Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Yes Means Yes

"But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
- Jesus, Matthew 5:37, KJV

There have been many books and articles written on how to communicate with people on the autistic spectrum. There is advice on physical contact, eye contact, body language, using Social Stories, being conscious for literalism in language, and so on.  When respecting the individuality of the communication style of each person with an autistic spectrum condition (ASC), these guides can be of value.  The well-written ones resemble an etiquette guide to a foreign culture, and may even be a sign of progress because of it, in that they have the potential to reframe ASC characteristics as another valid way of being - like a foreign culture - rather than disordered because non-normative.  But if I were asked (in a contrived scenario) to sum up how to talk to me as an ASC person, I would quote Matthew 5:37.

Or, to attempt an impromptu Biblical paraphrase: 

Mean exactly what you say.  
Say exactly what you mean. 

This sounds so simple as to be obvious, so uncomplex as to be facetious.  Just-say-exactly-what-you-mean. Yet many people find straightforward communication almost impossible.  
This is due in part to our social conditioning and the masks (personae) we are trained to wear.  The vast majority of human communication in this age is insincere.  So much of social interaction consists of posturing, posing, one-upmanship, vying for status, flirting, subtle power dynamics, coded discourses of inclusion or exclusion, game playing.  As an ASC person I sometimes feel like an anthropologist watching the interaction of a social grouping from a detached distance, objectively noting and sometimes shaking my head at the transparency and ubiquity of falseness in the way people interact.  

As a hobby I participate in Live Action Role-Playing, or LARP.  It is a sort of spontaneous, improvisational theatre with a running storyline and, often, combat with foam weapons.  Picture Dungeons & Dragons, but rather than the players rolling dice on a tabletop, they are actually running around in the woods fighting in character.  LARP for me is tremendously liberating, in that it enables me to temporarily inhabit a society with alternative social codes, and where the 'social scripts' - what I am supposed to say or do in any given situation - are so clear. If I am playing a chivalrous knight, I act chivalrous.  If I am playing an orc, I act gruff and orcish. However, in LARP, sometimes players need to get out of their role, when they have been "killed" in role-played combat, or are just leaving the area of play.  In the game system I play in, they put up their index character to indicate that they are going 'OOC' - Out  of Character.  The player then detaches from the artificial social code of the game and becomes again their "real" self rather than the persona they have temprorarily adopted.  

As a person with Asperger's, I feel like the whole world I LARPing, and I am OOC.  Neurotypical people are playing roles and characters - the Macho Guy, the Successful Man, the Attractive Person - and spending much of their time and effort maintaining their character through language and acquisition of material accoutrements such as styles of clothing to maintain the character.  As a person on the spectrum, I am out of the game and watching it all and seeing how contrived it all is.  
At this point I am aware that I am sounding something like the classic adolescent archetype of Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye, lamenting that everyone is a "fake and a phony" as well as his own inability to do anything about it.  I am not saying that most people are consciously being insincere or in character, more that insincere interactions are such an ingrained habit as to be unconscious and unquestioned.  

Unfortunately, in a society where insincerity and inauthenticity are as omnipresent as the air, one has to breathe the air to survive.  To get by in a such a society, everyone must adopt a little bit of fauxness, suppress their honesty and play the game.  To be employable, one must learn to suppress communicating one's honest feelings about co-workers an employers, as well as restraining one's innate desire for justice.  To find a partner in the mainstream "dating scene" - to escape from solitude - necessitates the projection of an attractive yet constructed facade, and the use of verbal gamesmanship and flattery.  

To achieve any modicum of 'success' in worldy terms, therefore, requires putting on the cloak of false communication, and autistic people in general simply cannot do that. I once heard the definition [and I wish I remembered the source] that "autism is the pathological inability to be insincere.".  ASC people say exactly what they mean, mean exactly what they say, speak honestly and expect honesty from others.  Since they find it difficult to understand facades, much less how build them, they present their unvarnished self to the world.  They see no reason to lie and would find it difficult to keep up a lie if they tried.  

In any culture's definition of good behavior, those count as virtues: honesty, forthrightness clarity, sincerity.  And yet when people emerge who by their neurological makeup cannot but manifest these qualities, it is termed a 'disorder' because it diverges from a social code, predicated upon inauthenticity, which is itself disordered.  

