Male Autistic Incels: The Unspoken Truth

adventure-contemplate-depressed-54379By Thomas Clements & Jonathan Mitchell

Thomas: “If a woman were flirting with me, I probably would not be aware of it.”

This isn’t a subject I particularly wanted to talk about. I never spoke about sex at home and generally shy away from the very mention of it. It’s quite strange therefore that sex and reproduction are also fundamental aspects of human identity, belonging and biology. The vast majority of us are sexual creatures with often strong and intense desires to seek out a partner for physical affection and intimacy. Autistic people are no different in this regard. Most of us in some point in our lives will have a yearning to satiate our natural biological urges and to keep on doing so over extended periods of time with a stable romantic partner. Unfortunately, many autistic men like me languish in the dark, twisted world of involuntary celibacy where opportunities for having sex with someone are slim and the chances of being able to find a long-term sexual partner are even slimmer.

In my case, I’m 29 years old and, to put it bluntly, I’m sexually frustrated. Not being one to make small-talk or to engage in flirtation, my opportunities for sex thus far have been limited to say the least. Flirting is something I still cannot grasp intuitively or intellectually as a concept due to a failure on my part to be able to read body language and to recognise more subtle non-verbal cues. If a woman were flirting with me, I probably would not be aware of it. In fact, people I’ve been with have berated me in the past for missing chances to flirt with members of the opposite sex who have apparently given indications of romantic interest. I drifted through my teens, my college years and my early twenties having had zero contact with the opposite sex. And I mean none. Not even so much as a handshake. At university, I even gained the nickname “The Monk” for my celibate lifestyle. On my part, this was certainly not driven by some puritanical religious conviction and the stigmatising label only increased my feelings of inadequacy and despair.

In 2013, I decided I needed a fresh start in life and moved to China where I taught English. Being a white European in China made me quite desirable in the eyes of many women (light skin is seen as an feature attractive across Asia) and many vied for my attention, openly asking me if I would be their boyfriend. For me, a sexually naïve young man, it was a huge confidence boost and a very erotic and exciting experience. Eventually, I went out with a colleague called Wendy and it was then that things kind of went pear-shaped. On the one hand, I had the attention of a beautiful Chinese girl and a huge boost in my overall confidence. On the other, I was abysmal at showing affection towards her in the typical way romantic partners do and had immense difficulty navigating the complex world of romance. I was a neglectful boyfriend to say the least and one who dodged phone calls, never thought to buy gifts or to engage in playful behaviour. Worst of all, while I had summoned the courage to hug her, I did so begrudgingly due to my dislike for physical contact, we never had sex. It was for that reason that we agreed mutually to terminate our very brief romance. She had apparently been hinting to go to the bedroom for a while but I’d been quite oblivious to it, and when it came to it, I couldn’t face the physical intimacy of being up close to somebody, what with my sensory sensitivities and all. I cannot tell you the frustration of simultaneously craving sexual intimacy and at the same time not being able to engage in it due to an instinctive aversion to touch.

Like many autistic men, I face the rather grim reality of remaining involuntarily celibate for life. It’s not a nice truth to have to acknowledge and it’s a subject many are squeamish about even broaching so I felt the need to do so. I’m not proffering an answer because there simply are no trite solutions to this vexed and rather unpleasant conundrum. I’m simply telling things as they are for many us, including many autistic men I’ve spoken to privately, including my friend Jonathan.

Jonathan: “My ability to relate to women is impaired”

“Why don’t you find an autistic girlfriend?”  This is the usual query I get when I discuss my inability to find a successful relationship with a woman and my involuntary celibacy.  Sometimes I feel I have the gift of prophecy. I know exactly what people will say when this issue comes up.

I’m a sixty-two-year-old man with autism, and I’ve never had a full-fledged girlfriend, though I have had some casual dating.  My ability to relate to women is impaired. I’ve met women who seemed to like me at first blush. However, after I’d gone out with them or they got to know me better, certain behaviors of mine came to the fore.  I was very loud, intense, made funny movements, discussed the same things over and over and had a scowl on my face. These behaviors caused them to lose interest. Much of the time, I’ve been too shy to ask them out or had a problem relating.  

