Aspergers Syndrome – an autistic type of neurodiversity

What to you think of when hearing the word autism?

How about truthful, knowledgeable, intelligent, just and skilled? not words you would normally link to a disorder.

Just below there is a picture of Dr. Temple Grandin –  a designer of livestock handling facilities and a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University (www.grandin.com or www.templegrandin.com the last one is on autism)

Unless you already know someone on the autism spectrum,” autism” might make you think of the movie Rainman or video clips of children flapping their hands, repeating sounds (stimming) or being lost in the observation of a washing machine. This is a very narrow view of autism, and does not really include the reality, that people with autism can be in either end of the autistic spectrum – and everything in between. We will now take a look at what this spectrum looks like:

cornwall.gov.uk(cornwall.gov.uk)

Note that this figure is a simplified version of what the spectrum really contains, but we need to start simple, to get the right basis for understanding this wholly other form of functioning.

For someone with an autistic brain, with average to above average IQ it can be a rather confusing thing to live in this world. These will usually end up getting diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome  (AS) or perhaps the more fuzzy terms such as Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) og PDD Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Most people in the world today have, what is usually called, a neurotypical (NT) brain. This term, however, does not take into account, that normal isn’t always just the larger number. Please take a moment now, to consider that before reading on.

I want to give the world another album to look at, when autism comes to mind. People with Aspergers Syndrome will in many cases never make their friends and family think along the lines of autism (unless they know, are diagnosed, and have told friends and family). They may seem somewhat unique or eccentric, but they will often be popular (with those who know them) because of their intense knowledge in certain subjects that they have a special interest in, because of their high IQ and thus brilliant problem solving brains, because of some servant skills like outstanding memory or magnificent drawing skills, or they will be a nice friend to someone they trust because of their ability to look at situations without emotional bias, therefore being very objective. They will not have the need to be at the top of some social hierarchy, and this makes them very easygoing. Most Aspergers also view truth as holy. They will not lie, or they will lie only for very good reasons such as saving lives and the like. They will also defend the truth, and thus at times do some socially very unacceptable things, because the truth, in their view, is more important than someone feeling good about some fake belief.

Aspergers in books and movies include the no-nonsense Lisbeth Salander in the Stieg Larsson book trilogy (Män som hatar kvinnor / The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (1), Flickan som lekte med elden / The Girl Who Played With Fire (2), Luftslottet som sprängdes / The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (3)) which can also be seen as movies in both swedish and american versions, forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan in the fox series Bones, and police officer Saga Norén in the danish-swedish series Bron / Broen / The Bridge – just to mention some of my own favorites. One could also watch the series Big Bang Theory for male versions in a comic setting, read or watch Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer for a young boy account (I’ve read the book and I loved it), or spend time in the company of Mr. Spock watching Star Trek.

     
I want to emphasize that autism should be viewed as a neruological diversity rather than a disorder. True enough there are autistic people with great difficulties, but they most times stem from  the clash with the world, and in particular other people, and not from autism in itself. It is rather the lack of knowledge and understanding of the autistic culture which causes these problems, more than it is autism itself. When autism is coupled with low IQ, however, then life becomes tough – as for any nerotypical (NT) with low IQ.

Being autistic also means having other values as first priority, than most other people (i.e. the NTs). It means placing truth over social unwritten rules, knowledge and logic over emotions and gut-feelings, dressing practically rather than cool / sexy / formal. But when you are outnumbered – bad things happen. Many get bullied in school or at work because they are misunderstood. Apartheid was ended in the beginning of the 1990-ies, still raceological minorities many places in the world are being mistreated in their societies. Different cultures and different ways of being in the world – are not inherently wrong! But many forget this.  This is also very evident in my home country, Denmark, where anyone with a different skin color might be seen as a suspicious person, no matter how well danish they speak. Many cannot find jobs that match their education – I think we might have some of the best educated taxi-drivers in my country. Needles to say – it is not something to be proud of. So what about the autists? This is a minority with a slightly different situation. You cannot tell from the outside that someone has autism. Therefore people expect you to be ‘normal’ or ‘like the majority’ I would prefer to say. When you are different – you will even be rejected or if you are lucky, someone will keep an open mind and try to understand you.

A story:

The Alphapeople of Alphaland were a proud people with old traditions. They were warriors and strength and courage were amongst their ideals. In another place the Betapeople lived. They were the sofisticated inhabitants of the Betaland and held long standing traditions of inner strength and endurance. Nature was, to them, a holy organism and their ideals were to live in balance with all of the natural world around them. Located far from both Alphaland and Betaland was the posh people of Gammaland. These people were engineers of heart and loved to build. This had also become their means of surviving in their environment, since protection from the harsh conditions was vital. They were a practical people, yet with traditions of their own.  

Then came a time, when the Alpha-, Beta- and Gammapeople all had ideas of exploring. The Alphapeople made expiditions by foot and went strongly on crossing mountains and rivers. The Betapeople would walk slowly, but diligently and were able to maintain a constant speed with very few pauses. The Gammapeople had built boats and were sailing out on the sea. On one very special day – all three peoples met on a foreign beach. They were rather surprised to see others that looked to like themselves in one way – yet so different in other ways. Not so long after they had all arrived, the Alphas, Betas and Gammas were attacked by a large group of wild animals that had noticed the many newcomers. They all fought in their own ways, even helped each other where they could, but all three groups had dead relatives amongst them.

