Tag Archives: neurology

Autism changed my religion

I occasionally talk about autism and religion, but not very often. I tend to believe that religion is incredibly personal – my beliefs are mine alone, and I have no interest in convincing other people to believe what I believe. So while my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome had a profound impact on my beliefs about self and soul, it kind of feels awkward to talk about it here. Nonetheless, I think I’m going to anyway.

So to go over the beginning – it all started with my diagnosis, then with my reading, as I do. I learned that autism is neurological – it’s in my brain. I read about a number of studies showing structural differences between autistic brains and neurotypical brains. To put it simply – autism is physical. It’s right there in the structure of the brain.

Then, not long after, I heard someone in my religious group talking about the (fairly typical, in my experience) religious belief of, basically, “you are your soul, you have a body.”

Suddenly I realized that this common belief, one I grew up with and did not really question, did not fit me anymore. I do not see my autism as something simply attached to me, like a body that a soul happens to be sitting in at the moment. Autism is intrinsic to who I am. Which means my body is intrinsic to who I am. I cannot separate the two anymore.

At first this just caused confusion and some level of angst. I looked for opinions from other people, but I was still struggling to put the concept into words. Also, I was friends with many atheists who simply didn’t believe in souls at all and took the questions as a “nature vs nurture” thing. That was not what I was trying to get at at all.

Now, just so I will hopefully not be too confusing – my beliefs are fluid. They have been ever since I went away from christianity and towards paganism. I have notice that many people find the fluidity of my beliefs confusing, as well as the peace I have made with the fact that what I believe now will change over time, not always in predictable ways. For me, a change in my beliefs is not painful, it is simply part of life.

One of the first major changes was moving from a transcendent view of reality – where the physical and the divine are separate, towards an immanent view of reality – where the physical and divine are together as one. Since I cannot separate myself from my body, perhaps I cannot actually separate my soul from my body either. Maybe that’s not how it works. Maybe I’m not some coherent soul going from body to body through rebirths, or into some kind of afterlife with a deity. But then, what am I?

Well, my body is almost like a wave of matter through time. I am made up of the matter and molecules that I consume (and convert), and those atoms and molecules and cells of my body are constantly rotating through. I am always losing molecules (for instance, the outer layer of skin flaking off, as it does, and my body generating new skin beneath, as it does), and I am always gaining new molecules through my food and drink. Yet while the matter itself is constantly coming and going, the structure of myself remains much, though not entirely, the same. My brain continues it’s autistic structure, my skeleton stays the way it is, my basic layout does not change.

So now I seem to believe that my “soul” (however much I believe in a soul) is much the same. It is simply the current iteration of “me,” made up of… well, I don’t know yet. The current collection of some small portion of all that is sacred and divine. What are souls made of anyway? I also seem to have some version of panentheism going on. Everything is god – including the gods (so yes, I am still a polytheist as well). Everything is sacred, everything carries a portion of the divine. The portion of me that is divine is, basically, my “soul.” And perhaps when I die, my soul will disperse into the greater universe the same way my body will decompose and return to the earth it came from.

All that change, from one little (huge) diagnosis.


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So I watch this youtube series called Sexplanations that is super interesting and has lots of good information. Dr. Doe (the writer and narrator) put out a video on flirting that I kind of want to respond to. It was really interesting and informative, but I found myself with mixed feelings.

So first of all, apparently researchers have broken down and categorized how flirting works and have it all out there explicitly. If you’re anything like me, analyzing stuff like this is great! It’s a solid, step-by-step guide to help us understand flirting. Or at least, typical flirting.

If you don’t want to watch the video for whatever reason, here is a summary of what the video went over.

Dr. Doe defines flirting thusly: “Flirting is signalling intimate interest and it’s also determining whether or not the interest is mutual.”

The stages of flirting are as follows:
1. Field of Eligibles. This is basically where you show up at a bar or party or whatever and signal
a) I am here
b) this is my gender
c) you may approach me
through various non-verbal signals.

2. Eye contact. It is supposed to be more than one second but less than three. Also acceptable is many quick glances. This indicates interest.