This has caused me great frustration in my life, and the loneliness bites at me. There are some things those who have suggested finding an autistic mate don’t understand. There’s a four to one ratio of autistic men to autistic women.  According to some authorities, it’s more like seven to one in the more mildly impaired autistics such as myself.  These numbers mean that if the autistic man is only restricted to dating their own kind, the majority of us will be left out in the cold.  There’s also the question of whether or not the autistic woman would be interested. One way of expressing it is even though numerically the odds are good for the autistic woman, they might not care because the goods are odd.  

Involuntary celibacy is a common problem for males on the spectrum.  David Miedzianik, an autistic man from Rotherham England, detailed his problems with women in a memoir he wrote as well as numerous poems.  He would write posts in various internet groups, demanding a girlfriend, not understanding why this was socially unacceptable.

Perhaps one of the best known cases is Elliot Rodger, who very possibly was autistic.  He made various videos and wrote a manifesto, detailing his frustrations with his lack of sex.  The frustration became so great to the mentally ill man that he went out and killed some women whom he perceived as having wronged him by denying him the loss of his virginity.  He subsequently committed suicide during a police pursuit while he committed these atrocities. This is an extreme case though. Despite the fact that many autistic men are frustrated over celibacy, it’s rare they go out and commit murder.  

Others have advocated prostitution for autistic men, though this is a poor substitute for the emotional ties of requited love.  Sexual surrogates, a quasi-legal alternative to prostitution in which a paid sex worker, usually collaborating with a clinician, is sometimes another option recommended for autistic celibates.

Despite involuntary celibacy being commonplace among autistic males, the problem receives no publicity by the media. Some of the most widely publicized autistic males, including John Elder Robison, Ari Ne’eman, and Michael Carley are married.   Most news stories about autism are of a feel-good nature, extolling alleged virtues and talents of autistic people. More often than not these stories do not jibe with reality.

Some of this journalism is driven by the high rate of unemployment among autistic people–figures as high as 80 to 85 percent are quoted for both the United States and the United Kingdom.  Stories claiming that autistics have superior aptitude for the IT profession, great attention to details, are loyal employees abound. One piece in TIME magazine went as far as saying that autism is an opportunity.  This is despite the fact this only trivializes the problems of autistic persons, the majority of whom have disabilities in getting along with people and performing a job well that greatly affects their employability.  

The media fails to give autistic celibacy the same attention.  In the same vein as with employment, they could claim that autistics, due to their superior attention to detail and abilities in the IT industry, would make great husbands and providers.  Or, their loyalty to a woman would preclude adultery and make divorce less likely.

Though there are no easy answers to the problem of celibacy, I know it causes pain for myself as well as other men on the austistic spectrum.  Perhaps it’s time for the media to bring attention to this.

 

 

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Is Western Man Incomplete Without God?

29196677_10155651687598040_5267477294884061184_nEven as an inveterate atheist, I’ve long admired the fullness of meaning in the lives of the devout. From watching my Catholic grandmother praying on her knees to Saint Anthony for the recovery of a lost purse, to observing Zen monks at Daitokuji temple in Tokyo sitting for hours on end chanting holy mantras in a quest for enlightenment, the innate tendency in humans across cultures to seek something beyond themselves has struck me both as significant and hard to grasp. What is it that the religious intuit that us skeptics and secular materialists have become seemingly detached from? Has the West’s view of reality become overly mechanistic and devoid of purpose? And is this absence of deeper meaning in our 21 century lives potentially harming us?

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that it was the task of Western man to rediscover his Christian roots in order to achieve an equilibrated psychological state. He posited that the malaise afflicting Western man may be attributable in part to his loss of contact with the metaphysical substrate underlying his culture, namely the figure Christ and the divine Logos. Christianity’s emphasis on truth led to us effectively reasoning ourselves out of our religious beliefs, but in the process we became separated from the guiding principle of “suffering love” which once sustained us morally and spiritually. Friedrich Nietzsche predicted that the death of God would leave Western man susceptible to the catastrophic folly of bloody revolution. Indeed, the godless philosophies of fascism and communism, which offered to fill the gap left by religion with the promise of utopian order, both crushed the human spirit and the individual’s ability to flourish under the hefty demands that the two collectivist orders placed on their followers. The result was the transformation of human beings into agents of not of nobility and decency imbued with a sense of a greater purpose, but of iniquity and corruption. Western man, possessed by the spirit of tyrannical cruelty, was subsumed by the group and hence rendered unable to act according to his own ontological truth.

