, to me. If it’s something specific, like “doesn’t that piece of furniture look funny?” where you can have a detailed–if pointless–conversation about it I’m game. If it’s “how do you like it here?” (a minefield of a question if I’ve ever heard one, yet it’s the one I get subjected to most often) I hate it.

        • TheJungerLudendorff says:

          Same with me. Those kinds of super broad questions just confuse me, so I just ask them to clarify their question. Otherwise I can spend the next half hour thinking up all the possible choices, getting swamped with possibilities, forgetting most of them, and starting over again until the other person loses their patience.

          • Syal says:

            The answer to “how do you like it here” is always “it needs more cowbell”.

            Works for other broad questions too. “Any plans for the weekend?” “It needs more cowbell.”

            • TheJungerLudendorff says:

              “Was the meal to your statisfaction?” “It needs more cowbell.”

            • Ander says:

              “What are you planning to do after high school/college/grad school?”

              Although it totally works with the question, “What did you think of high school/college/grad school?”

            • Mephane says:

              Or how about one of the broadest and also most intrusive questions ever:

              What are you thinking about right now?

              The chance is at any moment that what I am thinking is either not in any sufficiently coherent form for me to articulate, not worth the effort making it coherent enough to articulate, a transient thought that will be lost in the very process of trying to articulate it, multiple of such incoherent thoughts at the same time, something I may not wish to articulate, or any combination thereof.

              And thus the usual response is “ah, nothing” as a short hand for the above paragraph.

              • Geebs says:

                There’s one very specific situation in which people seem to love to ask that particular question, one in which one of two people is usually very awake and the other is usually very sleepy. In the past I’ve had to describe what I was thinking as that prolonged beep that you used to have playing when the TV channel switched off for the night.

                For the benefit of people who, like me, are prone to taking things literally when they’re meant to be figurative (probably similarly gender related), the correct thing to do is come up with something supportive and comforting and not actually explain that your mind has suddenly become perfectly blank.

    • evileeyore says:

      “Having the same sort of experiences myself, my way of dealing with it quickly became asking, “What do you mean?” and then running through the possibilities. I had, and still have, absolutely no shame in this regard.”

      Ditto. In my case I’m on the sociopath spectrum and have no shame reflex what-so-ever. It took a long time to understand that that was considered “wrong” and develop the corresponding rule codes to at least not do things the wrong people would find shameful.

    • Lanthanide says:

      As a developer who has periodic contact with technical writers, I’d say that asking “what do you mean” and listing options is a key skill for your job, because the average developer is pretty poor with documentation and explaining concepts.

  2. Inwoods says:

    Thanks for sharing.

    What you said about social pressure resonates with me (I’m not sure I’m autistic, but in-laws have said they thought so.) As a particular example, I have never been able to write thank-you notes. It’s not that I can’t write things by hand (the expected way of the thank-you note) as adults were assuming. It’s just the thought of contacting so many people through this social ritual where you can’t tell how they are going to respond is terrifying.

    I like to thank in person, or in a way close to real time dialogue can be established, but I HATE notes. They terrify me.

    • Droid says:

      Same with me for e-mails, specifically.

    • Me too!!!! I HATE thank you notes. I aht rituals like that anyway, but to spend time and energy writing something that will very likely be tossed in the trash is even worse and then not knowing their response or which things I should say I liked more or what they cared about or if they even remember what they bought and AAAAHHHHH!!!

      And yes, I am very likely on the spectrum, as is my brother and my dad (not diagnosed because old but yes, definitely there. and as a former special ed teacher I can honestly say all three of our kids are definitely though since we homeschooled in our own special way we had no need for official diagnosis).

      • Fade2Gray says:

        Yeah… thank you notes aren’t much fun for me either, but what really gets to me are the various “Congratulations” & “Get well soon” type cards I often have to fill out at work (which everyone in the office will see). I hate writing empty comments, but I also struggle to think of anything meaningful to write that won’t embarrass me or trip over some social taboo.

  3. mookers says:

    So much of this speaks to me too. I don’t know when I learned how to interact with people “properly” but my childhood felt very similar. And to this day (I think I am exactly a year older than Shamus) I still exhibit weird spectrum-like behaviours that amuse and annoy the people around me, like fidgeting, repeated scratching or stroking of interesting tactile surfaces, and repeating vocalisations (though not quite echolalia since mine are conscious and I can easily stop them).

    Somehow along the way I have managed to become quite a social and empathetic person, and I am somewhat baffled by this.

    • Ronixis says:

      What people mean by ’empathy’ can get somewhat confusing. There’s ‘understanding what other people are feeling’ and ‘caring about what other people are feeling’, two separate things both often called ’empathy’. Being autistic is typically associated with having issues with the first, but not separate issues with the second (that is, one may be less able to figure out how other people are thinking, but not less likely to care once it’s figured out).

      • hewhosaysfish says:

        I think that technically one of those is “empathy” and the other is “sympathy” but I can never remember which is which without checking a dictionary.

        • Mousazz says:

          I guess one way to remember would be the fact that “sympathy” is opposite of “schadenfreude”, both of which start with the ‘s’ letter (but not the sound, unfortunately).

          Of course, first you have to know what the latter term means…

        • krellen says:

          Sympathy goes with simpatico goes with simultaneous – it’s a together thing. That’s the caring about others feeling.

  4. Emilio Manolidis says:

    Haha I have the exact same thing with the phone and people. Also when talking to the phone with people I am not really comfortable with, I tend to roam around the house as if being hunted.

    No autism though, which is a shame, since it’s so “in” on the Internets these years…

    • Echo Tango says:

      When I was a kid, I also roamed the house while on the phone. As an adult, the thing that lasted after that went away, was an inability to focus on two people in conversation at once. Similarly, I can’t both look at something complex and listen to something complex being described, because I’m an intensely visual thinker. I’ll turn my head downwards in technical discussions, and when driving will need to pause the conversation when doing anything more complex than going straight. It’s part of why I like electronic music so much – I don’t explicitly care about the beeps and boops, as much as I prefer music without lyrics, so I can concentrate on other things.

    • Abnaxis says:

      I absolutely cannot track two sets of words, whether it’s written words or spoken, at the same time. I can’t listen to a lecture and take notes–I just listen very closely and hope the notes are in a book/slides somewhere. I always try to sit at the edge of a group of people a any sort of lunch/dinner gathering, because if there are two conversations in my vicinity I can’t deal with it. People constantly think I’m rude when they try to tell me something and I don’t even know they’re in the room because I’m reading something.

      I try, I really do, but damn it’s hard.

      • I know there’s been some research (sorry no idea where or when I read this) that suggests that many people just write down the words without actually processing/listening to them. In one ear, out the fingers sort of thing.

        My brain thinks in words (I can think in pictures but I have to consciously focus on doing so), and I have ADD (or is it inattentive ADHD now? I forget and you know what I mean anyway hopefully). I have to be taking notes/doodling/knitting/driving to focus on lectures or meetings or podcasts. My brain does not deal well with only one stream of input, which might be why I hate the phone but love conversations in person.

        I do find taking notes in a discussion situation where I’m also supposed to be actively participating near impossible though. I have issues with finding my own words when I’m paying attention to others words and writing down a subset of their words that will still make sense later. I also hate large group conversations or noisy situations, but that’s a may be going deaf and can’t hear people well enough problem, not a focus one.

        • I have the opposite problem. I am almost 100% visual, so listening means thinking about the words, making images out of them so I can comprehend what is said and then turning them into words to be written. Which means notetaking never actually worked for me.

        • MichaelG says:

          Can you use a dictation program? There’s something about trying to compose written text, read it, and talk at the same time that just doesn’t work for me.

        • DivFord says:

          A lot of simultaneous interpreters say they remember practically nothing about what they interpret. It’s the same principle, if you output while input is coming in, you don’t store it.

        • Vivi says:

          “I know there’s been some research (sorry no idea where or when I read this) that suggests that many people just write down the words without actually processing/listening to them. In one ear, out the fingers sort of thing.”

          That makes intuitive sense to me. I can read and take notes (not at exactly the same time, though – I suck at typing blind, even though I once took a course that insisted on it), I can (less well, but good enough for college) listen and take notes, but I cannot listen and read simultaneously, since both are imput type tasks apparently requiring different parts of the brain. I once even told off one of my highschool teachers in sheer annoyance because he asked us to read a text but then wouldn’t stop talking.

          I’ve also noticed that I can’t process two different languages at the same time, even if I’m absolutely fluent in both and they are closely related. Like, if I watch a TV show in English, but then a character throws in a sentence in my native language (German), I have to go back and listen to the line again before I actually register the content – even if the pronounciation is quite good or it was a native speaker actor. similar problems crop up if I download English voice acting files (German dubs of older games are usually crap) for a game I once bought in German (so the dialogue writing is in German) – it just gives me a headache and prevents me from processing either. I can only guess that native language and learned languages are processed in different parts of the brain (even though I actually spend more time reading/writing/listening/thinking in English now than I do in my native language), and the body can only supply one area at a time with oxygen, or something like that.
          On the other hand, I know a lot of bilingual people can shift languages mid-sentence, so maybe it’s just a failing in my brain. Though I think most of the people who shift easily are people who had to learn two languages very early in life, like the kids of immigrants who have to use a different language in school than at home. which seems more like there’s a window in the brain development before the processing areas for different input streams get “walled off”. Perhaps it’s similar for handling simultanous input from several sources – if you have to learn it early (like listening to the TV and your parents at the same time; or having many children around you as a small child all day in daycare), then you do develop the ability. If you don’t ever need to, then you don’t.

  5. Edith says:

    Oh hey, I was wondering if you ever saw this question. Thanks for taking the time to answer me.

