Romanticising Aspergers

That title might strike the reader as insane or as odd as the stereotype English eccentric. It is a while since I have written anything about Aspergers or what modern specialists call high-functioning autism. The condition has been studied for a while from a scientific point of view, and I have the most esteem for Tony Attwood and Dr Laurent Mottron. Psychologists, psychiatrists and educators rightly turn most of their attention to helping young children. In most of the western world, adults can obtain a diagnosis as I did. It establishes a scientific basis of understanding why we often feel that we come from a “different planet” from most people.

I have been quite frustrated at finding little at a philosophical level. The autism centre in Rouen I consulted has a fine library, but nearly all the works available are scientific or dealing with special teaching methods for children. A philosophical examination would require a totally different methodology, and I am not sure I would ever be up to such a task. Perhaps we need an autistic person who is both a qualified psychiatrist and a philosopher. Does he or she exist? Laurent Mottron and Tony Attwood are the nearest to this ideal I know of.

We continue to be hampered by the usual stereotypes of being obsessed about things that just don’t matter to others and having no empathy or understanding about other people’s emotions and feelings. Some would call us extremely masculine (mentally and psychologically) or something like a computer devoid of empathy and emotion. The problem usually arises from our being studied in relation to what “neurotypical” people call “normal”.

In some ways, it is a disability and something that marginalises us from a “successful” life in society. We can also see it as a gift. In particular, it enhances originality and innovation and courage to resist fashions, conformity, the bandwagon. Aspergers / high-functioning autism affects our experience of life, our way of understanding other humans and life in general.

No two persons are alike, and this is why it is difficult to make a scientific diagnosis of Aspergers. This is not the place to go into Dr Mottron’s methodology, but I could give one or two key ideas. This Canadian psychiatrist is above all interested in the autistic person who is not inhibited intellectually, and who does express himself in language. He especially makes a break from comparisons with “normal” standards. There are many characteristics like sensorial hypersensitivity and extreme attention to detail and concentration, but which are not present to the same degree or proportion in any one person. Indeed, he calls this condition another intelligence, an alternative mode of being human. His flagship work is L’autisme: une autre intelligence, Sprimont 2006.

Without being able as yet to find a methodology to bring out the philosophical aspects, I can try a simpler approach: how I feel about it myself and what I have read from others, things we have in common from a human rather than a scientific point of view.

Why my odd title? I have been intuitively drawn to Romanticism in its essential characteristics rather than any particular historical period or cultural aspect. I was drawn to early German Romantics like Novalis because of his notion of truth being something that was dynamic, on the move, full of desire – rather than being the property of a “tribe” and something used to judge and condemn others. Just look at traditionalist Roman Catholic groups on Facebook, and some Continuing Anglican ones too. My immediate reaction is to think “What a wonderful apologia for atheism“! Sometimes, autistic people become obsessed about foundational truth and are quite fanatical. The exceptions would break the rule in scientific terms. In my mind, this new notion of truth has changed the way I think, and has enabled me to come to terms with myself at a mature age. Above all, whatever truth is (think of the Sceptics of ancient times – Pontius Pilate was one) it is what we seek rather than sham, appearance and kitsch. Autistic people are generally limpid, devoid of hidden agendas and are not slaves of fashions and groupthink.

We tend to see patterns and details, and it is often hard to see the big picture or the Universal Idea. Through studying philosophy, I have learned to abstract from the particular to the Universal Idea. We like to follow through on things, when “normal” people expect these “unimportant” things to be abandoned or unfinished in favour of what they think is important. I may not be always right, but I do like to finish a job.

In my life, I have always given high priority to loyalty. My broken relationship with the TAC and Archbishop Hepworth in 2012 caused me deep interior pain, because I had to face the fact that I was being loyal to a sham, a lie, an illusion. It is harder to break away, but it was the only thing to do. There are still bits and pieces of the TAC in the world, and I am sure they are doing God’s work, but I no longer related to them. This is just an example. The situation in England is horrifying by the depth of self-interest and lack of moral principle of those who are supposed to be leading. I have to limit my time looking at the news each day, because it is oppressive and causes anxiety. Many are worse off than I am and need medical and / or spiritual help.

Another thing I experience is how my senses relate to the world and how I find meanings in things. I notice things that most people pass by and ignore. I can’t imagine people who have a dull sense of smell, taste, touch, sight and sound. I always thought most people had the same sensations but didn’t talk about them! Now I wonder what they do experience. I suppose it is like my different experience of social relationships, non-verbal and body language and seemingly irrational emotions. Sometimes, my wife plays mind games that take a lot of working out.