In reaction to the modern left’s devolution into the atomising, idolatrous nature of social justice identity politics and the attendant moral complacency of postmodernism, Jordan Peterson, a man often dubbed “YouTube’s father figure” came along to revivify Jung’s ideas and advertise Christianity for a generation of atheists through his exploration of archetypes. Inspired by the rich intellectual vigor of Peterson’s interpretation of ancient biblical stories, a new crop of self-described ‘Christian atheists’ have emerged, animated by a zeal for truth and buttressed by a renewed faith in the Logos. The testimonies of those whose lives have been turned around by Peterson suggest that there might be something to a belief in a higher power or at least spiritually guiding principle we might refer to as God.

Simultaneously, we’re also now seeing a revival of the type of thinking that once led to millions of deaths and the near-annihilation of an entire continent. In contrast to Peterson’s exaltation of the individual, alt-right ideologue Richard Spencer offers the spiritually impoverished the opportunity for belonging and unity through an adherence to tribalism and the promise of restoring the white race to its former glory. Spencer understands the dynamics of power through divide-and-conquer, rebuking Christianity for its humanist-universalism and its emphasis on the sanctity of the individual rather than of the group. His call for racial homogeneity and coherency promises order and to restore the self-esteem of disaffected white men who feel increasingly adrift in the stigmatizing climate of left-wing identity politics and its notions of privilege and patriarchy. Of course, we know from history the consequences of the sort of far-right identitarianism that Spencer is peddling and it’s most certainly not a road we should ever contemplate going down again. Collectivist groupthink united by an external, superficial and profoundly unspiritual characteristic like race, negates personal responsibility and concern for others, doing nothing in the process to improve the moral character of the individual.

It’s fair to say the more ‘rational’, less emotionally-driven secular spirituality promoted by the likes of Sam Harris, while commendable in its attempt to reconcile neuroscience and ancient meditative techniques, doesn’t quite satiate Western man’s yearning for meaning. The mindfulness industry is big but ultimately ephemeral and insufficient in substance to anchor an individual in a spiritually sustaining principle. Buddhism-lite or a Western-style Buddhism shed of the accretions of karma and reincarnation rarely proves to be inspiring and the philosophy abnegation of notions of free will prove incommensurate with our Judeo-Christian Western culture and conditioning. Business professionals and corporate executives may use mindfulness to improve performance concentration, but for a young, directionless man starving for a sense of purpose, it’s a weak solution.

China, a largely irreligious, atheistic country has tapped into the religious tendency in human beings by manufacturing a quasi-religious mythology about the perpetual struggle throughout its 5,000 history to unify the disparate Chinese regions and ethnic groups under the banner of one nation. Chinese nationalism has in a sense become the de-facto religion while traditional organized faiths like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, though tolerated, are regarded as “feudal superstitions” and potential impediments to progress. The loyalty of practitioners must ultimately be superseded by the health and prosperity of the state. The vacuum in spirituality and a sense of the transcendent in China in favour of a more pragmatic, state-centric materialism has led to Christianity’s proliferation in the People’s Republic which now sees a staggering 8,000 baptisms every week. The faith, though heavily state-controlled, is set to become the most dominant in the country by 2020, superseding parochial folk religion and even the once-influential Mahayana Buddhism. What the communist-led PRC fears most is the subversive potential of a religion that might act as a vehicle for Western ideas, perhaps of the divine individual which is immediately at odds with the collectivist materialist emphasis.