    For what it’s worth, I think self-diagnosis is useful. Diagnosis is not always about getting help from doctors, though in the case of autism there’s nothing doctors can really do about it anyway. There’s power in giving something a name, and in finding people with the same struggles you have. Gatekeeping self-diagnosers out of the community means leaving this power entirely in the hands of social workers and psychologists who are demonstrably biased by their own prejudices and don’t have our best interests at heart.

    I’m not gonna demand that you identify as autistic. Whether that word gives you strength is entirely up to you to decide for yourself. I just wanted to tell you that you don’t need a doctor’s note. You don’t need your personal experiences to match those of others 100% (it’s a spectrum, after all). You don’t even need to be 100% certain, you can always drop it later if you decide it’s not working out. You’re never too young or too old to learn something new about yourself and begin exploring it.

    The door is open. It’ll always be open.

    • Droid says:

      Just about every real diagnosis starts as a self-diagnosis. “My hand bleeds because I cut it. I will go to the hospital to get it stitched back together.”, “I have a really nasty cough and my lungs hurt with every breath I take. I will go to my doctor.”, etc.
      Unless you literally pass out in public (House MD style) or are otherwise “forced” into clinical observation, it’s always you who does the first step, by deciding that what currently bothers you is not just a bit of aching shoulder because of a strong draft you can’t remember anymore or a normal effect of sunburn even though you haven’t been in the sun a lot lately.
      On the flipside, you can also run around with cancer or a nonsymptomatic heart attack and not get diagnosed until years later.

      My point is, doctors might hate self-diagnosis, because it usually means us trying to convince them that their treatment is worse than something we don’t really understand. But they usually see it as a necessary evil, nonetheless. They just don’t want it to interfere with their treatment.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        Just about every real diagnosis starts as a self-diagnosis

        Theres a difference though between “Something is weird with my vision,I should ask the doctor to check it out” and “Oh god,I have eye cancer!Doctor,tell me that I have eye cancer!!”.Doctors are annoyed by the later,but they do encourage the former.

        • Droid says:

          I wouldn’t call the latter self-diagnosis but rather stubbornness and distrust.

          • Zak McKracken says:

            The former is having a problem and requesting a diagnosis, the latter is coming up with one yourself and telling your doctor.

            “Diagnosis” is not figuring out that something is wrong, it is figuring out what it is and why.

            That said: If you come to a doctor and tell them that you think you’ve probably got cancer because your symptoms are similar to something you’ve seen in some book, they will probably not be annoyed at all and take it proper serious. I still like to keep my own diagnosis to myself, though, in order to not bias the doctor’s conclusion. I usually whait until they have an idea, then ask about the thing I was suspecting. If someone else independently comes to the same conclusion as me, that’s a nice confirmation, and if they have a different one, that often results in a nice explanation from the doctor explaining the differences between the thing I have and the thing I thought I had — or more investigations from the doctor just to be sure.

            • TheJungerLudendorff says:

              Agreed. Most doctor’s I’ve met don’t mind if you give them your own opinion of what may be wrong with you. It can sometimes reveal more information, and if you are wrong it’s good to be correct you before starting a proper treatment.

              It’s when you try to override THEIR diagnosis with your laymans opinion that docters get annoyed.

              • Geebs says:

                If your doctor doesn’t respect your opinion on what might be wrong with you (doesn’t mean that they have to agree…), go find another doctor because they’re no good.

                Self-diagnosis is fine, but what people should avoid doing is looking up the symptoms of what they think they have, and editing their story to leave our information that doesn’t fit the pattern. Most decent diagnosticians can tell the difference between two diagnoses which might appear broadly similar in their symptoms, and should also be able to tell when the patient’s symptoms are actually the result of two or more coexisting diagnoses, rather than forming a single clinical syndrome.

                Basically doctors want your story straight and unfiltered, and while a good one will entertain your diagnosis, it’s often unproductive to narrow down to a specific cause too early and might result in a more important condition being missed.

                As far as mental health is concerned, one really shouldn’t try to self-diagnose (because if you are genuinely ill you may not have insight), and one definitely, certainly, absolutely shouldn’t ever try to diagnose somebody else over the Internet.

            • Abnaxis says:

              You seem to be talking of different degrees of specificity.

              “Diagnosis” is figuring what’s wrong and why. Drilling down a problem far enough to give it a name and a corrective course of action might best be done by a professional, but even the sort of rudimentary “is this bad enough to bother with a doctor or can I just tough it out?” issue is in itself a rudimentary sort of diagnosis. This is where resources that can tell you “if you have these symptoms it could be serious go see a doctor” help–they allow you to accurately perform that basic self-diagnosis, and give you a better idea what questions to ask in the exam room to get the most out of the five minutes tops you’ll get with the doctor.

              • Matt Downie says:

                Isn’t “how serious is this?” more of a prognosis than a diagnosis?

                • Abnaxis says:

                  Not necessarily. The whole reason why it’s called the “autism spectrum” now instead of of being grouped into eight different disorders is because a disorder will have a different diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment plan based on how severe the disease is even if the root cause is the same–and doctors used to treat autism no differently in that regard. For example, there’s a difference between (say) and infection and an antibacterial resistant infection, which requires diagnosis to determine. As far as I understand, diagnosis is what you do to figure out what treatment course to take, prognosis is what you do to set expectations for how that treatment is going to go.

                  When you get sick (or at least when I get sick), you have to decide whether you’re actually “just not feeling well” or “I need a doctor for this.” Since you’re determining your corrective actions to treat yourself or not based on your symptoms, I would call that a diagnosis.

        • evileeyore says:

          Likewise there is a vast world of difference between “I don’t understand people as easily as everyone around me seems to, I should see a doctor and learn how to cope/manage this” and “I couldn’t understand the emotional context in the last convo I had I MUST BE AUTISTIC! PITY ME/EXCUSE ALL MY BAD BEHAVIOR!”

          It’s the last part of the second one that has me knee-jerkingly rolling my eyes at the self-diagnosed.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      For what it’s worth, I think self-diagnosis is useful.

      As someone who had to calm down a panicking hypochondriac on numerous occasions,I disagree.If you think that something is wrong with you and that you need help,definitely seek it.But dont form a theory based on your(or someone elses)uneducated expectation and demand a confirmation of it.Not only is it annoying,it can be actually harmful.Nocebo effect is real and your wrong diagnosis will harm you sooner than help you.

      • Bloodsquirrel says:

        Mental health is not only something that you don’t want to try to diagnose as an armature, but even trained professionals shouldn’t be trying to diagnose themselves. An accurate diagnosis requires, at bare minimum, an understanding of how a person’s mind “should” work, and something suffering from an inability to understand the behaviors of others is fundamentally unsuited to do that. A licensed professional would probably have picked up on “can’t talk to two people at once” as a symptom right away. Shamus didn’t until he was married.

        Right now “the spectrum” is trending, which means it’s probably the first thing anyone self-diagnosing is going to jump on. And here’s exactly why that’s dangerous, in your own words:

        >though in the case of autism there’s nothing doctors can really do about it anyway

        Well, what if you *aren’t* autistic? You’ve just walled yourself off from potential sources of help because you’ve misdiagnosed yourself.

        • TheJungerLudendorff says:

          By all mean diagnose yourself and see a professional to confirm it and get treatment.

          But if the proffesional tell you that your diagnosis is wrong, and that you have a different affliction (or none at all), take them seriously and don’t just try to force your own opinion through.

      • Grampy_bone says:

        When I was younger someone told me about Asperger’s syndrome and suggested I look into it. I read about it and thought it sounded pretty accurate. Then, funnily enough, I wound up on the Encyclopedia Dramatica article making fun of people with self-diagnosed Aspergers. That was a good reality check that prevented me from adopting pathological ideas and self-limiting behaviors. I’m glad I did because I’d probably be in a very different place otherwise.

        So yeah, I think ED saved my life in a weird way.

        • Zak McKracken says:

          I guess the trick is not to trust the self-diagnosis too much.
          If you believe you have something that could be cured by eating lots of (say) broccoli, then you can try eating lots of broccoli for a while, see if you get better and there’s no harm if you got it wrong (except maybe an attachment/inforced dislike of broccoli).

          If, on the other hand, the conclusion is to do something that could be harmful unless the diagnosis is correct (taking medication with side-effects, or the self-limiting behaviour you mentioned) — that’s quite a different thing.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      Hmm… self-diagnosing may be helpful in the sense that you can try whether certain things which help people on the autistic spectrum also help you.

      It won’t help much if you need something to tell your employer, to get them to maybe avoid putting you in certain situations or such.

      And it may be bad if it leads to a non-autistic person actively believing they can’t do something, then teach themselves they could not do it, and in the end lose the ablity to do said that thing.

      So, really it depends on how much trust you put in your own diagnosis.

      To wit: I’ve had a suspicion for a while that I may be somewhere on the lower end of the spectrum, but I’m not going to make any sort of radical change until I have an expert’s opinion on this. Once I have, though, I’m certainly also not going to just accept whatever medical treatment psychiatrists may suggest these days. I don’t want to be assimilated, I’d just like to develop coping strategies, and to let the people around me know that some of the things that have been causing problems are not quite under my control.

      • krellen says:

        This is from talking with diagnosticians and clinic workers who worked with autism because I was their IT support for seven years, but those on the spectrum who have few problems and are easily able to conceal their atypical thought processes are high on the spectrum; those low on the spectrum are often non-verbal.

    • “Diagnosis is not always about getting help from doctors, though in the case of autism there’s nothing doctors can really do about it anyway. “

      A doctor or therapist should be able to help you, not with pills, but with workarounds and stuff like that, shouldn’t they? Help you play to your strengths where you can, that sort of thing? My shrink does that with my ADD/depression/chronic pain/anxiety.

