Let me start
with prime-time TV.
May, 4, I turned on Viper, a series built around a multi-ethnic
crime fighting team who drive a bullet-proof high speed car
from somewhere over the technological rainbow. This episode
featured an autistic -- the reason why I tuned in -- who had
seen a murder, but couldn't talk about it. He had also committed
to memory the serial numbers of a secret Swiss bank account,
the one with the data that would blow the case wide open, but
couldn't divulge that, either.
He was autistic.
Getting information out of him was like safe-cracking.
But he loved
cars, adored them, knew every make, model, year. The show's
futuristic auto was the gateway to his good heart and guarded
mind, because more than anything, he wanted to go for a ride.
nothing particularly new in this. Rain Man had already
introduced us to the notion that autistics routinely come equipped
with savant powers (though, in fact, only ten percent do), and
that the average autistic is likely to possess what Leo Kanner
(who diagnosed autism in 1943) called "islets of ability,"
areas of extreme competence and obsessive, "perseverating"
If the show
itself wasn't novel, channel hopping brought me to the edge
of my seat. There, on The X-Files that night, was a man
sweating and rocking, his face distorted as he spewed out numbers.
More autism. It was becoming a familiar theme, I had to conclude,
a television trope, comparable maybe to the bug-eyed, thin-lipped
alien who has already abducted everything but the sports channels
and the weather-woman.
of The X-Files seemed to hinge on this autistic man's
ability not only to remember numbers, but to see the future.
This in turn, connects to an old assumption, already exploited
by science fiction (notably Phillip K. Dick's Martian Time-Slip)
that autistics are out of phase with time as the rest of us
experience it. Autism is a form of asynchronicity. The fact
that autistics and the neurolgically typical (known by and large
in the autistic community as "NTs") inhabit different
synaptic time zones accounts for the difficulty in communication
between us. We are running at different clock speeds.
Viper and The X-Files prompted me to ask once
again was this: why is there so much autism in the air? Why
Rain Man? Why two prime-time shows on the same Sunday
night? Why the 60 Minutes segment a few months earlier about
the lives and romance of two high-functioning autistics, Mary
and Jerry Newport, the latter having discovered his autism when,
watching Rain Man, he beat Dustin Hoffman, the film's autistic
savant, to the arithmetic punch?
I will let
the transcript from 60 Minutes episode (CBS, 9/29/96)
tell the story of Jerry Newport's moment of self-revelation:
Man #1: (From Rain Man) Ray, how much is 4,343 times 1,234?
Mr. Dustin Hoffman (Actor): (From Rain Man) ...5,359,262.
I said it before he said it. People in front of me in the theater
just looked around, and then I realized, 'Uh-oh.'
wife, Mary, is no less savant-like than her bird-loving, number
crunching husband. In addition to having played the Blue Lady
from planet Bol on Star Trek, she paints complex canvases
and writes string quartets by the somewhat unorthodox method
of starting in the middle and proceeding arbitrarily toward
the beginning or the end.
has purchased the rights to the love story of Mary and Jerry
Newport (whose poetry is on-line at http://www.udel.edu/bkirby/asperger/jerry_newport.html).
The movie is expected within the year.
Why so much
it is in the nature of media to fasten on, churn through, and
exploit difference, today, on Oprah (or The X-Files)
as once upon a time in the live extravaganza produced by P.T.
Barnum. But I submit there is more to it than media gluttony.
The media is stuck on autism because of the zeitgeist. And the
zeitgeist, in turn, at least for now, seems never to stray too
far from the Internet.
Beasts, and Computers
In her stimulating
book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet
(1995), Sherry Turkle argues that what dreams were to Freud,
and beasts were to Darwin, computers have become for us. They
are, she writes, our "test objects," challenging our
view of ourselves; forcing us to adopt new perspectives on what
it means to be intelligent, human, and alive.
not issues reserved for philosophers, computer scientists, cognitive
psychologists, and other members of the academy; they forcefully
assail the very young. Turkle recounts fascinating instances
of the way children accommodate to fluctuating distinctions
between subject and object, human and thing, crossing borders
that Piaget, for one, considered innate and inviolable. One
anecdote concerns toys that can be configured as tanks, robots
or people -- and any combination of all three. A boy, confronted
with such a toy in one of its hybrid states, becomes upset and
tells his playmates, "You should play with them as all
tank or all people." The other children ignore him, upsetting
him all the more, until an eight-year old girl offers him sage
advice about why he ought to put his worries behind him. "It's
okay to play with them when they are in between," she says.