In the UK by contrast, the Anglican church is a shadow of its former self and remains, not as the driving force in people’s lives, but as a quaint relic of our past as its status has been reduced to a mere performer of ceremonial functions. Many of the church’s traditional values have been superseded by the prevailing left-wing orthodoxy and its insistence on political correctness. In a nutshell, it’s lost its backbone and men see it as weak and effeminate. It might explain why a vigorous and masculine faith like Islam with an emphasis on order and ritual holds more allure and is the main religion of the UK’s prisons. Submission to a totalitarian system that effectively governs every aspect of a person’s life is appealing to those who were previously spiritually unmoored and may even be of immense benefit, but like any ideology, the potential for the corruption of the individual to group pathology is strong. We’ve seen this with the thoughtless mob behaviour of Muslims baying for the blood of Salman Rushdie. Such mindless fanaticism is hardly commensurate with the noble, spiritual path as it reduces man to the state of a beast, hijacking his capacity for independent thought and the pursuit of self-knowledge. Islam’s collectivist pathology manifested itself most disturbingly when hundreds of thousands of young men from Muslim communities, many of whom well-educated engineers and doctors, responded enthusiastically to the call to join the ISIS caliphate, an organization that inspired the largest foreign fighting force since World War 2 hoping to play their part in reviving an antediluvian empire prophesised in 6th century Bronze Age dogma.

The question is, will Western man be able to rediscover that which once gave his life dignity and purpose or will he devolve back into the temptations of idolatry? With the symbiotic growth of the far-right and the far-left, this rediscovery of the metaphysical substrate may be integral to the survival of his individual liberty. Without it, he may be liable to misuse by a corrupt ideology and thus become an agent of harm rather than of good. A healthy society is contingent upon the Logos which gives rise to epistemological pluralism and the creative interplay of ideas, a mechanism we use so as to avoid one virtue playing a hegemonic role over others. In order to sustain this ideal and to become an agent of God or Logos, Western man must learn to once again walk in his own light, to grow and develop spiritually and intellectually according to his own reason, and to embrace duties that go with rights.

Depression is horrific, but it’s no excuse for suicide

34830149_1943836075668728_6129500832036552704_nThis is not a blog I wanted to write, but after the recent tragic loss of the author and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to suicide, I now feel compelled to explain to others what it’s like to be stuck in the depths of a debilitating depression, utterly convinced one is beyond outside help, to the extent one even goes so far as to begin contemplatng taking one’s own life. Whether or not it was depression that induced Bourdain to kill himself is still unclear but, whatever the origin, mental affliction so severe that it exhausts one’s resources for coping, invariably leads to a person taking drastic measures to terminate their suffering. Though I am unable to proffer a solution to depression, I can from personal experience give you a unique insight into what it feels like and why, even after years of torment, I remain deeply averse to the idea of suicide and its catastrophic consequences.

It’s important to establish from the outset that depression is not merely a case of the blues. Rather, it is a life-denying, soul-crushing condition that’s often very hard to describe to those who haven’t experienced it. I usually compare it to a vortex of despair from which you struggle desperately to escape but can’t, or to a plague of inner-demons mercilessly tearing away at the very fabric of your being. Even such evocative descriptions often fail to do justice to just how painful depression in its chronic form can be. Andrew Solomon, author of the bestselling ‘The Noonday Demon’, described it as a loss not of happiness but of vitality.

In a state of depression, one often becomes socially isolated, disinterested in once enjoyable activities, listless, lethargic and desensitized to the outside world. While some sufferers become sad and irritable, others withdraw from life altogether. During a time spent working abroad, for reasons I’ve yet to discern, a switch went off in my head and my brain short-circuited. I could no longer get out of bed, let alone go to work and earn money. I lost contact with my friends and acquaintances and, after several months confined within four walls, which had become a festering landfill site of potato chips and cola bottles, some filled with urine from where I couldn’t even drag myself to the bathroom, I took myself to a nearby psychiatric hospital. I checked in and stayed there as a voluntary inpatient for 8 weeks in total where I was put on a course of antidepressants.
Antidepressants work by boosting neurogenesis in the hippocampus, the part of the brain which helps regulate emotions, and generally start to take effect after a couple of weeks. Though not a panacea, they can provide a respite from the worst, perhaps enough to enable someone to begin the work of CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Unfortunately for me, it took several years after having run the gamut of medications until I was to find a drug that agreed with me. Citalopram, the first one, gave me yellow diarrhea. Prozac, the second, gave me the dreaded “brain fog” during which I struggled to think, plan and even initiate conversation, while Remeron gave me an appetite so voracious I would eat incessantly, leading at one point to me developing obesity. It was upon taking Venlafaxine, a drug that increases the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, that I finally felt better. Muscles in my body began to relax while my mind returned to a state of clarity. Though depression still lingered somewhat precariously at the back of my mind, at least now I was able to function again and return to work after a very long absence.