Another thing is explaining something to someone, perhaps the way a machine works. For example, something is wrong with my van, and my wife asks “what?”. I then attempt to explain the functioning of a universal joint transmission – what comes between the engine / gearbox assembly and the front wheels. How else do I explain it to someone who freaks out when they hear technical explanations? That is another difference. I like to know the reason for everything. For most people, it is “just so”. At least I can help the mechanic in his diagnosis, and he saves a lot of time and money knowing which part to replace. However, it is not always easy to distinguish between what is relevant to a conversation or not. How do I organise my mind to say just what is necessary, whilst sparing the person a barrage of information that would cause more confusion than rational understanding? Frustration quickly enters the picture.

Most human relations are competitive. The first past the post wins, and the others “suck it up”. To succeed in life, we have to be assertive. I do better nowadays, but I have spent most of my life “fobbed off” by what other people think what might be appropriate. They don’t know our lives as we do! In the end, we have to learn to be “scarlet pimpernels” and keep under the radar.

Dislike of fashion, assumptions and narrow-mindedness is another characteristic among many “aspies”. We want to be able to use our minds and rational faculties, not systematically conform to orthodoxies and narrow agendas. These are some of the gifts an autistic person can have.

Many “aspies” eschew religion. I have learned to distinguish between the Christian spiritual life and the usually inadequate way of “parish religion” or the querelle des chapelles as it is expressed in French. I was still at seminary when I discovered the need to go beyond exoteric religion to find the esoteric. I no longer judged the “modernist” Fr George Tyrrell as a “heretic”, but as a seeker of a more profound and fulfilling faith in Christ and all he taught. Anglicanism, even its traditionalist and conservative version, is more conducive to the free spirit than some of the totalitarian Catholicism I have known in my life. We are more likely to be cosmopolitan than nationalist in our way of relating to our origins and loyalties. I have never felt revolted by humans of other races or cultures or religions. Diversity is essentially, if I expect to be respected in my own difference.

I found resonance in many of these questions in Romantic writers and thinkers, whether or not they were autistic. You can’t diagnose someone who has been dead for two hundred years! Perhaps a reader or two might have some ideas about developing these thoughts at a philosophical level rather than one of empirical science.

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2 Responses to Romanticising Aspergers

  1. Stephen K says:

    Father Anthony, I appreciate your continual efforts to explain your insight and experience of difference with others and how it has shaped your life and the evolution of your spiritual aspirations and your understanding of them. I am not competent to expound on Aspergers itself as such but I note a remarkable (i.e. worthy-of-being-remarked-on) thing:- you self-identify as Asperger (high-functioning autistic) at the same time as coming up with very crystal clear explanations of your experience showing you have deep insight into yourself, which in my limited experience is not something I expect of Aspergers, who typically forge on ‘regardless’ of others. I detect in you a slight undercurrent of contempt for people who might not have the same “mechanical inquiry’ spirit (think ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’) as you, and I think this is an issue that has to be contemplated if not resolved if a person wishes to emulate what we think Jesus would have done (as the trend to put it has it!). But then I reflect that I also have from time to time feelings of contempt for my fellow men and would not class myself as Aspergers (although my failures in some of my relationships with those I feel I should – and do – love point to deficiencies and vices in myself).

    I guess what I am trying to say is that I think the way you have grown (according to your own account) and met the challenges confronting you spiritually and religiously (two mingled but different things) is a credit to you – although you have come to conclusions about them that I would say are idiosyncratic and not necessarily applicable or persuasive to anyone else – but that so long as you keep calling to mind that the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about appears to have been located in the love (and sensitivity and patience) you show to others, you will find the peace and truth and love your heart desires (even as – and perhaps particularly as – an Aspergers).

    Please take my response as an attempt on my part to express my appreciation for your genuineness and honesty and of the spiritual (if not religious) sympathy and respect I feel for you.

    • Many thanks for this comment. It is appreciated, but I do feel I need to qualify a few things. Self-identifying? When I approached the medical profession, I did not seek an identity but an explanation. It helped to make the unintelligible intelligible at least to some extent. The “crystal clear explanations” came from my many “hymns to the night” in wintertime. That use of words may be difficult to understand but it is my way of expressing it. Those “who typically forge on ‘regardless’ of others” tend to be those who make the “way of the world”. I suppose it depends on whether we desire to make any progress in our human condition. I do.

      I have no contempt for those who are not interested in technical explanations. I just find it more frustrating and so the answer for “why is this so” is to repeat the words. There is no answer because the person doesn’t want one. That is his prerogative. It is obvious that my explanations or questions about things will not suit everyone. There is nothing I can do about that. It would be easier to join bandwagons and fashions, imitating and pushing for being first past the post. Strangely, many of the stereotypes of autistic people rather more apply to the “neurotypical” who is situated at the “hylic” level of life.

      Why did I write this posting? It was not so much to admire myself in the mirror, but rather seek to provoke a discussion leading to a philosophical understanding of the experience of a minority of people who are characterised by scientific categories. The extremes of ostracism and “identity politics” need to be avoided, replaced by a calm and moderate way of understanding humanity. That is an ideal that will never be a reality in this world.

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