Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. How’s it going? It’s good to have you back.
I’m coming to the end of my sixteen-day break from the day job. I’d been looking forward to the break so much, even though I’d opted to not book a holiday because of covid uncertainty. Staycation, I thought. I had visions of getting out in the garden on a sun lounger, reading and drinking beer on long, lazy days. But the weather hasn’t been right for that. If it’s not been raining it’s been too damn windy, on most days. I have had a few nice walks in the park and countryside, and I’ve read a lot, and written a lot. But honestly, there have been times when I’ve just not felt like doing anything, because there’s been no pressure on me to do anything. And then I’ve felt guilty for being lazy. I don’t know what this says about me, other than it’s pretty much impossible for me to relax.
This week, I got involved in a conversation with someone, and it was so distasteful, I don’t really want to give the person airtime on this blog. But I do want to address an aspect of the argument this person made. If you can call it an argument, that is. The point this person was trying to make was so confused, so filled with encoded hate of autistic people, and so lacking in logic, it was barely coherent. But the upside of it was that it inspired me for today’s blog. So here goes. Does autism really exist?
The above quote from 17th Century philosophy rock star Descartes is arguably his second-most-famous utterance (we’ll come to the really famous one shortly). Its wisdom has become ingrained into popular thought. When you’re dealing with a big problem or task in life, something that feels a bit daunting, the common advice is to break the problem down into manageable steps, and tackle it bit by bit. It’s generally good advice. For example, it’s how I tackle writing a novel. I set up a plan for each scene in the story. Each scene plan lists which characters are involved, the location of the scene, the time of the scene, what happened to cause this scene, what will happen as a result, what the conflict is, and what question is left unanswered. I play with those individual steps until the story is just right before I even start the first draft. Thus, I rarely hit any plot snags; I know how the story will go before I’ve started the actual writing. That’s the joy of planning and breaking things down into small steps. But some people will sometimes claim to be using that approach, or they may appear to be using that approach, when in fact they are doing something quite different. By implacably demanding smaller and finer details of a problem, what they end up doing is rejecting all understanding. Sometimes this is done almost accidentally, but sometimes it is done maliciously. Let’s start with an example of how it can be done accidentally.
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Kid: “Dad, why is the sky blue?”
Dad: “Well, son, it’s because of the sun shining through the atmosphere.”
Kid: “But why?”
Dad: “Gosh, son, I believe it’s called Rayleigh scattering. When the light from the sun goes through the atmosphere, it kinda gets scattered around.”
Kid: “But why?”
Dad (sighs): “Well, the atmosphere kinda absorbs some of the light, and bounces it around, and what we see with our eyes is just the leftover blue.”
Kid: “But why?”
Dad (sweating): “Well, when the light hits our eyes, we see it as colours, and so that leftover blue light is what we see as blue.” (Switches on TV.)
Kid: “But why?”
Dad (mentally plumbing the depths of half-forgotten school lessons): “Well, in our eyes, we’ve got these special bits of equipment, rods and cones and stuff, and when different types of light hit them, it sends a signal through the optic nerve to the brain, and the brain says, ‘whoa, that’s blue’, or, y’know, whatever colour it is.” (Mentally high-fives himself.)
Kid: “But why?”
Dad (panicking): “Because that’s the way we evolved, son.”
Kid: “But why?”
Dad: “Because God said so, dammit! Watch the TV!”
It’s always fun when a kid keeps asking, why? But you can get to a point where, well, there isn’t much point left. It’s a form of reductionism, looking to explain something in an increasingly granular form. You can keep asking why, or even how, and going further and further into the granular detail of any subject, but eventually, all you can see is a granule, because you’ve zoomed in too close to see the subject you were examining. And this brings us to Descartes’s really famous quote. You’ve probably heard it: Cogito, ergo sum, or, I think, therefore I am.
