A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.

Archive for November, 2013

Climbing the Social Ladder on a Firm Ground

Two posts ago, I wrote about a new technique I was using to improve my social life. This technique was looking beyond my academic life completely to discover if there were any other social venues outside of my studies that I could use. The main idea behind this was so that I could live a more full-filling life and not have just my academics surround me, which tends to happen in graduate school more so than in undergrad. Beyond the University of Waterloo where I’m doing my PhD, there was a second university in Waterloo that I could use for social outlets, namely Wilfrid Laurier University. I joined some clubs there and I really felt at home there. It was more like my undergrad university Acadia so it was more like what I used to. And even though it’s only been six weeks since that post, I can’t help but announce yet again just how great of a place it has turned out for me and that so far everything about this idea is more than holding up. Having achieved a totally new second life for myself that I love and can easily see that will remain with me for the years to come in my time in Waterloo, I now have a firm standing ground with which to build a social life on. The chessboard is all set up; it is now time to play the game.

I would be lying if I told you I was completely happy at Acadia. I certainly did have a great social network there, but like in all situations, my autism can hinder my efforts. Likewise I knew perfectly well that simply getting involved at Laurier wouldn’t completely solve my problems. I would still need to find ways to work around my autism to achieve a social life to the extent that I desire. It also takes me time to get used to a new place. It took most of a year to get used to both Acadia and U of Waterloo so it’ll take a few more months probably to get fully adjusted to Laurier. However I have certainly developed since my time at Acadia (this blog would have a lot less posts if that weren’t so) and so all the more reason to push forward.

As I’ve elaborated on in one of my earliest posts Speedy Gonzo, one of the ways that autism hinders me is by having a slow reaction time in speech and in face-to-face conversation. This is particularly true in groups. In groups of people, everyone is trying to talk and have no trouble coming up with things to say and thus the speed of the conversation is relatively fast. On the other hand, if I’m only talking to one other person, then this is a little less of a problem because then I only have to concentrate on what one person is saying instead of several and since there are only two of us, there are only two of us to determine the speed of the conversation and so the conversation goes more at my pace. One technique I’ve been using to help resolve this is to think about what I want to talk about ahead of time and brainstorm a few ideas whether it be on paper or just in my head if I’m short on time. By thinking of good topics ahead of time I can formulate ideas of what I want to say and help learning. And this technique I find helps a little. I find it easier to hold a few lines of conversation with someone. Mind you it doesn’t work if you’re with a lot of people or want the conversation to go on for a very long time as you have no idea where it could lead, but for just a few minutes with one other person it actually works. I have a firm footing in an environment I love and have made some promised progress. It feels simply great.

Autism and Empathy

One of the many controversial topics in autism is its relation to empathy, that is whether autism in any way and in any cases helps or hinders one develop empathy or a ‘theory of mind’ and how this should affect the relations between the non-autistic and autistic populations. Even professional philosophers in the area of the philosophy of psychology/psychiatry debate and argue over such issues, especially given to this day no precise definition of autism exists. Deborah Barnbaum, for example, in her book “The Ethics of Autism” puts forth that indeed a lack of a ‘theory of mind’ is what characterizes and then tries to reconcile this with various ethical systems to try to come up with one that would work for people who lacked a ‘theory of mind’ (they lack the understanding that other people have minds). Other philosophers have criticized Barnbaum and others for holding such views and how holding such a view is not only dangerous for the autistic population’s well-being, but for the human race in general, as it corrupts people’s intuition of what it means to be a person.

I myself lean heavily towards the latter view, especially given as someone with autism who does experience empathy (and I know a lot of others do too). Another interesting book I read on the subject was The Philosophy of Autism by Jami L. Anderson and Simon Cushing. It is a series of articles by professional philosophers who gave their own views on autism and how it is best for people with autism to fit into the world. One article that particularly intrigued me on the issue of empathy was written by Dr. Michelle Maiese of Emmanuel College in Boston. In her article, she carefully analyzed how two people without autism primarily interact through the use of body language. Her theory is that neurotypical people (people without autism) communicate through their bodies becoming attuned to one another and forming an affective frame with respect to each other. In her words, it is an “emotionally coloured lens”. She maintains that when this happens, it is not only that neurons in the brain that are doing all the work in achieving boldy attunement. Rather, it is the whole body that gets involved. Also, there is no first observing, and then inferring, and then the body deciding how to respond. Rather, the two bodies that are communicating do so, to use another term she used, are in a “shared dance” that is based on pure emotion.

She uses her theory of describe what goes in someone with autism. Since the brain isn’t the only thing involved in bodily attunement, she argues that a different rewiring of the brain is not the only difference between someone with autism and a neurotypical. She defines empathy as the ability to feel for others and to do so through bodily attunement. While the sensory problems that a lot of people with autism have interfere with their ability to achieve bodily attunement, they still indeed can conceptualize empathy in the brain and from there to go on to achieving a society that rests on empathetic principles. They may do this entirely different than the body attunement method. People with autism tend to like order and structure, for example, and so they use rational thinking to conceptualize a world that runs on empathetic principles. So while they do not have empathy in the bodily attunement sense, they still have empathy in the ethical sense, which is how Maiese argues for the ability of people with autism to empathise.

While I would hesitate to include this bodily attunement right in the definition of empathy, I do believe that Maiese is right in her analysis here. I particularly like how her explanation of how two neurotypicals intereact through bodily attunement has little to do with any kind of a logical process. I highly doubted there was any kind of logic to it anyway and it really opens up just how different the ways are that we can interact.