      • Zak McKracken says:

        Seconded.

        I suppose it depends on the kind of doctor you have access to (which in turn depends on where you live, what kind of insurance you get/afford there, and which individual doctors you’ve encountered. But still I see no downside to having a professional confirm the diagnosis. It removes that element of self-doubt you’d otherwise always carry with you. I know that in some places/institutions the standard treatment is indeed “give them pills until they behave “normal” (vor various definitions of “normal), but my impression was that large parts of the profession have mostly abandoned or at least softened that approach, in favour of helping people to live with the condition rather than attempting to remove it.

    • MrJackSmash says:

      Both you and Shamus sound more akin to aspergers than traditional autism. Neither of you “lack” a form or function of the brain, simply that yours acts differently. It’s a bit dated but worth a look to see if it correlates. Aspergers: lesser knownfacts.

    • Cybron says:

      I have to disagree. There’s a number of reason it’s not considered appropriate to self diagnose this sort of thing. Autism has a certain degree of overlap with more mundane social problems. For a while, in certain online communities it was very fashionable to self-diagnose autism as a way of excusing introversion or just plain social malfunction.

      It’s also not particularly easy for untrained persons to distinguish between autism and poor social development. When I was young, My parents sent me to a therapist for social difficulties I was having. A few meetings in she said that I might have autism, and it would be worth sending me to a specialist. We never did, which is fine because as it turns out I did not have autism. My point is that even someone trained in the field (if not in autism specifically) can have difficulty making that diagnosis. I’m always fairly skeptical of self-diagnosis for this reason.

    • Vivi says:

      “There’s power in giving something a name, and in finding people with the same struggles you have.”

      So much word to this. I’m not on the autism spectrum (at least I don’t think I am), but I felt the same way when I finally found out (age 27) that asexuality is something that exists and affects other people with a similarly ‘weird’ perspective on life and human interaction as me. That it’s not being ‘broken’ or some sort of personal failing, but just a different way of being human. And my depression and social anxiety may only be self-diagnosed (can’t afford treatment anyway…), but having a word for it already helps quite a lot.

    • Brandon says:

      I think self-awareness is great, but self-diagnosis is only so helpful. I say this because Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders are defined by a rather specific set of clinical observations. Otherwise neurotypical people may indeed have quirks that feel VERY autistic based on what we read about autism. I have a number of social quirks that can make some social interactions very uncomfortable, but I am rather certain I am not on the spectrum, and that’s because being officially on the spectrum requires something of a critical mass of issues in severity such that they cause lifestyle impairment. In the case of Shamus, he may indeed be on the spectrum, because those issues are quite prominent. But on the other hand, I only know what Shamus shares on his blog. It may be in a formal diagnostic setting he may prove not to be on the spectrum despite having some distinct characteristics.

      Now, those of use who have issues that seem autism-like may indeed benefit from knowing more about autism and how ASD-sufferers cope with some of the challenges they face. We may be able to incorporate coping mechanisms into our own lives in very helpful ways. But self-diagnosis may also prevent us from discovering even more helpful coping behaviors that an actual trip to a counselor and a proper diagnosis might provide. Just because I’m not on the spectrum doesn’t mean I don’t have stuff going on, and what’s going on might actually be something that is diagnosable, but not in the way I suspect. There may be ways to improve our lives that we’re totally missing out on because we’re focusing on the wrong aspects of our challenges.

  6. BenD says:

    Knowing all else we do about you (you’re a polymath, a self-teacher, a high-end analyser of human behavior, etc.) you have always seemed to me to fall in the Asperger’s area of the spectrum. I hesitate to commit more to that than this because of lack of expertise in the subject, but I’m offering this thought as a result of being myself amateur-diagnosed by people who probably know what they’re talking about (educators who work with plenty of teens on the spectrum, though this is stretched to apply to us adults in their 40s). Like you I’m too old to have a formal diagnosis because when I was a kid this wasn’t a thing. The spectrum of non-neurotypicalness is pretty vast and understudied, though, so maybe when we’re another 40 years older we’ll find out that we actually fall into some other category.

    • BenD says:

      I want to add that I see a lot of folks saying amateur diagnosis could be harmful. I can see some reason in that, though not nearly enough to outweigh the value of coming to terms personally with being (at least) atypical.

      But I also see a couple of comments that seem to suggest that this topic should be left entirely to “the experts”. To that I want to point to my remark above about non-neurotypical conditions being understudied. People are mistreating autism using ADD drugs and restraint methods right this minute. The experts aren’t – not yet. Apply numerous grains of salt.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        Sure,but when dealing with the unknown,who is more likely to stumble upon a correct answer:An expert in the field or someone who is not?

        For example,a few years back my father had a problem with triglycerides in his blood.His doctor gave him one drug,but told him to watch for some specific side effects that can happen to a small number of people who are using it.So when my father spotted those side effects,he immediately stopped with that drug,as he was told,and went back to the doctor who gave him a different one that worked like a charm.But imagine if instead he listened to an advice of someone on the web who also had a similar problem yet was helped by the first drug without a problem.My father would have gone with that,disregarded the mild problems,and ended up with something more severe than he had suffered before.

        And sure,incompetence and corruption are a problem in medicine,just like in any field where humans work.But the answer to that is not to self diagnose,but rather to dig around for a doctor who is well regarded as a good one by both their patients and their colleagues.

        • TheJungerLudendorff says:

          I think that the problem is less that people self-diagnose, and more that they refuse to listen to the experts because they’re convinced they know better.

          • Bloodsquirrel says:

            It’s also that people are using self-diagnosis as a shortcut, both as a shortcut around genuine introspection, and as an excuse for bad behavior.

            “I’ve diagnosed as PTSD, so now I think it’s entire appropriate to claim that something that makes me mildly uncomfortable is a trigger and it excuses me screaming at you.”

            • BenD says:

              I’m sorry you’ve been subjected to bad behavior attached to names for various conditions by way of attempted excuse. This does tend to sour people and reduce kindness overall.

        • BenD says:

          In general I agree. What concerns me in the specific case of the autism spectrum is that most diagnoses aren’t terribly physical or chemical. It’s mostly a set of observations. So even from an expert it’s not a perfect science and even the best of therapies can be fraught with inaccuracies.

          To speak to your anecdote, there’s also a difference between self-diagnosis and self-medication. Ideally people should resist jumping from one to the other! (And I hope your father is doing well.)

  7. This post really hits home for me. I am only a few years younger than Shamus and his blogography always felt like reading the story of the brother I never knew.

    I studied fine art in college, specializing in oil painting portraits. (This seemed worthwhile in those days before the internet). I can’t remember “symbolic” things like people’s names very well, but I am fascinated by faces. I am extremely sensitive/insightful to people’s emotions, but I can’t “read between the lines” while speaking to people and tend to take everything they say at face value. I enjoy social interaction but prefer to have some structure there and not more than 3-5 people. Board games and role playing games turn out to be the ideal way to hang out with people. Like Shamus, I can’t listen to two conversations at once and succeed in communication or thought. Other things in my brain also made life complicated. (like, I avoid commenting on Shamus blog even though I have been lurking here since Oct 17, 2006, because I have no way to judge how people will respond to my comments.)

    I fell into teaching by accident and without much training, but the classroom is also a good place to interact with people because everyone has defined roles to play. I’m good at breaking things down into steps and explaining them. I got into teaching English as a second language while living in China and slowly added training as I decided I wanted to remain as a teacher.

    All my life I just thought I was “weird.”

    This year I got my first job teaching high school art after doing teacher certification courses at night while teaching ESL and Mandarin at a high school during the day. A year ago, I got my art teaching job at a high school and I couldn’t have been happier. But the year did not go well because the administrators did not have the ability to tell me clearly what they expected from my program, and I took silence as the freedom to follow my own goals for our program (which has struggled as I am the 3rd teacher in that position in 5 years).

    Our school was a full inclusion school which let me see for the first time the learning styles of kids on the autism spectrum and others. While researching autism to help me communicate with 5 or 6 of my students, I realized I am probably on the spectrum too, but found out there is no way to diagnose adults. My understanding of my likely position on the autism spectrum blossomed as my job crumbled. Now they have their 4th teacher in 6 years and I am looking for a new job. But I now know I need to be much more pro-active in communication when my supervisors are not communicating.

    More people need to be made aware of this. Autism runs in families and I suspect my mom and brother are on the spectrum too, but they won’t hear discussion of it.

    Thanks for this, guys.

    • Droid says:

      Thank you, too, for sharing this. I know this feeling of anxiety that comes from writing something because you cannot judge the other person’s reaction, and have no way to sort out any misunderstanding that might arise.

      From personal experience, though, I’d say Shamus’ blog is as good as it gets on that front.

  8. Daimbert says:

    I actually started looking into autism while doing my Philosophy degrees because of a perceived relation between it and emotions/logical reasoning, which as someone who was interested in Stoic philosophy fit right into what I was doing. One of the noted characteristics was not being good at empathy, which means here KNOWING what other people are feeling. Note that this DOESN’T mean that they don’t CARE about what other people are feeling, which distinguishes them from psychopaths, who generally tend to not care about what other people are feeling but because they are good at manipulating people are likely pretty good at knowing what people are and will feel. One thing that was noted in one study is that while for those who are not autistic there is no correlation between IQ and their ability to predict the emotions of others for autistics there definitely is: the higher the IQ, the better they were at predicting those emotions (although they still had flaws). At the time I was looking into that, I was looking at the differences between simulation theory and theory-theory notions of “mind-reading” — ie figuring out what others were thinking — and my hypothesis was that those who were not autistic mostly simulate, and so get emotions along with that, while those who were autistic tended to try to reason that out, explaining why they tend to get it wrong. This fits in with the fact that autistics tend to have mirror neuron deficiencies which seem to be involved in simulation AND tend to not engage in pretend play, as well as the fact that they tend to not allow for exceptions to rules, even when talking about morality.