Depressed people are used to hearing facile advice such as to exercise more and popular but empty platitudes like “Time to talk” and “It’s okay not to be okay”. After having opened up, both to their families and to their therapists, many depressives are all talked out, while others, having become a burden on those closest to them, have become painfully aware that it’s in fact not okay not to be okay. Depression affects everyone around you, diminishing their quality of life as well as yours. When compassion fatigue sets in, common depressive behaviours such as withdrawal and non-participation draw accusations of selfishness, breeding enmity among family members, sometimes leading to a complete breakdown in relationships.

In some cases, especially where a person has become so intractably depressed, suicide can seem like the only rational option. However, suicide is so utterly devastating that bearing the burden of depression, in spite of the hell it entails, is still the better option. For me at least, my mission in life as I see it is just to stay afloat. To do this, I take each day as it comes and limit my time frame. I’ve also developed coping strategies for when suicidal ideations creep into my consciousness, such as drawing up lists of things I can do, however banal, to improve my immediate environment. The famous Jordan Peterson maxim “clean your room” works well here. When I feel overwhelmed by rumination and complexity, I set myself a difficult task requiring maximum concentration such as completing a Sudoku puzzle or preparing a complex meal from a lengthy recipe, written in another language just to make the task more involved. Anything to stave off those darker impulses which I have conditioned myself to recoil from ever more viscerally, knowing deep down that they are simply unacceptable.

While many posit theories as to the causes of depression, it’s not clear there is a singular cause. In his new book ‘Lost Connections’, the journalist Johann Hari attributes the rise in instances of the condition to the atomising effects of neo-liberal capitalism, a claim I’m very skeptical of, while a slew of wellness experts talk about the gut-brain axis and how improving the diversity of gut flora helps restore mental well-being. Maybe there’s a kernel of truth in all such claims, but reducing such a complex condition down to a single cause seems ill-advised.

Unconventional solutions like psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms have become the subject of renewed interest as conventional mental healthcare proves increasingly ineffectual at stemming the tide of the West’s depression epidemic. Though the mechanisms of these mind-altering hallucinogenic drugs remain a mystery to science, the numinous experiences they often elicit are frequently reported to liberate mentally ill people from the maladaptive cognitive and behavioural patterns that had previously held them psychological prisoner, enabling them to map new pathways and to alter their perspectives on life through the temporary dissolution of ego consciousness. For the past few years, Dr. Carhart-Harris at Imperial College London has been conducting clinical trials into the therapeutic effects of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in amanita muscaria mushrooms, with some success with some patients reporting a feeling of having been psychologically rebooted after having received the mystical vision. Some involved in the trial however, perhaps owing to their mental and emotional fragility, experienced hellish visions, or bad trips, landing them in an even more anxious, more neurotic state than before. The therapeutic benefits of these highly potent and unpredictable drugs is therefore not a guarantee and in any case not advisable to the most sensitive, who by nature, are also the most susceptible to mental illnesses like depression.

Aside from hallucinogens, relatively new therapeutic methods like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS, a non-invasive procedure for treating mental illness which targets specific parts of the brain using a magnetic coil to stimulate neural growth, offer hope to sufferers determined in the quest for an answer. Though still not fully developed as a mainstream depression treatment, it holds a lot of promise. Behind closed doors, Electroconvulsive Therapy or ECT, a procedure depicted famously in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, is reserved as a last-resort treatment for the most stubborn and prolonged cases of depression. Though carried out discreetly and rarely advertised by health professionals, it’s effective, albeit brutal. Patients who’ve received  ECT often report immediate relief from their depressive symptoms but also memory loss, sometimes to the extent where important life events such as one’s marriage and college graduation have been entirely erased.