Yet this statement is tempered by realising how deeply ingrained social game-playing is into our 'habitus' of being, perhaps so deeply as to be inextricable.  Yet perhaps those with the most commonly occuring neural configuration may grow to see wisdom in the counsel of the Sermon on the Mount, of saying 'yes' when they mean yes, and no when they mean no.  

Monday, 4 April 2011

Etymologies of Resistance for 'Autistic' and 'Asperger's'

I use the word 'Autistic' with reservations, acknowledging that its validity and range are the zone of a constantly shifting 'word game' a la Ludwig Wittgenstein (who I must admit I have not read yet but have heard summarised.  Pretending to have read books one has not in order to claim status is another confusing social custom).  

For some in the medical profession, 'Autistic' refers to a specific set of symptoms, which when they occur together become syndromal.  Medicalizing discourse draws a distinction between so-called 'lower-functioning' people, who are termed 'Autistic', and so called 'higher functioning' people, who are given labels such as 'Asperger's, Pervasive Development Disorder, etc.' Labelling creates socially constructed subjects, it also attempts to divide up the essentially organic continuum of characteristics which occur within a portion of the organic, unified whole that is humanity.  Most such labelling, in the final analysis, makes such distinctions according to the perceived economic value of individuals, rather than their intrinsic worth as human beings.  

In writing this blog, I will consciously resist being drawn into a discourse of 'low vs. high functioning', seeing each individual as possessing infinite intrinsic worth as a child and creation of God, rather than their production value to others.  'Autism', in this setting, refers to a continuum or field of characteristics, identities and selfhoods on which individuals can be situated at various points, and indeed move among points throughout their existences.  The term is used because of its familiarity and name-recognition value.  But the word 'Autism' is not without its problems. 

'Autism' comes from the Greek word 'αὐτός'  (autos) for 'self', the same root as in 'automobile' or 'autobiography'.  It means, quite literally, self-ism.  This is both a factually and discursively inaccurate term.  'Autistic' people may face difficulties in social communication, but they are by no means intrinsically self-centred incapable of communication, and any other negative connotation 'self-ism' implies.  They are indeed fully capable of showing love, expressive communication, serving others, and indeed altruism when not societally hindered from doing so.  'Self-ism' also carries negative moral connotations of selfishness, which are also manifestly prejudicial. One autistic person challenged the term by inverted its Latin etymology, coining the word 'heterism' for the neurotypical mode of being. 

The term 'Asperger's, which defines my own span of the autism spectrum bandwidth, is also problematic.  The term derives from the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger (1906-1980) who codified the condition.  While his definitions may have been of some use, my own being is not defined and encompassed by some Austrian doctor's syndrome description. 

With a view to subverting these labels, I would like to propose some alternative etymologies.  Etymology, the history and origin of words, is one of my own 'special interests' and one of the motives for my study of Old Norse at University.  One game I play is to take a modern English word of Old Norse/Old English deriviation and trace it back to its Indo-European origin based on phenomena such as vowel shifts.  Etymology also conditions the meaning of words in their modern form, and so proposing alternative 'folk etymologies', however artificial, can still serve to shift the boundaries of the word game and invert the power of the label. 

Take 'Autism':  αὐτός  in Greek means 'self', but aut in Latin means 'either...or'.  Its derivative autem means 'on the other hand' and 'moreover'.  Herein is one of the blessings of autistic minds.  They think laterally, unconventionally, far outside the box.  Where society says there is only one way, they say 'on the other hand'. Where unjust social structures say 'take only this path' they say 'either...or'.  Minds on the spectrum see possibilities where others may see closed doors, options where others may see determinism.  With the Latin, rather than the Greek etymology, 'Autism' is a term of power. 

For 'Asperger's': In French, an asperger is one who sprinkles holy water.  Therefore, to be an Asperger is to be one who sprinkles blessings upon those around us.  A slight change of spelling among the bilabial plosive phonemes (b/p) and an accent on the /A/ gives us another sanctifying Old Norse alternative etymology.  'Ás' means a god of the pantheon of the Æsir (who dwell in 'Ásgarðr', or Asgard). 'Berger' is one who dwells in a city or fortress, from where we get the words 'burgher' and the city-suffix '-burg'.  So a person with  'Ásberger' is 'one who dwells in the fortress of the Viking Gods.' Tell that to the local bully!  