For anyone unfamiliar with the famous cogito, here’s a brief overview: Descartes is chilling out one evening, and he starts to wonder, what exactly can I be sure of? I mean, I see the world around me, I touch things, I hear sounds, but they all come to me through my senses. What if my senses are a bit faulty? Or worse, what if I’m just dreaming everything? Or what if I’m being fooled by some mad, all-powerful demon, and the world I think I’m in is just some grand illusion? Yes, Descartes preempted The Matrix by more than 300 years. Cool, right? Anyway, Descartes decides to try to work out, if the worst-case scenario was true and the world was just an illusion, was there anything – anything at all – that he could be sure actually existed. Hmm. Well, it turned out there was one thing. The fact that he was even thinking about the question meant that he, Descartes, must exist, otherwise he wouldn’t be here to think it, amirite? Thus, he claimed, I think, therefore I am! And that seemed to settle the issue. Except it didn’t…
“I think, therefore I am? But why?” It seems some people thought Descartes could have gone a step further into radical skepticism, and that he should have concluded only that thoughts exist. The idea is that just because there is a thought, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a thinker. In other words, Descartes could not logically justify the certainty of his existence purely from the thought that he exists. Maybe, just maybe, thoughts exist independently, and just think they have a thinker. At one level, this is a fair point – at least in the realms of philosophy. But it is another form of reductionism; taking the whole of epistemology and saying, it’s just thoughts. This brings us to one of the most intractable problems in philosophy; that eventually it all just boils down to questions of semantics. Or, to put it another way, you can just keep asking, what do you mean by that?
Thoughts exist, right. But surely, a thought (noun) has to be thought (verb) by a thinker. Amirite? Or am I just lacking rigour in my search for truth? Well, we have to operate pragmatically in our real world, and I think that for most purposes, we accept it as true that thoughts have to be thought by someone. As much as I love the theorising and conceptualising of philosophy, sooner or later, I have to stop gazing into space, and get up and make a sandwich and a coffee, because the thought that I’m hungry and thirsty gets really uncomfortable after a while. To frame the concept of thought otherwise, in this context, is to change the definition of the word thought by restricting it to deployment as a noun exclusively. But changing a definition does not change the thing being defined. Look at it like this: I could compile an alternative dictionary in which I define a triangle as a shape with four sides. It doesn’t mean I’ve changed the shape of a triangle, it just means I’ve changed the definition of a word. I’m not trying to denigrate philosophy, here. I love philosophy, and took a fabulous philosophy module for the elective part of my degree in literature. The point I’m working toward here is twofold:
- If you keep asking why, or how, or in any way just relentlessly drilling down into the detail of any subject, sooner or later, you’re going to end up asking, what do you mean by that, or just challenging or changing definitions of words.
- To be able to debate realistically and pragmatically about anything, you have to agree on the meanings of the terms. If you reject the terms, you reject the debate. You cannot fairly ask someone to explain something if at every single level of explanation you ask a more granular why, or how, or what do you mean by that. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. But why? Because ducks look a certain way, swim a certain way, quack a certain way. But what do you mean by swim? To propel yourself through water by movement of your limbs. But what do you mean by water? Well, it’s the liquid substance you swim through. But what do you mean by substance? And on it goes, until you forget you were discussing the characteristics of ducks. And as I mentioned earlier, this approach is one that can be used maliciously to undermine a statement or argument. Oh, wait. We seem to have reached a familiar point in the blog, at which you are probably wondering, Darren, what has this got to do with autism? Come with me…
Interlude: A brief message
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Reductionism is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it can be useful or stimulating to think of something in terms of its most simple expressions, or constituent parts. Chemistry works on that basis. But sometimes, it’s not so useful. Sometimes, it’s just a lot of nothing buttery. It might be fascinating to observe that the universe and everything in it is nothing but subatomic particles bouncing around at the quantum level, but that doesn’t really explain poetry, love, altruism, or sandwiches in any meaningful way.
Let’s go back to that, Why is the sky blue? question. Is the sky blue because of Rayleigh scattering? Yes, it is. Is the sky blue because of how the cone photoreceptors in our eyes work? Also yes. Is the sky blue because of how our brains interpret the signals from our eyes? Yes, that too. Is the sky blue because there is a certain sensory experience of a certain wavelength of light to which we have applied the semantic label, blue? Actually, yes, that as well.
Someone: “But they can’t all be right! Which is it?”
Me: “Shut up. All those answers are right.”