    The problem is that we don’t teach social skills through rules. We expect people to “put themselves in other people’s shoes” and learn that way. For autistics, this is quite difficult, and is also difficult for anyone who is eccentric and so doesn’t react the same way most other people do where that sort of thing requires fairly complicated reworking of the initial scenario. It’s also quite possible that very high IQ — at least those who have a high “reasoning” IQ — will have more success, at least early in life, and so develop that more so that their ability to simulate becomes weaker, causing problems later.

    I found that for myself learning rules that I could apply worked wonders, especially for common, every day situations. But, again, that’s not what we generally do.

    The problem, of course, that similar issues could arise from a number of conditions. For example, if someone is a bit eccentric and fails early at simulation and gets very humiliated by it, they might develop strong social anxiety, and that might make them want to make sure that they KNOW what the right thing is, causing them to ignore their instincts even when they are right. For you, that might be a big part of your problem, that went away later when the social consequences were at least seen to be less of an issue for you.

    For me, I have some autistic traits but again a lot of that could follow from other things, like having an exceedingly high reasoning IQ and no visualization skills (which would explain why I fail at conservation tasks). It hasn’t been an issue for me so I see no real reason to pursue it.

    • Alrenous says:

      There’s a useful distinction, poorly popularized, between cognitive empathy and affective empathy.

      • Daimbert says:

        I used that to make a distinction between autistics — who seem to be able to be moral and in fact learn the difference between moral rules and conventional rules — and psychopaths — who don’t — in an essay I wrote (which is on my blog). But there are potentially three categories: a) knowing what people feel, b) FEELING what people feel and c) CARING about what people feel. Autistics tend to have c) and sometimes can get a), psychopaths definitely have a) and lack c), and most other people seem to have b) and get a) and c) from that.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          psychopaths definitely have a) and lack c)

          Do they have a?Or do some of them learn it through life?

          • Daimbert says:

            I’m not talking about the innate ability here, just the actual presence of true beliefs about what other people are feeling. The ability of psychopaths to manipulate people suggests that they at least have knowledge, but it’s debatable whether they actually have b) and so get it that way.

            • Vivi says:

              They can’t have b. The whole point of antisocial personality disorder is that these people have nothing stopping them from harming others (except maybe fear of the punishment if their crime is discovered) – non-neurotypical states are only ever labeled a “disorder” if they cause suffering for the patient (which APD / ‘psychopathy’ normally doesn’t, hence why it’s incurable – the patient sees no real reason to change) or if they cause the patient to harm other people. If a non-psychopathic person harms someone else while being able to see that person suffering, they will share at least part of that suffering. (Well, at least if the victim is fairly similar to the perpetrator, or higher on the social ladder and therefore someone they WANT to identify with. It’s distressingly easy to induce selective psychopathy in an otherwise normal human being, just by othering / dehumanizing the prospective victim. That’s what racist polemics, homophobic stereotypes, “the feminine mystique” type sexism, classist terms like “unwashed rabble”, and basic military training are all about. Us vs. Them thinking is unfortunately hard-wired into our brains, you just have to input an arbirtary definition of “Them”.) Anyway, if the perpetrator shares the suffering of the victim, then they can’t bear to go on making them suffer. Anyone can shoot someone in an unplanned moment of fear/anger, but only a psychopath can go through the long time it takes to rape or torture someone else without starting to feel really bad about it. People always assume psychopathy/sociopathy/APD is rare – it’s not. I read once that half of the male U.S. prison population incarcerated for violent crimes gets diagnosed with APD once a psychologist bothers to take a look at them. And all of the incarcerated serial rapists. (One hopes that the statistical 5% of the U.S. cis-male population who have sexually assaulted someone, and the about 10% who according to anonymous polling studies would, if they could get away with it (IIRC 8% in a 1980s college student study; 11% among Navy cadets in a newer study, though I forget when exactly it was conducted), are not all psychopaths, but rather just the result of a lifetime of being taught that they’re not supposed to understand / empathize with women. A notion they are hopefully disabused of during their first assault, which would result in not doing it again. Unless they purposefully prevent their sense of empathy from kicking in by assaulting someone who’s unconscious and thus unable to emote, of course.) And that’s not even counting all the people with APD who’ve found ways to get what they want from people without using violence (e.g. con-artists, emotional abusers, internet trolls – no, I’m not joking. The latter do show exceptionally high values in personality traits like manipulativeness, sadism and lack of empathy / remorse if you have them fill out psychiatric questionaires sneakily testing for that. The anonymity and lack of consequence on the internet just makes it that much easier for them to get their jollies by emotionally abusing others.)

              • Daimbert says:

                I go into and these things are discussed more in the comments on a page on my blog, which is here: https://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/fearlessly-amoral-psychopaths-autistics-and-learning-with-emotion/

                However, the short form is that your argument is essentially this: psychopaths can’t feel what others are feeling because if they did, that would give them strong reasons to not hurt other people. However, my argument that they might is that it seems that most people get their knowledge of what other people are feeling from feeling what other people are feeling — the simulation form of mind-reading — and psychopaths are both good at figuring out what other people are feeling and would feel, and don’t have mirror neuron deficiencies like autistics that would impede that process. Neither are conclusive, but what has been noted by at least some researchers about psychopaths is that they can’t learn from negative reinforcement. Even if they know and ought to know that they will receive a painful electric shock, that knowledge doesn’t impact their behaviour. So the original argument relies on feeling bad things giving them a reason to change their behaviour, but in general it looks like bad things or the anticipation of bad things doesn’t really impact their behaviour. This ties in with psychopaths tending to have deficiencies in their amygdala.

                Of course, deficiencies in the amygdala would imply that their ability to feel negative emotions like fear is impaired, and compared to autistics psychopaths tend to have VERY high IQs so they might be just very good at substituting theory for simulation. Also, psychopaths tend to report a complete lack of affective empathy (feeling what other people are feeling). But given the other conditions the argument that if they felt what others were feeling they wouldn’t act badly both seems false and has an impact on how autistics — who DO seem to have deficiencies in that area — are perceived. We know that psychopaths don’t care about what others are feeling except in reference to how that impacts them, but the two are not necessarily intertwined, especially since autistics tend to not feel what others are feeling but DO care about the feelings of others, in general.

    • Kathryn says:

      Yes, I have been planning out the social rules I’m going to teach our older son as soon as he has enough language for them. (And when I mention this kind of thing to my mother, she says I’m overthinking.)

      • Daimbert says:

        To be honest, it’s kinda a shame that etiquette has gone out of favour, as that provided a useful framework for social situations that would at least provide SOME structure for anyone that is less adept socially.

  9. Jokerman says:

    “Autistic kids who learn to hide their symptoms to avoid bullying frequently slip through diagnosis.”

    I tired to hide it, too tough for me though, still go busted :) Watching Dexter changed my life at 16… not even joking. Taught me to blend in really well

    • Abnaxis says:

      Dexter is a really weird show to watch for me. In the sort of “everyday life” scenes or the awkward romantic sexual relationship scenes I always fidget because I feel like it speaks to me in ways it won’t with other people in the room.

  10. Christopher says:

    This stuff has always been difficult for me to judge. Because the main symptoms seems to be an obsession with certain subjects and having a hard time socializing, me and just about every nerd I know seem to fit into the definition, and I can’t imagine that that’s actually the case.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Thats because there are numerous degrees involved.For example,me saying that Im arachnophobic is correct,technically.My breathing does change and I feel panicky when I see a live spider.But I can still touch one.Even though I have to scrub my hands thoroughly afterwards and feel extremely unclean and twitchy for the rest of the day,I can still do it.Yet there are people who would literally be paralyzed with fear at a sight of a spider.Having the same term describe both can be misleading.

      Thats why you shouldnt self diagnose for autism(anything,really).Sure,the symptoms are easy to understand and spot by anyone,but distinguishing the nuances in their severity and all the potential alternatives,that requires training.

  11. BlueHorus says:

    I couldn’t have been diagnosed with autism because autism itself is a new-ish idea. Our current understanding of it didn’t solidify among academics until the 1970’s. Before this, it was lumped into schizophrenia, which seemed to be our catch-all term for “This person is strange and we don’t know why”…I didn’t hear the word “autism” until the 90’s or so, long after I’d become an adult.

    The history of autism and its diagnosis is pretty damn interesting – academic politics, historical events intefering, crackpot theories and scam artists. The current term ‘autistic spectrum’ is very new (year 2000+), and (deliberately) very vague. I was diagnosed in the ’90s and have a (sort-of) defunct diagnosis for Asperger’s Syndrome.

    Given your age, you’re in a way lucky to have got away without a diagnosis of anything. The historical treatments for a lot of ‘mental illnesses’…left something to be desired.

  12. I don’t know… this feels somewhat familiar to my high school years, especially the never being able to form stable relationships.

    I got my first awful job at a restaurant when I was 16. At the time I had only one or two friends I would hangout with every once in a while. What made middle school and high school degrading socially was we moved states and cities, and since I was never good at making friends, I just sort’ve shut down. It was difficult to answer questions, I became rather slow in terms of doing work, and the longer that shit dragged on, (I still feel it’s dragging on into community college…) the worse it has become.

    To some extent it caused me to become cynical and incredibly defensive. When I speak to people now, my first impulse is to break the ice as awkwardly as people in order to make people laugh. I don’t know why, and I still don’t understand people, but having dealt with people in a working and school capacity for so long, I’ve noticed there’s no real distinct difference between them and social interactions. People are caught up in their own bubbles in any place you hear or see them.