A Gordian Knot and some initial caveats

A previous post described my manner of thinking as associative.  Another term that might work is 'mushrooming', in the sense that an individual mushroom sends off thousands of spores which generate a multitude of other mushrooms in a rapid and always more dense cycle of generation.  In other words, when I free-associate, each thought in that chain of ideas spins off ten other ideas in multiple directions in the mental space, which in turn engender their own ramifications, which then cross and interweave with previous ramifications.  When well-managed, this is a blessing in that I can spin out creative ideas relatively quickly.  The negative side is that these ever-expanding chains of ramifying ideas can, in a sense, plait together in my mind until my mental space becomes filled with matted-together ideas without outcome. I have heard it suggested that so-called 'low-functioning' autistic people are in fact generating new thoughts at such a rapid rate that it is difficult to extricate themselves from them to focus on such mundane matters as social mores.  When I reach such a state of cognitive kudzu-encrustation, the best way to extricate my thought-process is to temporarily halt the process, pray and meditate, and try to summon a sense of mental calm which will slice through this Gordian knot and enable my thought process to proceed onward.

In order to pre-empt these blockages, one lesson I have learned is that I need to stricly delimit the boundaries of projects before I begin them.  There have been many, many times in my school and academic career when I have not submitted an essay due to an over-abundance of ideas coming too thick and fast to make sense of them.  If each line of an essay generates ten ramifying ideas which beget ten more, by the time I am at the third line the mental idea-plaits have already begun to form.  Having made a habit of this form of personally-developed adaption, I will not setting down the boundaries of the project of an Autistic Spirituality Blog. 

N.B. the use of 'an', rather than 'the'.  Though this is the first blog on this general theme which I have come across, it may not be the first and if it is, I hope it is the first of many.  There are as many autistic spiritualities as there are autistic people, if one defines 'spirituality' as something along the lines of 'the many ways in which a being engages with that which is beyond itself.'  I am not hoping to define 'the' Autistic Spirituality or to in any way seek a monoglottal discussion on the subject, or even to work towards a future formulation of 'The Spirituality of Autism'.  In speaking of this term I am aware that it is a 'dialogic' term as Mikhail Bakhtin would say - many voices speaking through one utterance.  (Name-dropping theorists is one social skill I have learned is advantageous in a humanities department in higher education)

So, since part of the idea of this blog is to provide others with a view into one individual's non-neurotypical thought process, I will write through my thought process in choosing it.  

Many people on the autism spectrum tend to think in literal manners, so I thought a plain, literal title would work best.  As the British idiom goes, "it does what it says on the tin."  One of the running inconveniences and pet peeves of my life is when needed goods and services are defined in unnecessarily non-literal ways.  I am all for playful, symbolic language within the domains of literature and poetry.  But not when it comes to simple tasks, like buying shirts.  [Short excursus on a pet peeve to follow] 

It is frustrating that clothing stores do not have their contents in their titles.  This Aspie would like to set out shopping for clothes, look up a directory of stores, find a store called 'Joe's Affordable Men's Clothing' or something likewise obvious, get my clothes and get on with my day.  Instead, clothes stores have to have trendy names which do not indicate their content.  Take 'Burton'. What does Burton sell? What kind and style of clothing? How expensive are they?  How appropriate are they for my particular demographic?  I have no idea, and the only way to find out is to go through the tedious and time-wasting exercise of being up to date on fashion by reading magazines, observing subtle social cues for what is 'cool' to wear this week, or other activities to misuse my limited time on this particular plane of existence.  When trying to access information, literal is useful. [/excursus]

Other ideas for clearly articulating in the title that this was not the one possible narrative on the topic were also under consideration. My rhythmically-oriented mind likes alliteration - in fact I have studied Old Norse  poetry for which it is the key aesthetic feature - so I considered an alliterative title like 'Spirituality on the Spectrum', but dismissed the idea due to the non-literalism treated above. I considered putting the title in lower-case miniscules, or adding a plural prefix in parantheses, e.g. 'autistic spiritualit(ies)'.  On second thought, doing so would make this look too much like a dated mid-90's early post-modernist theoretical journal (e.g. Semiotext(e)) So rather than a quirky title, 'Autistic Spirituality' does what it says

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Happy-Clappy and Hardcore

The non-typicallity of the way my autism is expressed has the potential to cause confusion.  Autism is like a fingerprint, and its manifestation is unique to each individual.  In the initial stages of learning about autism (or indeed, any topic) the learner must first approach the subject at the level of generalities; they provide a framework for understanding the specifics which follow.  This is clear enough, but at this stage in the learning process kind of cognitive dissonance can emerge when a subject does not manifest one of the generalities in the expected way.