You see, to carry on asking why, or how, or what do you mean by that, only takes you to another set of words, more descriptors. And no matter how many labels or combinations of labels you use, the wavelengths of light are what they are, eyes and brains are what they are, and so on. To be able to move a conversation forward, at some point you’re going to have to accept the terms and definitions. And so we come to autism, and the willful ignorance of the person, let’s call him John, who said, The trouble with “autism” as a diagnosis or “autistic” as a category of person […] As long as it means so many different things to so many different people, we’re just gonna keep talking past each other. It’s time to smash the spectrum. John cited the claim that when a number of American psychiatrists were asked to independently assess the same patient, they only came to the same diagnosis 30% of the time. He repeatedly made the point that autism is a subjective diagnosis which is effectively meaningless as long as so many people allegedly cannot agree on what it is. He then moves from this disagreement over diagnostics to the conclusion that autism isn’t really a thing; it is nothing but a collection of other, smaller things that should be viewed separately. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, and say that what he is referring to here is the spectrum, but he rejects the notion of the spectrum, saying, “The whole idea of a ‘spectrum’, linear or not, is inherently exclusionary unless everyone is on it.”
I have to say, I responded somewhat sarcastically to John’s comments about the spectrum, with this barb: “Hilarious. Saying some people have blond hair is exclusionary unless everyone is blond! Someone claiming to be tired is excluding all the wide awake folks! Someone do something!” But let’s have a proper look at why he’s wrong.
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Autism is a thing. Autistic people exist. I know this because I am one. You could say, I aut, therefore I am. But how do I knw that? When I talk to other autistic people, we have a shared experience of our autism. Our experiences might not be identical, but there is so much commonality that does not reflect the world experience described by non-autistic people, that we can clearly see the difference. At this level of explanation, autism is a different way of experiencing the world (different from the typical, that is). This is a correct definition as far as it goes, but John would be asking, Why? What do you mean? Tell me what autism actually is.
Okay, John, what kind of definition do you want? Psychiatric? Autism is a recognised psychiatric condition that can be identified through a diagnostic process. But John would rail against this; But the psychiatrists can’t even agree on diagnoses! This is a blind alley for John, though, for two reasons: Firstly, as I have explained in previous blogs, although I do not accept that autism is an illness, and therefore I find the term diagnosis problematic (there’s that language issue again), I nevertheless accept that psychiatrists exist, and they do assess people for autism, and do carry out diagnoses. Diagnosis is a process, and that process has been and is subject to change, development, refinement, and disagreement. That does not mean autism doesn’t exist. Secondly, misdiagnosis in all areas of medical science is extremely common. According to Healthline.com, around 12 million people annually in the USA are misdiagnosed in one way or another. Would John say that because someone is misdiagnosed with, say, lupus rather than MS, that MS doesn’t exist? Second opinions, and disagreements over diagnoses happen all the time. This does not mean that medical conditions do not exist, so why should that principle be any different for autism?
Now, let’s tackle John’s reductionist claim that autism is nothing but a collection of other things. John can dismiss the spectrum all he likes, but whatever labels he chooses to use, and however close he zooms in; however granular his resolution, he is still describing what the rest of us call the spectrum. He might demand a host of different terms to label different constituent elements, but the whole is the whole, and that whole is the autism spectrum.
There is still a huge amount of misunderstanding out there about what we mean when we refer to the spectrum. And, John, it’s not a case of “linear or not”: there is no linear spectrum of autism from mild to severe; that is not what the spectrum means at all. It has always referred to, and still refers to, the vast array of autism components. Perhaps this somewhat daunting array is to difficult for John to grasp as a collective entity. It seems that because he can’t understand the concept of the spectrum; because he cannot accept that something so complex could have a single, simple, descriptor, then, in his mind, it must not exist. Unfortunately for John, the objective existence of something does not depend on his capacity to understand it. Thoughts come from thinkers, John, and autistic traits come from autism.
The fact that autistic people can have such different autisms but still all be autistic is what the spectrum is all about. I get it; it’s not easy to grasp. I’ve sometimes described it as each autistic person having a unique set of coordinates on the spectrum. Note, not just one coordinate; but a multiplicity. We are each made up of the selection of pick-and-mix of coordinates on offer. And those coordinates are dynamic, subject to fluctuation in expression at varied times and in varying intensities. But these autistic characteristics never go away, because they are intrinsic; they are what makes us what we are. To deny the existence of autism through some half-arsed, reductive nothing buttery is to deny the existence of autistic people. It is an attempt to diminish us, to dismiss us as a mirage, to leave us to suffer in silence and fear in a world that is all too often utterly alien to us. But it is an attempt that will fail because, as much as John might like to say we are not here, we are here. And we’re answering back.
That’s all for this week. Join me next week for the first anniversary of the blog. Until then, take care, be good, stay proud.
Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.