The Alphas, who believed the strenght of an individiual could be passed on through intake, cut their relatives in pieces and ate. Both the Betas and Gammas were disgusted by this sight. The Betas, who believed in the natural way, left their deads in suitable places and waited for birds and ants to devour their loved ones. Both the Alphas and the Gammas were horrified by the lack of respect they felt the Betas showed the dead. The Gammas were builders, and they started cutting down trees and building coffins. Then they put their dead in the coffins, sealed them and let them sail of into the sea. The Alphas and Betas thought the Gammas were rather mad to build these little prisons for those who needed to be set free for their afterlife.

Who did the right thing?

I will end this post by reminding us all that what is different is not wrong. There are many ways to live a life, but we should all have that in common, that we try to take different perspectives – even when we think we are right.

Autism should be viewed as a cultural difference within the human species. It has a neurological background, meaning autistic brains function differently from NT brains, and the emphasis is not on socializing and feeling but on knowledge and logic.

Next time you see someone doing something you don’t understand – just ask. Communicating and sharing knowledge will help us all.

About Sif S. Stewart-Ferrer

Passion for knowledge - especially the philosophy of natural science. Currently involved with the Initiative for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) in the Living Technology branch. Student at University of Southern Denmark and Honors Student at Center for Fundamental Living Technology (FLinT, www.flint.sdu.dk). Part of the 2010 Team:SDU-Denmark in the international MIT competition in synthetic biology known by the name of iGEM (www.igem.org). Martial Arts practicioner with 1st dan (black belt) in Aikido. Likes to talk, draw, play, write, teach, design, climb, sing and dance.
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12 Responses to Aspergers Syndrome – an autistic type of neurodiversity

  1. Great post and visual. Thanks. I’m an Aspie Mom with and one of my three boys has Aspergers too.

  2. Thanks! Really glad you liked it :) I checked out your blog too – really nice!

  3. Wow! Thanks for this. I felt good after reading it! :)

  4. Natalia says:

    I am totally agree with you point that we need to accept autisme like neruological diversity rather than a disorder. I am have a child 5,5 y.o. wuth autisme. And I do know, what you are talking about. Fine article.
    Natalia, mother to David Valdemar with autisme. Dk, Aarhus

    • Dear Natalia,
      Thank you :)
      I am glad to hear how we share this view of autism :) My hope is that this message will get out to many people! Both in Denmark where I also live, and in other parts of the world.
      -Sif

  5. Equinoxe says:

    Temple Grandin’s such a marvelous person! ^.^

    I’m awfuly glad you taught people about her, Madame Scmidt-Petersen! ^.^

  6. Equinoxe says:

    Ooh!! Sorry! I wrote «Scmidt» but it is Schmidt… I’m so sorry!

    • No worries with the name Equinoxe :)
      Yes, Temple Grandin is great! And she is coming to Denmark next year – I’m so excited :D
      Best, Sif

      • Equinoxe says:

        Oh my God!! I’m almost jealous! ^.^ Seriously, you European poeple are soooooo lucky! I live in the province of Quebec and we don’t recieve such visits often…
        Anyways, you have the deepests respect from me, a proud Quebecer! ^.^

        Have a nice day!

  7. Rae says:

    I realize you posted this a while ago, but I just saw it shared on Facebook today, which is why I’m only now reading and commenting. This is a great post, and I agree with a lot of it. I’m Autistic, and I appreciate the fact that you’re educating people about the Autism spectrum. But I do have to take issue with the visual you put on here to show what the Autism spectrum is. You did say that it’s a simplified version, but I actually think it’s a very problematic version. This is because IQ is not always correlated with severity of Autism symptoms. Intellectual disability and learning disability is not the same as Autism. It is a misnomer to say that people with “classic Autism” have a low IQ. The Autism spectrum is absolutely not a continuum of high IQ to low IQ. It’s a continuum of mild to severe Autism symptoms…things like: verbal communication, nonverbal communication, restricted repetitive behaviors, sensory dysfunction, executive dysfunction, rigidity, etc. It’s even more complex because each of those symptoms exist on a continuum.

    To add weight to my claim that “classic” Autistics don’t necessarily have a low IQ or severe learning disabilities, I would refer you to Carly Fleishmann, Amanda Baggs, and Amy Sequenzia. These three women are all non-speaking Autistics, who have many severe Autism symptoms. Carly has written a very successful book, and Amanda and Amy have successful blogs and are prominent Autistic advocates. They are all highly intelligent, and yet all have “severe” Autism. Some people who have “high functioning” Autism (I put that in quotes because Autistic people don’t like functioning labels) have severe learning disabilities. They might have a high IQ, but that might be masked because of their learning disabilities. However, psychologists would still call them “high functioning” because their Autistic symptoms might not be as severe. I know that you were attempting to just give a simplified diagram that illustrated the variability of the spectrum, but I think there’s a more accurate way you can do this. You’re right that we do view the truth as holy, which is why I felt compelled to post this comment. :P Again, I do want to say that I enjoyed so much of this post, and I appreciate the educating and advocating that you’re doing.

    • Hello Rae,
      Thank you very much for your comment and for bringing to my attention the problems of the diagram. I have to admit that I fully agree with your assessment – it is somewhat misleading that the type of autism seems so closely correlated with IQ, since this is not always the case. I remember having trouble finding a good diagram at the time I wrote the article and I ended up using the one you see.

      Given this review, I will try to find a better one as a replacement though. So, again, thank you!

      Best,
      Sif

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