Depression is a terrible thing and, if left untreated, can devastate a person’s life. Suicide may seem like a quick and tempting relief from the unbearable suffering depression entails, but its consequences are far, far worse. At a recent talk in Indianapolis when the psychologist Jordan Peterson was asked by a suicidal audience member why they ought to go on living, he responded by saying “Don’t be so sure that your life is yours to take.” It was a pithy, yet compassionate response which immediately resonated with me. Though it’s not the case that everyone can be saved from suicidal depression, I believe it is possible for people to sustain even the most abominable suffering with an attitude that they can continually override their darkest urges by carrying on humbly and nobly in the knowledge they’re doing the right thing, not only for themselves, but moreover for those that love and cherish their presence here on Earth the most. Through undergoing such a courageous, almost superhuman effort to stay alive, a person soon discovers just how great their capacity is for withstanding pain and how meaningful life can be having to bear a cross that is that little bit heavier.

The Soul of Autism

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My beloved younger sibling, Jack.

It’s easy to speak in simple platitudes about autistic people, but more often than not it’s better to let them speak for themselves. To really understand autism, one must spend long periods in the company of those on the spectrum, observe their idiosyncrasies and get to know them as individuals. As with everything, the picture you get is far more nuanced than anything you can in read in a book or a government-approved pamphlet. Like neurotypicals, autistic people have multi-layered identities, complex personalities and come from diverse cultural backgrounds. They are far from the one-dimensional creatures of popular film renditions.

 

Aside from autistic people themselves, the true holders of knowledge about the condition are the family members, the carers and those that spend days, weeks, months, years and decades working and living alongside spectrum folk. These people have a level of expertise that goes well beyond that of cold, calculated studies written in science and medical journals. They have a warmer, more intuitive rapport with people they don’t view necessarily as pathological, but as individuals with hopes, dreams, joys and frustrations just like the rest of us. People like this know and accept the challenges involved in caring for an autistic person and make accommodations for them in ways that allows them to carry on in the way that is at one with their atypical nature.

 

One such person is Jodie, a full-time employee at Jack’s college whom I first got to know funnily enough when we were colleagues at a local supermarket. She is a special sort of human being who lives to help others and bring joy to those who society tends to ignore. Her naturally compassionate nature is ideally suited to where she works. Indeed, such compassion is necessary to survive in a job which, due to the complex nature of autism and other complex neurological conditions, presents challenges beyond what most are used to facing in their daily lives. Some of the students and residents at the St. Elizabeth’s are both mentally and physically disabled and some also have epilepsy. Many require full-time assistance to carry out the most basic of tasks. Working with such vulnerable beings is an angel like Jodie who carries out her work dutifully and with a big smile on her face. It can’t be easy cleaning up somebody’s mess and having to placate those with challenging. Sometimes violent behaviours, but she does it because it brings her joy. It’s the sort of job that requires a level of dedication and selflessness well beyond the norm.

 

What is most special about such carers is that they are able to see beyond the disability and get to know the individual. They soon discover that behind the hand-flapping, the strange noises and the repetitive behaviours is a human being with a unique temperament. When Jodie contacted me to tell me she was working with Jack and that she considered it a real pleasure to do so, I was touched beyond words. Having been conditioned to do all in my power to conceal Jack’s disability and to be ashamed of his obviously autistic behaviours, it was consoling to hear someone I know to be totally sincere to say such nice things about my dear little brother. Usually, those that do say nice things come across as quite phony and patronising, but, through working alongside Jack and getting to know him personally, Jodie like us was able to delve a little deeper and understand that, much like everyone else, Jack is a person and not just a disability. She described how she got to know him at ‘Pets Corner’, a part of the college where the students get to interact with and care for a range of animals. Jodie told me how enthusiastically Jack feeds the rabbits with sticks of carrot and celery. It was a heartening thing for me to hear given how indifferent I thought Jack was towards animals before. She also described how intrigued she was by what she could hear Jack was saying to himself. It all sounded interesting, but of course she had no idea what it all meant! After I explained to her that he does the very autistic thing of reciting large chunks of dialogue to himself, she was clearly thrilled. When one understands the reason why, one develops a much fuller picture. Autism can often seem mysterious to an outsider, but with a little perseverance and time spent in the company of those on the spectrum, it begins to make a bit more sense.

