Since autism is a spectrum, there could be as many different kinds of autism as there are autists. If autism is less a condition than a set of behaviors (and a way of perceiving the world), autists ought not to be defined by their behavior or perceptions any more than we’d define someone by their skin color or sexual preference. There are two ways of identifying autism: one is by observing autistic traits from the outside, the other is based on autistic experiences and perceptions as seen from the inside. Since many autists have difficulty communicating and/or being heard, the former class of definitions is larger and more established than the latter. Hence we have the idea of autism as a “condition” with “symptoms,” etc. Yet the so-called symptoms (external traits) may be only a response to (a way of dealing with) the experience of being autistic, i.e., of perceiving the world outside of the consensual view.
One of their planks of evidence is autopsy findings of structural differences in the brain’s cortex, or outer layer. People with autism have smaller minicolumns—clusters of around 100 neurons that some researchers think act as the brain’s basic processing units—but they also have more of them. While some have linked this trait to superior functioning, the Lausanne team still framed their theory as explaining autism’s disabilities and deficits. Mottron’s team has published an alternative theory of autism that they believe more fully and accurately incorporates autistic strengths. Their “enhanced perceptual function model” suggests autistic brains are wired differently, but not necessarily because they are damaged (Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol 36, p 27). “These findings open a new educational perspective on autism that can be compared to sign language for deaf people,” says Mottron.
While Henry Markram maintains that autism involves a “core neuropathology,” he told New Scientist that the intense world idea and Mottron’s theory are “aligned in most aspects.” “Of course the brain is different, but to say whether the brain is damaged or not depends on what you mean by damaged.”
So something here is happening, but we don’t know what it is.
I first heard about Asperger’s Syndrome less than five years ago, when I was forty. Since then I’ve come to see myself as on the spectrum, although I am unsure what that really “means”. In fact, I always felt like a mutant or an alien, a feeling expressed by a love of X-Men comic books and David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust period, in adolescence. Today I would describe my experience of autism as a continuous seeking for signal in noise; a feeling of alienation and estrangement, not only from the world but in my own skin and identity, of always being at sea, or potentially at sea, in an ocean of data, inner and outer, of having no fixed identity or way of being. There are lots of features to my overall experience that match those described by, or ascribed to, autists. I also have external habits, tricks, or traits that are shared by autists, from a need for routine to rocking when upset, and so on.
The reason I was forty before deciding that I was on the spectrum is that I learned to adapt to neurotypical ways and assumed a persona that would pass for normal. At the same time I retained certain autistic “tells”: I was obsessive, solitary, fiercely individualistic, resistant to being controlled, opposed to groups, and have always had a need to immerse myself in fantasy, creative activity, compulsive analysis, and so forth. I was hyper self-conscious as a child (and still am), so it may be that I adapted my behavior accordingly, to fit in and reduce my anxiety. Because of that, many of my more autistic traits became internalized, minimized, while others were incorporated into a consciously eccentric, rebellious, and artistic persona. It’s even possible that a way for me to reduce my autistic traits was by identifying with being an artist.
If so, this recourse may be more common than is yet suspected, and it might explain why an increasing number of historical figures within the arts are being posthumously identified as autistic.