    I guess the point is that after a while you realize people have their own values and beliefs because you hear them more and more. You see and hear a lot working in retail. I never interacted with a lot of people in school. It’s likely that because of this lack of social interaction I’ll never have a full fundamental grasp on how to convey ideas to others. The only thing I try to do is be as blunt as possible.

  13. Aitch says:

    This line of self-analysis gets me nervous any time I start to consider it.

    Like for the longest time, it confused me when people would say “How are you” as a greeting. I would hear “How are you?” (genuine interest in my wellbeing) and give a quick sentence or two on how I was feeling or what I’d been thinking about. Of course they’d look at me bored and annoyed as if I was wasting their time.

    What they really meant was “How are you.” (meaningless noise to confirm the recognition of my presence) and any response past repeating the phrase or “Fine, and you?” with a similar insouciance would just annoy them.

    This phenomenon was especially confusing in situations like going to the doctor. The nurse takes me back to get my vitals and goes “How are you”. Well, I’m at the doctor, it would make sense if she were asking about how I was doing considering it’s her job… but then again, she’s not holding the chart… and on the other hand I really don’t care at all how she’s doing, so why would I ask that back?…

    I tried things like responding with “Hello” or staying silent – all of them earning more annoyance. Follow the ritual, or else.

    Or as a kid when someone would say something like “Hey, nice shoes” or whatever personal item. No particular vocal tone or facial expression or body language to think it was anything more than a polite remark. So I’d respond “Oh, thanks” and usually get treated like I was dumb, because they were actually insulting me. If I responded “Go screw with something else, dick” they’d get all wide eyed and treat me like I was flying off the handle for no good reason. I still haven’t figured this one out.

    Eventually, at one point in my teens I figured this whole Schroedinger’s Remark thing was some kind of quirk I’d never understand, so I tried to make a game of it where I could. As one example, I got into the habit of, whenever someone was looking for an affirmative response in the middle of a conversation, to say “Yeah, right” with just the right inflection so they couldn’t tell if it was “Yeah right!” (get real) or “Yeah, right?” (you are correct). Of course, it only served to annoy people.

    Oh, so when you do it it’s fine, but when I do it I’m a jerk. Go figure. Seems I have a real talent for annoying people without having to try very hard.

    Anyway, it’s one of the handful of “humanisms” that I never got the hang of. There’s a bunch of them, actually. Maintaining eye contact in a conversation, not being bothered by the sound of lawnmowers, whatever. I try not to think about it, but when things like this post get brought up I’m left unsure and nervous, the examples feeling too familiar, the whole question of autism hanging over my brain. I’ve looked up the diagnostic criteria and signs, but they never seemed to fit, so I just don’t know.

    Still, something never sat right with the way I interacted with people. I’m left just having to assume I suck at being a regular person sometimes.

    • evileeyore says:

      “No particular vocal tone or facial expression or body language to think it was anything more than a polite remark.”

      Hate to say it… but it sounds to me like you simply weren’t picking up on those cues. They probably did/do have some expression or tonal shift, but it’s simply below your capacity to recognize. Which is very much a thing that some people suffer from.

  14. Abnaxis says:

    Note: No diagnosis here, but I’m sure I have SOMETHING. If it becomes enough of an issue, I’m sure I’ll see someone about it.

    My main embarrassing-anecdote-spawning problem is with humor. I never know when someone is joking, and I never know how to joke with someone else. I was describing how much of a hardass my father-in-law is with a coworker while were sharing family stories, and his reply was “wait, YOU call him a hardass?”

    This struck me as weird, because I’m probably one of the least serious people I’ve ever known, and most people close to me agree. It’s just that I have to get close to someone before I will ever express the slightest bit of levity around them

  15. Abnaxis says:

    Somewhere around middle school I got inured to social pressure. Like, I know I’m just going to be endlessly tormented by bullies (I was), I know I’m never really going to have friends (I didn’t), so fuck trying any more.

    This lead to an endless stream of embarrassing moments on my part, and unsurprisingly I still don’t have any friends outside of my wife and her family. Literally zero. The both of us are probably the least socially connected individuals I have known or spoken to.

    Despite that, I’m comfortable with my life and myself, and I figure that’s what matters. It gets awkward between me and my wife when we miscommunicate, but we’re patient with each other.

    • Abnaxis says:

      Actually, at times when I think on it too much, I sort of worry whether I have some form of sociopathy.

      But meh–going to therapists and/or psychologists (I have) will only get you a “you’re stuck this way, here’s some coping mechanisms to help deal with it,” and the coping mechanisms never really work as well as I’ve already learned to cope, so….yeah, stuck with it.

      • Syal says:

        I sort of worry whether I have some form of sociopathy.

        Never worry about categories. The dividing lines are usually arbitrary and the behaviors that define the category don’t require each other so if you apply the label to yourself you’ll learn nothing new. You can use it as an “I’m not alone” positivity kind of thing, or ‘these folks have increased risk of x so I should maybe mitigate’, but otherwise there’s no point trying to climb into someone else’s box.

        • Abnaxis says:

          I get where this is coming from–like, yeah, there’s stigma attached to words like “sociopath” or whatever–but I’m more talking from a standpoint of chronic mental health conditions and clinical presentations sorts of “worry” than caring what other people think. To me, saying “don’t worry about labels” is kind of like saying “don’t worry what stage that melanoma is, it’s just a number”.

          I’m not big on solidarity (what works for others rarely works for me), nor am I all that worried about if others ever found I have X condition. Unfortunately, I’m also nowhere near convinced we’ve reached a decent scientific consensus on the pathology or treatment even if I ever did get the diagnosis.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            Not all mental problems are severe though.If you are aware of all your actions(meaning you did something while unconscious/asleep or you never had hallucinations)and you dont have desires that would cause harm to you or others,you are fine.

  16. AR+ says:

    If non-autists had such a great theory of mind, then why do they have so much trouble understanding people with autism? Of course, the answer is that most people’s sense of empathy is limited, at best, to seeing things as they themselves would, but from someone else’s perspective. Seeing someone from someone else’s perspective as someone else is far more difficult. Even autists can easily relate with each other.

    • DavidJCobb says:

      Yeah, based on my experience, I don’t think autistic people are “missing something” so much as they’re working with a completely different set of equipment. How aware they themselves are of this will depend on how much self-introspection they’ve had to do.

      Like, there’s no one thing that makes a person autistic. Autistic people just don’t think the same way as neurotypical people.

      • Mephane says:

        Yeah, based on my experience, I don’t think autistic people are “missing something” so much as they’re working with a completely different set of equipment. How aware they themselves are of this will depend on how much self-introspection they’ve had to do.

        Like, there’s no one thing that makes a person autistic. Autistic people just don’t think the same way as neurotypical people.

        I’ve been pondering the idea for a long time, that we will face exactly these kinds of problems when interacting eventually with sentient AI, or extraterrestrial intelligence – i.e. minds of (at least) comparable capability but operating in a completely different manner. Intelligent enough to understand each other through active effort but too different to just intuitively interact.

      • LadyTL says:

        This is why when people get curious about me saying I have Asperger’s I use the OS analogy. Think of people’s minds like a computer OS. Most runs Windows, easy to use communicates will with other Windows. Asperger’s is like running Linux, can be easy to use (if you know what you are doing) but also easy to mess up or not have a program installed that does what Windows normally does. It’s not a perfect analogy but most people know enough these days about computers to get it and not treat me as stupid or brain damaged and be more likely to explain something if I misunderstand tone or something they said.

    • Matt Downie says:

      Empathy isn’t a psychic power.

      I imagine a lot of people do empathy by thinking, perhaps unconsciously, “What would I feel in these circumstances?”

      That works pretty well on people who are similar to you. With people who are a little difficult to you, it takes more of an effort. (“Well, he’s got nut allergies, so…”) And it works pretty poorly on people who are nothing like you.

      That means the more ‘normal’ you are, the easier it is to relate to other ‘normal’ people. Whereas ‘weird’ people can only use that technique to relate to other people with the same form of weirdness, if they ever meet any.

      So even if you have a perfectly good ‘Theory of Mind’, you can still have similar problems to someone who doesn’t.

  17. Ravens Cry says:

    I remember this incident. I was in my mid-late teens. I was at a summer camp, and someone tried to pull the “No soap, radio!*” ‘joke’ on me. I didn’t laugh. Instead, my brow furrowed, as I verbally tried to work out how this joke might possibly be funny. Naturally, I failed. I can think of many other social situations past and present (not sure about future, but presumably) where I just didn’t get things, and, yes, frantically tried to decipher them. “It was obvious by context.” people say, and I just want to shout, “No, it @#&%-ing wasn’t!”
    *For those who don’t know, it’s where one person tells a story that has the feel and structure of a joke, but isn’t one, and the rest of the group fake laughs to try and get someone to join in real laughing.

  18. I have the same issue with people talking directly to me, but I can handle upwards of six simultaneous text chat discussions on different topics. Multiple people in my immediate physical presence stress me out. I generally have to make a conscious effort to make eye contact with strangers (and generally don’t). I’m fine with people and even very friendly if I have a chance to get to know them first either through games or text chat or something where they aren’t just boom in my face and I’m dealing with their body language for the first time–or, rather, if THEY have a chance to get to know ME. For me, social interactions come in distinct types. If we’re interacting professionally, I’m good with strangers. But when people don’t respect the boundaries of professional action (they start projecting emotions, yelling, being demanding, etc.) I lock up. My reaction isn’t “assess their emotions, calm them down, redirect”. It’s more “instantly and violently counterattack”. Suppressing the counterattack is often the best I can manage. Doing something productive is usually futile. At best, I default to a politeness script.