 

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‘The Brothers Autism’

Another discovery we as a family made during our time networking with other autistic families from across the UK is just how different autistic people are. This shouldn’t really have been much of a surprise of course, but like a lot of people, we all believed that autism was a uniform condition. Instead, we met autistic people with various personalities and temperaments. Some were very pleasant and agreeable, some weren’t so friendly. Some were gregarious and chatty, and some were painfully shy and introverted. Some were adventurous in their eating habits, and some were severely limited. What we discovered was that the label of autism should not define the individual. As the popular saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

 

It’s for this reason that I fundamentally trust people like Jodie, who work with a broad range of autistic people each day than I do any clinician or any self-appointed spokesperson for the autism community. Whereas the clinical expert sees patterns of behaviours, sets of emotional responses and activity in the brain, a carer like Jodie sees a human being and forms with that human being a bond built on a solid foundation of love and empathy. Such an intimate one-to-one connection is not something that can be quantified, peer-reviewed and backed up by double-blind studies. It has to be felt and it is that level of feeling for autistic people that I want to encourage more of. Science may help us to conceptualise and frame the condition, but the lived experiences of autistic people and those of the family members and carers who are close to them, convey the true soul of autism.

Sargon of Akkad and his use of ‘autism’ as a pejorative

photoSargon of Akkad is a YouTuber who has gained a substantial following in recent years. I watch his videos from time to time, particularly while I’m doing the dishes or preparing dinner, and generally enjoy the content in them, despite not always agreeing with everything that he says. Like him, I’m dismayed by the loud coterie of PC bullies, third-wave feminists and thin-skinned offence-mongers in our society at the moment. And like him, I’m also a classic John Stuart-Mill liberal and a free speech absolutist who prefers civil discussion and dialectic to merely shouting down one’s opposition.

That said, I find myself in the uneasy position of being a fan and simultaneously being quite dismayed by his use of “autistic” as a pejorative. Both Sargon and many fellow YouTubers have popularised the infamous “autistic screeching” meme across the internet. Such a stereotype of autism is crude to say the least and one that plays into a very simplistic and derogatory view of a disability that is both complex and varied.

Now, I am on the autism spectrum myself, albeit at the very mild end, and I don’t find the meme personally that upsetting. I can tolerate offensive memes and slogans without taking them too much to heart. For example, if a comedian says something I don’t like, I just won’t bother watching them. I’m not going to start a campaign to shut them down because ultimately I don’t consider myself a moral authority with the right to police people’s views and speech. That said, I feel the need to voice my opposition, in the name of free speech, to what I see as the perpetuation of widespread ignorance of a very real disability that ought not be trivialised during a time when autistic voices are straining to heard in society.

I don’t think Sargon, who has a large following from people across the political spectrum, considers that with his substantial outreach, he perhaps ought to be more vigilant and responsible in his speech sometimes. With his sort of power to shape people’s attitudes does come a degree of responsibility and in this regard I feel that he is being complacent. Autism, as he implicitly claims, does not equate to the humourless fanaticism, inflexible thinking and a lack of empathy displayed by the PC fanatics he often condemns. Comparing fanatical postmodernism or third-wave feminism with autism comes from a place of deep ignorance and prejudice about a condition which is only just beginning to be properly understand. Autistic people are a varied bunch of individuals with a multitude of different strengths and weaknesses, but to compare us to those especially prone to collectivist herd mentality is so deeply wrong. Autism stems from the Greek ‘autos’ meaning ‘self’ and autistic people, generally speaking, are fierce individualists who are perhaps some of the least susceptible to crowd pathology precisely because they often value truth and logic. That’s often why any attempts to collective autistic people into groups and communities fails and why organised religion rarely sits well with our relentlessly sceptical and critical minds.

I’m asking Sargon to re-evaluate his use of autism as a pejorative. It does reflect very badly on him in my opinion and undermines a lot of the serious issues that he discusses. I’m not against him and actually think he’s a decent guy underneath. I just wish he paid attention to where he is wrong sometimes. After all, the essence of being liberal is to be confident in what one says whilst maintaining a strong possibility in the back of one’s mind that one might also be absolutely wrong.