For example, many books on autism say that ASD people "do not like loud noises and crowds."  This is, by and large, true.  I can find crowds and noisy places, when I am unprepared, overwhelming and a sensory deluge.  When I am prepared, under the right conditions, I can revel in them.  Just as a wave can swamp a person, or a person can surf the wave, sometimes I can "ride the wave" of crowds and sensory stimuli into places of great joy. One way?

I love happy-clappy, loud worship.  Gospel choirs, liturgical dance, spiritually-infused rock, even booming Anglo-Catholic organ music.  When prepared, my sensory sensitivities can savor the feast of auditory stimuli and color and motion that is musical worship.  Why am I so moved? Two factors come to mind.

One is that the mass of sensory input, under the right conditions, can lead to great clarity of thought, enabling reflection on the Divine.  My mind yearns for stimulus, for input.  ASD people are known to 'stim', or self-stimulate, engrossing ourselves in some type of stimulus, whether the whirl of a rotor or the texture of a carpet.  Sometimes, my "distractibility" comes not from an excess of stimulus, but from a lack of it. I am thinking for things to "stim" on and there are not any around! And most of the time, stimulus is only coming in through one source (e.g. the fan, the carpet etc.)

During loud worship, sensory input is coming in from all corners and from all directions, such that I feel borne aloft by it.  The clarion voices of the choir, the musky incense, the organ I can feel resounding, the stomping of feet - in this setting I am sated with sense input, and sanctified input at that.  Therefore, I am not searching for stim - I am swimming in it.  With the senses sated, the mind ceases to search for input and turns inward, then upward.  All that stimulus becomes like a mighty wind which frees the mind and propels it upward, since it is no longer looking outward for sources and turns toward its Source.

In happy-clappy worship, I also have the opportunity to move my body vigorously without needing to follow a series of prescribed steps.  Dancing is something I love, but due to my neural configuration (as expressed in another label, dyspraxia) I have difficulty with multi-stage planned sequential movements. Ballroom and even club dancing are not forms of relaxation for me - I need to focus intensively in order to be consciously conscious of where the parts of my body are in space, a concentration equivalent to taking an exam.  Not a fun way to spend a Saturday night.  Yet I love the *act of* joyful motion, when I am not confined to a set of steps, when I can just let my inner energy express itself in simple and seemingly chaotic movements, which are in fact articulations of joy erupting from within.

In happy-clappy worship, the motions are simple enough to perform but vigorous enough to express energy for the sake of God's love, rather than as performance for others.  For example, when in the congregation listening to a Gospel choir, I just need to sing, clap and sway, sing clap and sway.  No confusing motions, no disequilibrium, just happiness coming out in simple yet profound motions I can do and do happily.

I have also had the opportunity to join with Gaudiya Vaisnava Hindus (Hare Krishnas) in performing 'kirtan', the communal dancing and chanting of the Names of God, an act which heals and spiritualises the world. In kirtan, dance is worship, and all motion for the love of God is pleasing to Him.   There are no steps to follow or watching eyes to perform for, except those of God, who is pleased with all that we do for Him.  In dancing kirtan, I was free to move my body in my own way, in steps which to the eyes of clubgoers would seem silly and disjointed - jumping up and down, skipping - but motions which my dyspraxic system could still perform with joy.

Linked to my counter-intuitive (to societal expectations of ASD) enthusiasm for happy-clappy worship is my enjoyment of hardcore punk shows.  'Hardcore' is a subgenre of punk rock characterised by fast and heavily distorted music, and a style of dance known as moshing which involves bodies slamming into each other and frenetic movement.  Again, this is not textbook ASD. Crowded rooms? Bodily contact? Loud noises?
Yet at hardcore shows, I at times experience a level of clarity, and indeed, transcendent thought which some might find surprising for similar reasons to those mentioned above.

In hardcore dancing, I can move my body as it wants to without fear of judgement for performance.  I can express my emotions in singing, and indeed yelling, with the vigour their intensity calls for. Most of all, the stimulus coming from all sides - from the band, from the moshing - saturates me with input.  Some of my deepest thoughts and insights into spiritual matters have come when I am stuck within a pile of flailing punks with distortion blaring out the speakers.  Perhaps this is similar to the experience of the Mawlavi Dervishes founded by Jalál'ud'Din Rumi, who in spinning found a place for prayer.