    I hesitate to attribute this sort of thing to an active dysfunction or brain problem without compelling evidence. This strikes me as reductionist, potentially in a bad way.

  19. Redrock says:

    I really hate to be “that guy”, especially in the context of such an important topic, but isn’t “self-diagnosing themselves” redundant? I am genuinely asking, because English isn’t my native language, but the phrase feels just a little bit off.

    • TheJungerLudendorff says:

      It does seem somewhat redundant to me.
      The phrase “self-diagnosing” means they are diagnosing themselves, so adding another “themselves” after it seems redundant.

      It’s a combination of “self-diagnosing” and “diagnosing themselves”. Both of which are perfectly fine on their own, but not when you try to smush them together.

    • Abnaxis says:

      It’s redundant, but I don’t know if the redundancy is wrong. If you’re trying to stress the fallibility in self-diagnosis, maybe it bears repeating?

    • Bloodsquirrel says:

      It’s just an issue where dropping the “themselves” feels a little strange because it’s dropping the object. Technically, “They are self-diagnosing.” is a complete sentence, but since “diagnosing” would usually have an object, it might feel a little funny to say.

  20. rabs says:

    Another experience here.

    My view is more that I have a lot less “common sense” than most people. It’s everything people take for granted and natural, but is unknown or need analysis for me. Never heard of this theory of mind before, but it doesn’t seem to fit in my case.

    My analysis is that I’m introverted, so I naturally need/want less social interactions than most people, then learned less quickly related skills. I’m still a kind of silent/weird guy and like/need to be alone a lot more than most people, but it’s not a problem in my daily life.

    As a kid, I was kind of bullied like everybody. I didn’t care to be included in popular social groups or not, and was doing well enough at school, so it didn’t trigger any analysis. But there was no problems in my family life or other aggravating factors, I guess it helps a lot.

    So I don’t know if it’s on the spectrum of autism, asperger, or whatever… but my case didn’t need some kind of treatment.

  21. Taellosse says:

    …autism itself is a new-ish idea. Our current understanding of it didn’t solidify among academics until the 1970’s. Before this, it was lumped into schizophrenia, which seemed to be our catch-all term for “This person is strange and we don’t know why”.

    And our understanding of autism is also changing with time and study. It has now been reclassified as a “spectrum” of disorders (and thus deprecating the concept of “Asperger syndrome” as a “mild form”), and I strongly suspect that with time it will be broken out into a number of distinct phenomena, typified by several different brain regions developing atypically and manifesting a cluster of behaviors that deviate from the “norm.” There’s just so much variation in how “autism” presents in different people, not just in degree but also in kind, that it seems unlikely that there’s really a singular cause for all of it. We simply don’t yet know enough about how the human brain functions to get properly granular about the neural causes right now, so we’re still categorizing this kind of thing with a very broad brush, even if it’s more specific than it was 50 years ago.

    Incidentally, I suspect the same may well be true of other brain-based disorders such as Alzheimer’s – as they’re studied more deeply, it becomes clearer that what seemed like a single ailment with some variation in symptoms might be similar ailments with a variety of causes. Which isn’t really all that surprising – any complex system is going to get harder to diagnose a problem in accurately as that complexity increases, and the human brain is VERY complex. Worse, from the perspective of diagnosis, is that it’s also a highly adaptive system which compensates for many problems by altering its own structure over time, meaning that the best “baseline” one can establish is a rough estimate – many if not most individual examples are going to deviate from that norm anywhere from modesty to dramatically.

    • LadyTL says:

      Honestly I feel really uncomfortable with Asperger’s being called autism at all after knowing my sister in law (high functioning autism) and my brother in law (low functioning autism). I just do not have remotely the same issues as they do on a daily basis living with Asperger’s. My husband and I both have Asperger’s and are living on our own, in our own apartment with jobs etc. My BIL has to live in a special home for adults because he never will be able to live unattended long term. My SIL lives at home with her parents and seems happy to stay there given she moved out to go to college and moved back home right after. It just feels wrong to say I’m in the same category as them because I have problems with people and a few very very mild intersecting points.

      • Philadelphus says:

        As an American, I’m kind of annoyed at the American Psychiatric Association’s decision to remove Asperger’s as a diagnosis and roll it into autism spectrum disorders in 2013 with the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, because, as you say, it does seem to be different somehow and was a somewhat well-known condition you could easily describe to people. Now it’s all lumped in under the autism spectrum, which covers a very wide range and makes it difficult to specify what exactly you mean. (It’s like telling someone you have “cancer”: does that mean “I’ve got three weeks to live with inoperable bone cancer” or “The doctor found a tiny spot on my elbow that he’s going to remove in an outpatient surgery next week, no big deal”?) It’s especially confusing because the rest of the world continues to recognize Asperger’s Syndrome as a separate condition.

  22. Rack says:

    Having been diagnosed with Aspergers myself the idea that you don’t get these things for free definitely resonates, but the idea of them “suddenly clicking” does not. It’s practising tens of thousands of individual rules and exceptions which refined the ability to communicate little by little over time. That’s not to say you might not be somewhere on the spectrum, nor that you wouldn’t be diagnosed with “something” just that that bit doesn’t resonate.

  23. Whew! Consider me fucking triggered!

    This pretty much is a mirror image of my life (frankly a loooot of your Autoblography hit uncomfortably close to home) with the end result being flipped 1`80. There was a very clear moment where my continuous failed attempts to plow through that social gauntlet at school and at home resulting in equally continuous punishment (on multiple spectrums) basically had me going ‘fuck this shit I’m out’. I started calling my parents by their first names, I simply left the school grounds during any break period and when I got caught, I’d be told to go back and then go turn right back around as soon as non one could see me. When I graduated high school, I left my diploma on a bench after the ceremony. My mom literally threatened me if I didn’t come visit during the weekends and the first thing in my head upon hearing that was calculating how long it would take to ‘transition’ out of never having to visit again.

    I felt like I’d been fighting against the current of a river all my life and at some point I realized this wasn’t a fight I was going to win, so I’d just…stop. Drop everything and just see where the current took me. It turned everything from chaos into a slow, mellow, pain. Nothing got better, but everything got…easier? Manageable. It probably hasn’t helped in the long run, but I don’t think I had the ‘better path’ option available to me in certain respects.

    Even now in my current dead-end job, I’m expected to have multiple conversations and I have outright said that if you’re trying to talk to my while I’m focused on something else, you will not be acknowledged. At all. It’s nice to know you got to the better place though.

  24. MelTorefas says:

    She asked me, “What was your favorite part of the year?” I hesitated. Is she asking what is my favorite memory from the last 12 months? Is she asking what my favorite memory is since the turn of the year five months ago? Is she asking what my favorite memory is from this particular school year? Is she asking what’s my favorite memory from this school year, but limited to the events of her class? I have no idea what this person is asking. Terrified, I raced through all these possible interpretations of the question, trying to figure out which one she intended. I’d learned that people disapproved if I took too long to respond to a question, but I also hate having disastrous conversations where I misinterpret everything and cause confusion.

    This resonates with me so much, because I *still* do this all the time. Except now there is less panic because I know what is going on, more. I am autistic, and was not diagnosed until I was 26 (less than 10 years ago). I also have an anxiety disorder. My childhood was rife with things like this. Eventually I learned two things: try and mimic other people’s behaviors in similar situations even if they don’t make sense to me, and try to avoid drawing attention to myself as much as humanly possible.

    That second one, especially. Towards the end of grade school I began to wish I could make myself invisible, and tried to get as close as I could. I was thrilled when, in 7th grade, I answered a question in math class and the teacher exclaimed in surprise “Oh, you’re here! I marked you as absent!”

    Reading the comments on this post has been very interesting. When it comes to self-diagnosis, my thought is that it should be the thing that makes you go to a professional, not a stopping point. I therefore find it very difficult to accept people who ‘self diagnose’ as autistic. They could be right, but without professional analysis it is difficult for me to ‘respect’ that. When I started reading about it (after my divorce) and realized it almost certainly applied to me, I went to see a therapist and was eventually analyzed by a psychiatrist and diagnosed. Having an official diagnosis was incredibly helpful as it allowed me to ask for the few accommodations I needed to be successful when I returned to college. I feel like people ‘self diagnosing’ as autistic can make it difficult for people to take the disorder seriously.

    Also I cannot say enough good things about therapy. No single thing in my life has helped me deal with my conditions more than that. I will fully admit I lucked into getting an *amazing* therapist and have been able to keep him, but it seems to me like a lot of people completely disregard therapy, considering it useless at best and harmful at worst. (For sure a bad therapist/social worker can be harmful, but a good one can be literally life-saving.)

    Anyways, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Shamus. I have enjoyed reading this blog since I found DM of the Rings back in the day (before I was ever diagnosed, even). I don’t comment much and never come back and read the comments later when I do (conditioned anxiety response I guess), but I appreciate the heck out of all the insight and entertainment you have provided and continue to provide.

    And I like the community, even if I do not interact with folks much. You all provide very interesting content as well, and I enjoy reading the reasoned discourse that exists here. It is very unique.

    • Rack says:

      It isn’t as bad everywhere but self-diagnosis is the realistic end point in the UK. There’s no way to get a diagnosis on the NHS if you are an adult and even if you do get a result privately there’s no support of any kind available. It was only through a lucky coincidence I was able to see a specialist.

  25. TehShrike says:

    My spatial and language processes run on separate processors. I can hold a conversation while playing speed chess, or I can listen to podcasts while playing Banished.

    My language process is single-threaded. I can only listen to/think verbally/write/read one thing at a time.