Asperger’s and Japan

Tourists walking around crowded Osaka Dotonbori entertainment districtJapan is not so much a destination but a life’s work. It’s a notoriously tricky place for a Western mind to decode and even begin to fully understand. Aside from the common reference points to karate, manga and sushi, few Westerners delve deep into the heart and soul of Japan and begin the rather daunting task of finding out what really makes the people of this faraway nation tick.

I myself am an inveterate Japanophile. Since I was a teenager, I’ve studied the Japanese language and culture, and yet often I still find myself perplexed by the paradoxes and strange obsessions of its people. Unlike a lot of Westerners though, I absolutely adore the Japanese preoccupation with routine, ritual and tidiness. It sits perfectly well with my Aspergian nature which thrives on rigidity, structure and a predetermined order. I also love the intense Zen-like focus and often maniacal attention to detail of Japanese artisans, cooks and craftsmen. As a nation, they also put value on honing a single skill like soba making or flower arranging for extended periods of time. It reminds me of my own Aspergian tendency focus on a single special interest which goes way beyond that of the norm. To focus on one thing and one thing only is a shared characteristic of many us Western Aspies and many Japanese. It is a natural proclivity we have in common which, I think, explains why so many of us are drawn to Japanese culture.

A fellow Aspie I knew at school who was one of only 4 people who opted to study Japanese on top of our conventional workload, went on to live in Sapporo. He’s convinced he was born in the wrong culture and that he was predestined to settle on the other side of the world in a land that just somehow makes more sense to him. His special interest at school was manga but since maturing into adulthood he’s grown to appreciate more traditional aspects of the culture including the Zen art and wabi sabi philosophy.

Japan and its culture also provides an alternative reality for many Aspies and a momentary escape from the grim realities of existing on the fringes of their own native Western societies. Unlike America or to a slightly lesser extent the UK, Japan prefers and respects the quieter type, the introvert and the obsessive. It encourages people to seek a disciplined inner-focus to one’s life over exhibiting overt and excessively loud displays. Many Aspies I think gravitate to Japanese styles and artforms for this very reason. They instinctively get a good and unthreatening vibe from it. As a youngster, I remember being dropped off at the local library and taking out every book about Japan that I could get my hands. A quarter century later, I’m still doing exactly the same.

Asperger’s and my gift for languages

tomchinese
Eating spring onion pancakes and bean porridge in Zhengzhou, China.

Since I was a young boy, I’ve been absolutely besotted by language. During childhood visits to the centre of London, I’d delight in the array of tongues being spoken by foreign visitors to the city and, in my typically autistic style, I would imitate what they were saying. Echolalia I was soon to discover is one of the best ways of learning a language. After all, that’s how babies and toddlers learn to speak.

 

At age 10, I received my first German lesson. I thrived in it. After a few classes, my teacher remarked on just how astonishingly quickly I was able to soak up vocabulary and just how instinctively I was able to grasp the language’s complex grammar. I was motivated enough to study the language outside of school hours and within a few months, I was speaking with the fluency of a native speaker. My pronunciation remains near enough flawless to this day.

Don’t ask me how I do it exactly because I don’t know. I can only describe the process of learning a language as similar to creating a beautiful work of art. Constructing sentences is a bit like sculpting something magnificent. Doing so requires great care, vision and reverence for technique. The reward I get from conveying my emotions in a language not my own is immense.

I am now fluent German, Mandarin and French. I also can get by in French, Italian, Cantonese and Japanese. Being able to speak several languages makes me a richer person and I am very proud to boast of my linguistic talents. I suspect that my autistic brain gives me a distinct advantage when it comes to picking them up, too. For one thing, I’m far less conscious of making a fool of myself when I try speaking a new language. A lot of people are held back by the fear of what natives might think of their bungling attempts to ask for something in a restaurant say, and resort to just speaking English. I go all in and have faith in my own instinct. I banish all doubts in my mind and go for it. This approach pays off and expands both my confidence and ability.

Being autistic also enables me to concentrate on learning a language for extended periods of time. I persevere when others would just give up and I commit huge lists of words to memory. They tend to stay there, too.

If you’re autistic and multilingual like me, do contact me on Twitter @tclementsuk. I would love to share experiences.