Basis for a Book

This blog is a window into my Aspie thought process in motion.  The concept for this blog came out of notes and brainstorms which I have been generating for a book tentatively titled 'Being Bahá'í on the Autistic Spectrum.'   One of the challenges I face in communicating my thoughts with neurotypical people is that my process of idea-generation is essentially non-linear.  My pattern of thought is associative and non-sequential. This is a blessing when I am called upon to generate ideas, but marshalling them into what would typically be considered a 'logical sequence' (at least according to Western canons of rhetoric) is like herding cats.  One of the challenges of writing a book is that the medium of print, and my desire to communicate with a predominantly neurotypical audience, imposes the necessity of marshalling my thoughts into standard sequences.  But sometimes I come up with an idea that fills me with such bursting excitement that the idea will not brook the patience to be marshalled into orderly sequence and syntax (a word that comes from the Greek 'syntattein', 'to line up soldiers') This blog is an attempt to look for the hidden capacity and opportunity in what would otherwise be considered a problem.

As my ideas come to me for the book I will post them and make them immediately available in the format of vignettes for the benefit of others.  Then, my aim is to sequence them in a coherent pattern for others. To my mind, communicating with neurotypical individuals is like learning a language with a radically different sentence order.  For example, English is a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) language, whereas other languages arrange words in variant patterns.  Articulating my ideas in what would be considered a 'logical sequence' is very much like translating a passage from English in an OSV or SOV language - I am constantly cognisant of the need to rearrange and tweak ideas into a comprehensible order.

As unconventional as this thought pattern is, I think there are blessings within it.  One thing of which the critical field of discourse analysis reminds us that language can never fully approximate reality. To attempt to describe anything is itself an act of "squaring the circle". The implications of this are humbling - no speaker can ever be sure they have fully apprehended material reality, because they are seeing that reality through the framework and filter of their own language and its attendant structures.  To have a cohesive understanding of reality, we then need the viewpoints of others - and their variant gifts for apprehending reality.  It is my firm conviction that the thought patterns and manners of speaking of people on the autistic spectrum constitute a valid and needed perspective which can be offered to the whole of human consultation and discourse in order to read our own collective reality more effectively.

The Power of Utterance

This is a first post, and more than that.  At the most basic level, I have come up with an idea for a blog on Autistic Spirituality, signed up for a Blogger account and am learning how to work postings.  I have now keyed in a couple hundred characters, and am submitting another entry into the sea of user-produced content. These steps, in themselves, are more or less insignificant.

But I have started speaking, or in the more formal phrasing of John L. Austin, 'initiated a speech act.'  I, a person on the autistic spectrum, have started speaking for myself, and the act of writing in fact changes who I am as a subject.  In the act of speaking to others, I transform myself.  When we speak, we cease to be passive. We become active agents.  Even if our words are unheard, or unread, the mere act of issuing an utterance transforms us into active subjects.  And that makes all the difference. 

People on the autistic spectrum are often talked (and watch the prepositions here) about, to, for, at, and around. Self-appointed and self-proclaimed 'experts' claim to know *about* us, self-righteous charities and institutions claim to advocate *for* us, education policy makers figure out what to do *with* us.  These discursive structures rob us of our agency, and turn us, within the realm of language which always engenders the realm of reality, into objects of someone else's words.  Objects, not humans.  

This blog is an attempt, at least initially, to assert myself as a speaking subject.  Since Greek philosophy, "humanness" has been intrinsically linked with the capacity to speak.  Yet "humanness" exists in multiple dimensions - those of the body, the mind, and the soul.  It is the third that is under-emphasised in societal discourses about the autistic spectrum. A source of enduring empowerment and reassurance for me is the knowledge - not the speculative belief, but the conscious knowledge - that there is an eternal and transcendental dimension to my being.  I am the creation of a loving God (who goes by many names in many cultures) and He does not make junk.  If He created me as an autistic person, in His infallible knowledge, that means that there is a reason and purpose for my existence in this mode of being.  I am imbued with dignity that society cannot take away.  

The purpose of this blog is to explore, and affirm that transendental aspect to the being of people with autism, and to assert that nature through the power of Utterance, the divine Word (λόγος) which is the source of power and strength.