    MY wife can listen to multiple conversations at once. In college I had a friend who could write intelligent papers while holding a conversation. My pastor said he could be writing something while listening/speaking to one or two other things, though he’s down to 1-to-2 language processes as he’s gotten older. That’s essentially magic as far as I’m concerned.

    Brains are weird. I think if I had gone in to public school as a young kid, I might have felt pretty broken too.

    As I grew up, I sometimes felt slightly behind when it came to social assumptions, but I was able to start developing theories about them. I think if I had started going to school at junior high age after having all the previous years to practice engaging with people in non-sink-or-swim environments, I miiight have been able to conjure enough charisma to keep from drowning. I probably could have managed by senior high, but I was very happy to avoid that nonsense altogether.

  26. Philadelphus says:

    It’s like a computer without a graphics card. Yeah, you can put the rendering load on the CPU, but it’s going to be slow and put an incredible strain on the machine.

    This really resonates with me because I’ve come up with the exact same analogy independently—it’s like everyone else has a discrete graphics card for processing emotions and body language and tone of voice and can do it naturally and on the fly while conversing, while I’ve had to learn to process them on my CPU based on decades of careful observation and mimicry of the actions and reactions of everyone else around me.

    It’s part of why I’ve always hated making eye contact with someone while talking, because there’s a figurative flood of information continuously coming from the eyes and it dizzies me trying to process it; it’s the mental equivalent of drinking from a fire hose and I rapidly get overwhelmed. Conversations with someone in my peripheral vision are a lot more comfortable (though phone conversations with anyone not a close friend, conversely, are completely and utterly nerve-wracking as I can’t get any body language information at all and have to rely on sound alone over frequently garbled or unclear phone lines).

    I’ve learned to sort of fake eye contact by occasionally staring in the general direction of someone’s face and sort of “de-focusing” my vision so I don’t really see it as a “face” anymore and can focus on smaller, more manageable bits like the mouth area, while simultaneously consciously 1) remembering not to stare too long so as not to creep people out, 2) paying attention to what’s being said, 3) decoding any emotions coming across, 4) formulating an appropriate response, and 5) remembering how to appropriately convey the appropriate emotions to accompany said response (including coordinating tone of voice and body language like facial expressions), all in real time. (All of which adds up to a powerful need for plenty of alone-time every day.)

    I haven’t been officially diagnosed with anything (yet; I’m planning to see about it in the future when I’m not also planning an international move to attend grad school), but within the last year or so I’ve gradually come to realize that I’m not the only person who feels like an extraterrestrial brain in a human body, that there are other people like me out there, and that there’s a name for us (autism spectrum/Asperger’s Syndrome in some cases depending on when and where a diagnosis was made).

    • Philadelphus says:

      Slipped my mind in the earlier post, but if you’re interested Shamus, a clinical psychologist named Tony Attwood with decades of experience with Asperger’s Syndrome wrote a book some years ago called “The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome” (he works in Australia where it’s still a separate condition), which I found very informative reading last year when I was trying to pin down if my quirks and differences corresponded to Asperger’s/autism or not. Obviously not the same as a professional diagnosis, and you may be perfectly comfortable with where you are now, but I just thought I’d mention it on the off chance it can help anyone else.

  27. Vi says:

    We kind of wondered if you had something like this going on, but since you seem to have found your groove, it didn’t seem worth mentioning.

    I personally figured out I was on the autistic spectrum awhile ago when diagnosed autistic people’s experiences explained the overwhelming majority of mine. While the idea of doctors being able to label me as mentally ill was terrifying, having a word for my issues also gave me hope that all I needed to do was befriend someone else with the same brain structure and I could finally stop living in a constant state of panic and uncertainty.
    What actually happened was that I found out (or rather, was told by the voices in my head) that I am also dissociative, and the other split personalities pretty much voted me off the island. Definitely not what I was expecting!! Seriously, I am not allowed to use my own body unsupervised anymore. (And the external people I once considered close don’t even notice or care that they rarely see me anymore; I’m only acknowledged in occasional compliments the new hosts receive for their “improved” behavior. I’m pretty sure horror movies have been made about experiences like that.) However, it did turn out alright overall. Most of the others use our brain in a less autistic way than I do, so they can eat and sleep and have conversations and multi-task and look at people’s eyes and drive a car without a single breakdown. It amazes me how much easier daily life is for them. I never fully realized how broken I was until I saw the difference myself. I spend almost all my time inside nowadays, in our personal dream world thing, where it’s realistically possible to avoid stimuli and expectations I can’t handle.

    Anyway, I really admire that Mr. Young has faced struggles similar to mine and yet lives happily in the real world with external people who care about him. Golden Ending on Extreme Difficulty Unlocked!

    • vacantVisionary says:

      Okay, uh, not to be presumptuous, but. As one autistic person with Dissociative Identity Disorder named V who locked themself away in their own mind for years and let other parts of their psyche take over in order to pass as allistic to another, this is not the kind of coping mechanism that’s going to be healthy for you in the long term. Right now it might seem like this is the best way to survive. It probably is. But you need to know that you deserve better.
      Being autistic doesn’t make you broken, and it’s not terrifying. It’s something beautiful and powerful and poorly understood by allistic people (and even many autistic people). Your first instinct was right – the best thing you can do for yourself is to surround yourself with people whose brains work like yours, and who will love you for being who you are. I know that sounds trite, but we’ve done it, and it was the best thing that ever happened to us.
      We really hope you get this message, and that you use it to find more happiness in your life. We know that this is hard and scary and dangerous – we’ve been in your position, and done similar things as you. But we’re so much happier and safer and stronger now, and we want those things for you too. And if you ever want to talk to someones with a lot of experience with autism and DID, our door is always open. :>
      Good luck.

  28. Jeysie says:

    I’m in my late 30s and still feel like other people’s reactions follow no discernible pattern other than usually being negative or otherwise not in my favor, even when things seem to work out just fine for anyone else doing the same thing or what seems like a worse thing.

    I don’t seem to share any of the typical autistic symptoms that are unrelated to social issues, but I 100% empathize with the kind of social issues autistic people report on having where the social rules feel arbitrary or even deliberately made to be double standards or backwards.

    It feels like the more I study people, the less I understand them.

    (Other big issue is how I’m honest and straightforward to a literal fault, so I’m forever getting stung by trying to take other people at face value when I shouldn’t, and in turn people always try to read stuff into my words that I didn’t actually say versus just taking what I say at face value.)

  29. CaveTrollWithABeard says:

    I’d like to add a strange digression to this conversation, related to bullying. I wonder if bullying can make the manifested symptoms of mental issues more severe, or possibly even make the actual physical problems in the brain worse over time? I ask because I too have had similar experiences in terms of not understanding what people mean, or being unable to figure out what the group is thinking when it should be obvious to a lot of people, but I was rarely bullied for it.

    For context, I am 6’5″ (196cm) tall, well over 300 lbs (136 kg), I hit my full growth around age 14, and I’ve always had a nasty temper. The path of my interaction with my peer groups tended to follow a similar progression every time I met a new group. I would do something weird or quirky, someone would make fun of me for it, I would take the teasing for a few hours or days, and then I would explode into shocking violence that established to everyone else that they dare not mock me ever again. It led to not having many friends, but also led to my peers generally respecting me a lot more than they would other “quirky nerds” who weren’t able to physically silence the bullies that way.

    Because of this, I never had that much of a fear of social repercussions, and I was able to figure out how things worked without needing a lot of outside help. I don’t think I’m on the spectrum, but I definitely have things wrong inside my head. However, I was able to figure out how to build coping mechanisms for most of those on my own early enough that I lost my reputation for being “weird” around my mid teens. I wonder if those issues would be more pronounced if I hadn’t been so big?

    Sorry if this is a completely self-absorbed rant out of left field. I just think about these things often. Ever since I became aware of the concept of various types of advantages people can be born with and how they shaped their life, I’ve realized all the subtle ways that being big and scary has helped me avoid problems that people closer to the average median size and temperament have to deal with.

  30. vacantVisionary says:

    Honestly I’ve always kind of wondered if you were autistic…. you definitely ping that way to me.
    The “rendering on the CPU” metaphor is particularly apt, I think. Your brain didn’t come with “neurotypical social norms” as pack-in software, and so you had to code your own version of it from scratch. And because it’s hand-coded, it hasn’t been properly optimized and takes up a huge amount of your system memory.
    Anyways, here’s my Autism 101 tips:
    -The most noticeable part of autism, in my experience, is in its sensory processing. Various forms of sensory stimulation, or “stims” for short, can feel either very good or very bad. These can be physical textures (clothing, food, etc), sounds, or even the feeling of moving your hand around really fast. Pay attention to what stims are good and bad for you!
    -One particularly common stim is “flapping”, which is the aforementioned rapid hand movement. You’ve probably been told all your life to “stop fidgeting”, when fidgeting is actually a fundamental part of how your brain works. Do whatever you can to unlearn staying still, if you haven’t already.
    -Special interests! One common feature of autism is the special interest, where you fixate on some topic or another and learn as much as you can about it. I’m sure you’ve noticed this in your life before (cough Mass Effect cough), but actively building on your special interests instead of being ashamed of them can be a lot of fun.
    -Finally, and most importantly, there is nothing “wrong” or “broken” about your brain. It’s just different. I know this sounds cliche, but it’s true. People who are “disabled” are just the ones who haven’t had society built around catering to their exact physical and mental makeup. You’ll be happiest – and be the most productive – when you work with your brain instead of against it. If you can free up the parts of of your brain you spent learning how to Pass As Neurotypical and get the people around you to accept you for who you really are, you’ll be able to take a huge load off that you never knew you were carrying.
    Best of luck! :)

  31. JDMM says:

    I sort of have the opposite experience of most people here in that I never had a problem with theory of mind or the initial stages of communication or these sensory things (well maybe not the sensory thing, more dependent on what I’m feeling and thinking that day). Reading peoples faces was always a skill I had and have

    Nevertheless I supposedly have autism (haven’t actually looked at the diagnosis personally but the psychiatrist was rather supporting of the possibility), was odd because whenever a person bought up the possibility it was more a product of my educational background than anything else (get a degree in Chemistry, have an interest in cooking and you will learn how to count how many lots of 250mL you have ingested very easily)

    If I had to point out to any oddness it was an affinity for counting games, I’d generally count up how many steps I’d taken or whatever and want to keep it even for whatever reason, just as a pointless exercise. People could easily recognise something off about me as well but that was due to something of a flair for being dramatic

  32. Cat Skyfire says:

    I love your personal ruminations. They’re probably the most fascinating thing I read here.

