I got angry when I heard an interview with Temple Grandin.
In it, Ms. Grandin asserts that everyone who works with computers has to “have the autistic genes.” She goes on to diagnose many respected historical figures with some level of autism.
Because she has both strong visual thinking skills and a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others — Theory of Mind (ToM) — Ms. Grandin assumes that these things are linked. The costs of being on the autistic spectrum are recompensed with her modelling skills.
A key problem with having weak ToM is that while you know how your mind works, you have trouble understanding how other people’s mind works. You make assumptions without having the observational skills and context to cross a sample.
As Ms. Grandin became a visible spokesperson for autism, she was confronted with lots of other people who were not neurotypical and whose minds didn’t work like hers. They wanted her to stop saying that her experience was what autism is, rather saying that her experience was just her experience out of a range of possibilities.
This has broken through and now she acknowledges that her mind isn’t prototypical, saying that there are a whole range of experiences and ways that minds work.
Her assumption in this 2008 interview, though, is that anyone who has the gifts she has must have the same deficits. This is flawed and arrogant thinking.
I understand the rationalization humans tend to make that the costs we bear and the gifts we have must be related. We feel better because we conflate coincidence with causation, looking for a justification of the price we pay, the bits we find upsetting in our life.
The problem is that unless we have the capacity to see our tradeoffs in context we can never really get to causation. We are just applying comforting beliefs, coming up with satisfying rationalizations rather than deep understanding.
I had two Aspergers parents.
One was a crackpot engineer, yes, someone who understood the world through what he called “physical thinking.”
The other one, though, never had that gift. She liked the visual, yes, but never thought in system models.
What they both had, though, was weak ToM. They couldn’t understand people who didn’t think and feel, didn’t experience the world like they did.
My father, growing up in a loving family, at least understood that as a guy, he wasn’t supposed to understand women. He never really got why he didn’t understand me, but that’s another issue.
My mother, though, was furious that none of us understood the way that she saw the world. She wanted us to make her happy and in every decade of her life, people failed her.
She would rail about the messes in the room, but when I asked her to outline what needed to be addressed and in what priority, she would get more upset.
“Can’t you see? Can’t you see!” she would wail, never grasping why we didn’t see the world like she did, see what was obvious and blatant to her. There was no way for her to translate her vision into language we could understand because that would require her to have some model of what we could see.
You have gifts and costs in your life, but assuming that one caused the other, well, unless you have a broader view of the world, a deeper understanding, any linkage is just comforting rationalization. Everyone loves to justify their deficits by asserting an external cause, but just assertion doesn’t make it do.
Ms. Grandin used her understanding of her world to characterize others in a way she found flattering and comforting. Just because they have similar skills though, doesn’t mean that they are like her. We are all jagged people, as L. Todd Rose reminds us, so the assumption of normativity which says people who are like me in one area must be like me in others is just wrong.
If you have weak ToM, though, the fact that others are unique may be almost impossible to see, no matter if that weakness is because of the way your mind works or because of your assumptions of normativity, your wilful ignorance.
I understand that Ms. Grandin has weak ToM. I understand that she has visual thinking. I just don’t believe that the two attributes are as hard linked as she asserts.
That means when she projects that linkage onto others, I get offended. This kind of projection has always constrained and limited our understanding of the power of individuals.
While I believe that people like Ms. Grandin are best served by a society that takes everyone as an individual, she felt the push to explain, justify & rationalize her behaviour as normal, like other people. Rather than standing for herself, she asserted that she was just like others who were valued in the world, even if that took assigning them characteristics she didn’t know they had.
That projection is arrogant & infuriating, even if it is driven by a comforting set of internalized rationalizations which uses only one case of coincidence to link the price of her limited ToM understanding with her visual thinking.
We are each unique, as I had to understand when coping with my parents, even if they had no ability to understand and value why I was unique.
I understand that the voodoo magic of assuming that normal is how we are, that the circumstantial evidence we have can justify comforting personal theories of causation that blame others and get us off the hook, is easy and affirmed in a world of sloppy thinking.
I just know, though, how much those assumptions by others have hurt me over the years as I tried to be the person I am.