3. Approach. Self explanatory, I think.

4. Talk. “Observe what you have in common and focus on that.” This is meant to be personalized, but not personal (and I’m not even going to try to get into the potential mess of defining the precise difference between the two). Basically, talk about things, but don’t be invasive.

5. Swivel and Turn. This is when the people go from a more side-to-side posture to a more face-to-face posture.

6. The touch. Casual touching. The general idea is that if it’s reciprocated or met with a smile or otherwise obviously positive response, that’s good and you can continue flirting. If the person startles or flinches, you should politely end the conversation/flirtation and move on.

7. Synchronization. This is when movements, breathing, looks around the room, etc all start to synchronize between the two people. Apparently it happens unconsciously.

She also makes a point to tell us that if at any point the flirtation seems confusing or jumbled or something, it’s time to end the flirtation and move on.

There was also explicit talk of consent, making sure everyone is on the same page, and accepting any kind of “no.” In many ways I found this video most informative, and I think other people would too. While it’s unlikely that I could flirt like that, for a variety of reasons, it might help me understand other people’s behavior. It gives me a baseline for interaction.

On the other hand, bits of it made me sad. For instance, the physical contact part. I generally need to hold off physical contact a lot longer than your average neurotypical person. I mean, your average neurotypical starts touching strangers RIGHT AWAY with that handshake thing. The touching part of flirting will, for most people, happen much sooner than I would be comfortable with. If someone I was just starting to talk to reached out and touched my hand, I would almost certainly wince and jerk away. Since in an NT this would probably be a non-verbal no, it would make sense for a person to interpret it that way from me, but that would be sad and frustrating for me if I was enjoying the flirtation.

Another other one was eye contact. The most I do is really quick glances at a person’s face, and I pretty much never increase that for anyone, over any length of time. Unlike touching this one is not even a matter of mismatched timing – it’s just a drastic difference between autistics and NTs. Again, it would be normal and natural for someone to assume the fact that I’m looking away a lot is a sign of disinterest since apparently it’s that way for other people, but it would be sad-making when people interpreted it that way for me.

I also find myself wondering about the synchronization bit. There’s interesting neuroscience out there about mirror neurons that I don’t really want to get into right now, but the general idea is that autistic people might have more difficulty synchronizing than NTs. Our brains just don’t work that way. So, like touching, at best this probably means that my timescale might be very different from many other people’s timescale, and it might be easy for a person to read lack of interest in a simple difference.

Finally, there was the bit about how we should just stop if things feel jumbled or confused. And really, I mostly agree with her. It’s important for people to be on the same page, and if it’s just not working to be willing to let go. However, anything as complex as all this flirting business is going to feel jumbled and complicated to me, and I don’t want to be told that I can’t play the game at all just because I’m neurologically different.

I’m not really sure what conclusions to draw from this, though. I mean, I’m certainly not going to go saying that the neurotypical way of flirting is wrong in some broad, objective way. Apparently enough people do it this way for researchers to sketch an outline, and it seems to work for many. Maybe even most. It’s just not the right way of flirting for me. I need to do things differently. Maybe I just need to play a slightly different game.

I’ll be honest – I do online dating. I’m actually not in the least bit ashamed of it, though I’ve noticed that some people find it less-than in some way. I’ve found it to be way better than managing meeting strangers in person. When we start with writing, I can explicitly communicate my needs and my differences, and how people respond to that will tell me a lot about whether or not I want to move forward at all. Anyone who thinks that refraining from all physical contact for at least the first few hours is some kind of terrible ordeal is not the person for me. Anyone who thinks regular eye contact is a must is not the person for me. And I can get that out of the way quickly, with significantly lower risk of miscommunication due to different forms of non-verbal language. I like words. Let’s use them!

I don’t want to say that autistics should only date other autistics and NTs should only date other NTs. I mean, I get kinda twitchy at many forms of “[group] should only date other people in [group].” Let’s not go there. But getting past it is going to take explicit communication, and fair or not, it’s going to mean the smaller group (you know, us) will need to be clear about what we need and how we work. We can do that, right?

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Lemme talk to you about my eyes. Or, well, not my eyes. The process of seeing, and a rare occurrence that happens when I don’t know what I’m looking at.