  33. MaxEd says:

    Personally, I was deeply touched by Siri Keeton’s predicament in Peter Watts “Blindsight”. For those who hadn’t read it, this character is missing half a brain, and lack empathy because of it. He learned to “fake it”, by formulating responses to others’ circumstances intellectually.

    I too sometimes feel like that. Like when something bad happens to someone I know, I rarely really feel bad for them, but I know, intellectually, that I should, and so I learned to offer some form of consolation. Though it’s much more of my nature to seek a way to rectify the situation instead of consoling a person (I found it could be useful in emergencies, but in day-to-day life, much less so, because often the situation can easily be fixed without my involvement or by waiting, during which the best thing to do is to keep other’s mood up – and I’m not good at that).

    It also affects my dating life, as I almost never feel any physical attraction until I have a firm intellectual attraction to a person, which is read by other side of the date as coldness and/or lack of romantic interest. Sometimes, I think I talk myself into falling in love (though this might be an illusion).

    • dman says:

      Yah.
      I think there are plenty of us who know that there are formulaic things that *should* be said – to keep up certain formalities of civil society…

      And these verbal rubrics are ways that we use to fill the gaps of uncomfortable silence, or just acknowledgements of each others presence, and reminders that we are here too…

      But I’ve never connected with folk that actually seem to *mean* it all.

    • Philadelphus says:

      As a teenager, I had a minor existential crisis for years as I found myself convincingly expressing emotions that I wasn’t actually feeling, which made me wonder if I was really being genuine or in some small sense continually prevaricating (which caused no small amount of mental dissonance, let me tell you). I apparently finally decided sometime around college that it’s possible to genuinely mean the emotions I’m expressing, even if I’m not personally feeling them.

  34. dman says:

    Shamus, From your earlier biopics, I felt that we would all agree that you were “on the spectrum” so to speak. Stories about how you thought that some business decisions were obviously misguided, or just inexplicable, and were then proven either right, … or just as mysteriously – quite wrong, were signs that you and the world you were interacting with may not have been playing cards with the same deck. Or, at least, may not have been using the same face values on the cards you were both playing.

    Obviously, I’m speaking as a self-professed geek (and thus, on-the-spectrum as pretty much all humans are) and the questions are only how much we choose, or are able to socialise our different value-ratings into acceptable behaviours.

    I’ve “learned” (or just developed an annoying enough ego) to either ignore blithering questions where it felt like I was being asked something that required too much mental effort to reply to proportionately , OR , reply elaborately literally, and let the questioner fill in the mental gymnastic gaps.
    Pretty quick, I stop getting bothered by social fluff, but expect the things I do say to be taken at face value.

    If we could diagnose as mentally unstable, the folk that burst out in tears or burst out in violence following the spurious fortunes of a sports team* entirely unrelated to their personal wellbeing, then maybe we’d realize that everyone is a little bit ‘off’ in their own way. And that’s what makes up the variety of personalities.

    * or Reality tv star/ Political personality

  35. Nate Winchester says:

    *scans comment section*

    Huh, I would have thought somebody would have posted this video. Anyway, Jordan Peterson discussing autism.
    https://youtu.be/oMUIbQH-Id8

    I may have had some of it too but think I’ve figured out how to fake it. Writing fiction helped me, I think.

  36. djw says:

    I have also experienced great frustration with two conversations at the same time.

    I think that in my case at least the problem is that I must focus very carefully on a speaker in order to “lock on” to what they are saying over the background noise. When two people speak at once I can’t lock on to either of them, and I get lost almost immediately.

    Last night in the locker room after a hockey game I noticed that their was an echo that made every single conversation in the room sound like it was happening six inches from my ear. I tried to have a conversation with a team mate who was sitting three feet away from me, but I could not understand a word he was saying because my brain kept locking on to all of the other words that other people were saying across the room.

  37. Scerro says:

    The thing is about Autism/Aspergers/”The Spectrum” is that it’s associated with certain traits and I feel like it starts enveloping personality, not medical disorders. Having an analytical personality will quickly get you put on the spectrum, even if low on that side. Also becoming analytical can be a response to undeserved criticism or rough social situations when younger. Video games are great for analytical people because there’s an obvious goal. Make the number go higher, complete the thing faster, and so on. So it’s nice compared to social situations where people’s feelings/decisions can change on a whim, and understanding those whims are impossible.

    If anything it’s probably just a smart kid’s natural reaction to a social paradox. Understanding social situations is impossible, so smart kids realize it and step back and realize that practically everything is arbitrary, and thereby sucks. It doesn’t make any sense to make small talk. People liking each other can and does change, and to an unskilled person that’s dealing with kids that are petty and stupid, it’s way easier to disconnect. It very likely can be a reflection of a kid’s social pressures when younger…

    If I went to a doctor I’m sure they’d want to put me on the low end of the spectrum. I hate labels because they’re horribly abused, and generalizations and lumping things into another are all the rage. It’s much more of just a personality trait…

  38. I really dislike term “on the spectrum”. We’re certainly not talking about a color spectrum are we?

    I’m pretty sure that everyone is partially on the “spectrum” to one degree or another.

    And there is nothing wrong with being antisocial, asocial, or even a sociopath, (psychopaths can be problematic).
    You do not need to fit in socially to be a considered a “being”.

    I always disliked the way that schools (intentionally or not) indoctrinate children to adhere and conform to a ton of social norms rather than letting them freely evolve their individuality.

    Blue for boys, pink for girls. Boys are rough and girls are pretty. Boys must be fit, girls must wear tight skirts and high heels. Young kids are not told in schools that they don’t have to follow these social norms, do schools even teach of damaging high heels can be? Or why you can be “pretty” even if you don’t wear makeup or dress “sexy”?

    Society is so weird, and it’s been so for centuries possibly millennia and will probably continue to be so. What they teach in school (or not teach in school) is damaging for youth.

    Society has become self-corrupting.

  39. Jack V says:

    Thank you for writing about this.

    I like the “faulty hardware and emulation” analogy a lot, whether or not it’s literally true.

    I feel like, I’ve often struggled with many of the same thing that people on the autistic spectrum struggle with. But generally a lot less. I think of that as, I’m a *bit* behind the curve, either because I shied away from learning as a child or because my hardware was a little bit less optimised for doing those things. And now I’ve caught up in many ways. And there’s higher-level social skills I still lag behind on, but maybe within a “normal” range.

    I have a clear idea about when self-diagnosis is wise and when it isn’t, but it’s hard to generalise. I think people often know better than a professional about issues that affect *them*. It’s very common for people to know what triggers a weird allergy or insensitivity, or what’s up with their brain, or that “something isn’t right”. And often the right professional can turn that into a more specific, definite diagnosis, but adding knowledge of which conditions commonly exist. (eg. lots of people notice they’re celiac independently of a doctor whether or not they get a formal diagnosis, and lots of people have convincing evidence they have a sensitivity to gluten or something like it, even when medicine doesn’t quite have an official pigeonhole for them yet)

    But it can also go wrong in both directions. There’s often people who are convinced of something, but succumbed to a heavy bias, or completely ignore accepted wisdom of what’s possible and what isn’t, with no reason to think they know better. (eg. people who have no real evidence of a sensitivity to gluten, but are firmly convinced of it anyway, except when it’s inconvenient). And there are people who correctly identify their problem, but doctors constantly dismiss the symptoms as, oh well, it’ll probably just pass over, or that’s normal, even when it isn’t.

    Most people I know are pretty scrupulous, and if they think they have a disease or a condition, I’m fairly sure they’re right (at least, in general). Even though not everyone is.

    Given the amount you’ve thought about this, and by reading examples from your autoblogography and even your novel, I’m completely confident in your assessment that you have an autistic spectrum disorder (and/or possibly overlapping or related issues). And given that you seem to be doing fine now, I don’t think you need to formalise that unless there’s anything specific you would gain from it.

  40. ryanlb says:

    I always find these posts about your experiences growing up to be absolutely fascinating.

    I was a bit socially awkward as a kid, not nearly as traumatically so as you were, but I always felt pretty out of place with my peers, I didn’t really have friends my age until I was in high school. It wasn’t always fun or pleasant, I got through it, I think largely by learning in my tweens/early teens to stop caring what others thought of me, and for the most part without too much lasting damage, though I don’t feel like I really form close/lasting friendships with people, though I would like to.

    Your explanations make me reflect back a bit on my childhood, but more importantly, make me think about my own kids, and what they might be going through, and if there’s any way I can help them understand/manage other peoples expectations (perhaps in a better way than my own instinctual, just ignore them sort of way), so they can feel like they fit it, or help them understand it’s okay to be different from what others may expect.

    I hope your stories can help me communicate with them, such that we actually understand each other and aren’t talking at cross purposes, and maybe I can help them not have to go through the rough patches I had as a kid.

  41. Simon Boots says:

    Thanks for sharing, Shamus. Very relatable.

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