Not long ago I was in Wilmington, in a car on the way to the train station. There was a lot of traffic backed up on several streets, so we turned down one that wasn’t busy and suddenly saw a tall masted ship crossing the road! Or, well, it was going down the river right in front of us, and the bridges were all up to let it past, which is why traffic was backed up.

Also, I didn’t see a tall masted ship. The person I was with saw the tall masted ship, and pointed it out. I saw a jumble of colors and shapes going across in front of me. For several seconds that’s all I saw. Ok, that’s not quite right either. I saw everything else just fine, resolved into visual sense, but there in the middle was a bunch of shapes and colors where I was told there was a ship. After a brief but confusing few seconds, the ship suddenly went “pop!” and there it was! A tall masted ship crossing the street! Wow!

This is a thing that happens to me once in a while. If I don’t know what something is supposed to be, I might not be able to resolve the shapes and colors into anything that makes visual sense. At least, not at first. I have occasionally read of autistic people who are living permanently in a space of shapes and colors that never resolve into images, and I consider myself fortunate that it’s something that only happens to me once in a while, for short periods of time. The most consistent times it happens is in the lobbies of movie theaters, if they have one of those 3-D cardboard cutouts promoting a movie. Once I looked at one while leaving the theater and, once again, saw nothing but shapes and colors. I wanted to figure out what it was so I stayed and studied it for a minute or two. I had to carefully pick out individual pieces – here was a chain, there was a face, down here is a tire, now I see a foot, and eventually I managed to put it all together (it was a guy on a motorcycle wielding a chain).

I don’t know much about neurology, but I do occasionally get curious about how our brains do vision. Apparently it’s actually a fairly complicated process involving different parts of our brains doing different things to put pictures together, and one of the most fundamental parts is the part of our brain that handles shapes and colors and such. I’d actually love to be able to talk about this in terms of neurology but unless I can find a neurologist to interview, I’m going to have to make do with reading books by Oliver Sacks and such, and leave the educated brain stuff to the people who actually know what they’re talking about.

However, one thing I definitely have gathered from reading books like Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks is that the lenses in my eyes may project a picture onto my retina, but it’s my brain that turns that image into something I can make sense of, and this process is actually quite complicated with all sorts of parts of the brain doing different things.

(warning: ramble ahead) When I think about this I tend to get a little philosophical about order and categories and labels and the way we turn the world around us into something we can make sense of. Sometimes I see discussions about this or that animal that is defying our categories, refusing to be neatly placed within the lines we’ve drawn around all living things, and people often react with astonishment, at how weird that animal must be. Until eventually (and this does frequently happen, though not always) someone comes along and reminds us all that nature does not care about our categories. Our categories are ours – we made them up in an attempt to create order; to make sense of the world around us. However, the world is not bound by those categories and sometimes they will fall short.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but it’s something I like to remind myself of. That nothing in the world is as neatly placed as we are pretending it is. And this is coming from someone who really likes labels. I just think it’s really important to remember the limitations of labels. We can draw a line around something in an attempt to understand it, but ultimately that line will fall short. However, as with our brain making sense of what our eyes tell us, those categories are actually really important. I would not be able to functionally see if I was not able to take those shapes and colors and turn them into coherent images – seeing that this shape belongs with the tree but that shape belongs with the fence and so on and so forth.

Though I do sometimes think it would be cool if I could choose to not visually process so far, and only see the world as those shapes and colors all jumbled together, with no rhyme or reason involved. But only if I could choose to go back at any time. I may be artificially creating order, but it’s pretty darn useful to do.


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1 in 88

Apparently the CDC recently released a study claiming that now 1 in 88 children have autism.  I’ve been seeing a large number of articles and blogs about that, with lots of speculation as to why it could be happening.  The answers seem to largely be split between “better testing” and the usual conspiracy theorists talking about vaccines or “toxins” or other such things.  I did, however, find two articles to be particularly interesting.

This article was one that I found talking about the issue.  There was one particular sentence towards the end that really jumped out at me.  “[The CDC] checked health and school records to see which children met the criteria for autism, even if they hadn’t been formally diagnosed.”

Maybe it’s just me, but that seems very, very odd.  Health and school records do not a diagnosis make.  Instead, what it seems to be is that 1 in 88 children might have an autism spectrum disorder, but it does not seem at all reasonable to treat that statistic like an actual fact, given how it was achieved.

This brings me to a blog post I found talking about the issue.  In it, a parent of a child with a developmental delay (DD) cautiously speculates that maybe an increasing number of children with DD might be getting lumped in with autism, even if they don’t actually fit.  Why might this be happening?  Well, there is a lot of overlap.  They can look superficially similar, and it can require more careful testing to determine what is actually going on.  Even worse, parents have incentive to diagnose their developmentally delayed child with autism, regardless of whether or not it’s accurate because apparently right now autistic children get better support and more services than children with other developmental delays.

I was actually rather shocked when I read that last article.  Not just because of what it said, but because I realized that in my ponderings on Asperger’s and autism, thoughts of other DDs had never even crossed my mind.  I like the idea of neurodiversity and autism pride and celebrating differences and all that stuff, but how can I champion neurodiversity while privileging ASDs above other forms of DDs or neurological differences?  The answer is – I can’t.  Yes, my personal focus is Asperger’s because that’s what I have, but I can at least keep in mind that there is more to neurodiversity than autism and NTs (neurotypicals).  April is autism awareness month, which I’m sure is a good thing for many people, but I think for me it’s also a good time to remember that there are other things that also deserve awareness, and they seem to be getting lost in the noise.

All of which leads me to speculate if maybe the people doing that CDC study were unconsciously privileging autism as well – lumping children with overlapping symptoms into autism, even if they fit something else better.  I guess that’s another way of saying that I’m not so sure I trust this 1 in 88 statistic.

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an excellent quotation

“Autism isn’t something a person has, or a shell that a person is trapped inside. There’s no normal child hidden behind the autism. Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion and encounter – every aspect of existence. It is not possible to separate the autism from the person – and if it were possible, the person you’d have left would not be the same person you started with.”

-Jim Sinclair

From here.

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Identity, a ramble

This is something I’ve been thinking about for maybe a month or so.  My thoughts are not fully coherent yet and I have not yet figured out a good way to articulate the things that I am thinking, so I don’t know how much sense this post will make.  Still, I figure that I can give it a shot and see how it goes.

I have been thinking about the concept of self-ness and identity.  Specifically, of what exactly that’s made of.  Really, this is sort of a metaphysical, quasi-religious, quasi-philosophical type of question, but part of what inspired it was my diagnosis of Asperger’s, so I figured it could put it here.  Basically, I am wondering what exactly brings about my sense of me, my who-ness.  It’s hard to ask the question because it’s hard to put words to what I’m thinking of.

Ok, so I have a concept of self.  My personality, if you will.  Since getting my diagnosis, I started working on integrating that into my identity.  It is sometimes said that Asperger’s is not something a person has, it’s something that a person is.  What Asperger’s really is (as far as I know, at least) is a neurological difference.  My brain structure is different somehow than the “normal” brain structure, and that does not just impact how I function, it impacts who I am.

Additionally, I have been reading a few books by Oliver Sacks.  He writes some interesting things on neurological problems that impact identity.  Then a few days ago I was at a pagan gathering, and I listened in on a conversation from some people regarding the idea of eternal souls.  So then I started wondering, for those who believe in souls, where do they see the line between soul and body in making up a person’s identity?

I grew up as a very conservative christian, and I am aware of their basic idea of things.  “You do not have a soul.  You are a soul, you have a body.”  In other words, your “self-ness” is only your soul, which just happens to be attached to your body for a while.  Many of them seem to deny the possibility that something as mundane as physical form can impact one’s self.  I don’t know much about what atheists would say to this questions, but I suppose at least some of them would take the opposite stance, that our self is purely a matter of physical form, neurology, brain chemicals, etc.  Nor do I know a whole lot about what pagans would say, aside from the basic fact that there is probably a plethora of opinions out there.  I still haven’t figured out what I think.  I sort of believe in a soul, I guess.  At the very least, I’m not so sure that I am only my body and nothing more, and I don’t really know what other options there are.

Yeah, this wasn’t very coherent.  Maybe I’m wondering where the line is between body and soul?  I keep trying to figure out if there is an atheist version of this question, but I’m having trouble figuring out how that would work.

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