"It's all the same stuff, just yucky computer cy-dough-plasm."
is on the scent of "yucky computer cy-dough-cy-dough-plasma"
in The Fourth Discontinuity: the Co-evolution of Humans and
Machines (1993), where he argues that human history has
been marked by four discontinuities, each considered unbridgeable
while it prevailed. The first discontinuity was between humanity
and cosmos. This was overcome by Copernican astronomy, which
located earth within a universe of stars, planets, and other
galactic phenomenon. The second discontinuity was between human
and beast. This, in turn, was bridged by Darwin. The third discontinuity
pertains to the distinction between ego and instinct, the presumably
autonomous individual and the unconscious. Freud showed this
to be a permeable membrane at best.
discontinuity is between human and machine. What with smart
machines, and cybernetic models of the human mind, Mazlish sees
that discontinuity as giving way in our own time. The computer
opens a Northwest Passage between natural and artificial intelligence,
the organism and the mechanism. The last of the discontinuities
that make humanity special, a creation unto itself, is being
to deny that a change in the way we see ourselves in relation
to machines is underway. Evidence, not so much of interface
but of something more intimate, something more like inter-marriage
(together with divorce), crops up on all sides. The cyborg,
the union of flesh and metal, is the star of innumerable books
and movies. In The Terminator, the cyborg has attained
intelligence, but is evil. The sequel presents a more dualistic
scenario: one cyborg is evil but another is a child's best friend,
ready to dissolve himself in molten steel for the boy's sake.
In Blade Runner, a cyborg develops last-minute compassion
for the helpless man he was about to kill. The man, in turn,
allows himself to fall in love with a cyborg, though he knows
full well that her program gives her only a short lease on life.
("I didn't know how much time we'd have," he says,
as he and his cyborg lover sail off into the sunset, "but,
then again, who does?")
cyborgs have evolved in two directions, one implacably hostile
to man, the other protective of him. In Idoru, cyberpunk
novelist William Gibson's latest book, the pivotal character,
an international rock star, is determined to marry his glamorous
betrothed even though she is an artificially intelligent hologram,
and despite the opposition of fans who see this union as disturbing
if not abominable.
are everywhere that we are experiencing ourselves as living
through a romance between human and machine. But Turkle wants
more. She wants to show that if the computer is driving us toward
a new paradigm, it is also hosting a paradigmatic disease. "Just
as hysteria was the paradigmatic symptom of Freud's patients,"
she writes, "a hundred years later, at the turn of another
century, multiple personality seems to be the paradigmatic symptom
for our own."
comes from a rich study of MUDs (Multi-User Domains), on-line
sites that allow users to log on under assumed identities. No
one checks for a picture ID or a voice print. A man can log
on as a woman, a woman as a man. Older people can adopt the
persona of the young. Racial barriers fall way. The Internet,
as Turkle sees it, encourages multiplicity. Life on-line causes
the individual to blossom -- or is it metastasize? -- into many.
It is here
that I want to take issue with her. If the Internet requires
a "paradigmatic symptom," something to mark our day
and age as distinctively as hysteria marked Freud's, I would
argue that it is not multiple personality disorder (MPD) that
does so; it is autism. This is true largely because of the very
things Turkle highlights in her book. If this is the age in
which artificial and organic intelligence cross-pollinate as
never before, autism speaks to that relation far more profoundly
than MPD can ever do. But other factors are involved, and it
is worth alluding to some in passing.
Personality Disorder has a curious and complex history, brushing
against issues of spiritualism, trance, science, and technology.
Readers looking for a full scale meditation on the subject might
turn to Ian Hacking's, Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality
and the Sciences of Memory (1995), which demonstrates that
the popularity and legitimacy of MPD as a diagnosis has varied
over time. MPD has had its boom periods and its busts, times
when it seemed rife in Western culture and times when its very
existence has come under suspicion. It seems we are leaving
a boom period behind. The stock of MPD is headed, if not for
an out and out crash, then at least for severe downward adjustment.
why, we might start by looking at recent conversations with
Dr. Herbert Spiegel (see, for example, the New York Review
of Books, 4/24/97). Dr. Spiegel had been Sybil's hypnotist,
and it was Sybil's story that served as the foundational text
in the upsurge of MPD. Before Sybil (1973) there were
cases of child abuse and instances of MPD but the two phenomena
had not been connected. Sybil joined them. After Sybil the assumption
was that where there was trauma in childhood, there would be
multiplicity later. The self splinters under the impact of abuse.
These splinters mature into the alters of 'florid' multi-personality.
Dr. Spiegel comes forth to testify that whatever happened to
Sybil as a child, she never suffered from genuine multiplicity
as a grownup. She was an hysteric, yes, disassociative, quite,
and according to Dr. Spiegel, a full blown "hypnotic virtuoso,"
that is, supremely hypnotizable, and under hypnosis, supremely
suggestible. Dr. Spiegel was invited by Dr. Cornelia Wilbur,
Sybil's psychiatrist, and the writer Flora Rheta Schreiber to
join them in authoring the book that eventually became the best-selling
Sybil. He was intrigued until being told Sybil was to be described
as a case of MPD, after which, in his words:
told Wilbur and Schreiber that it would not be accurate to call
Sybil a multiple personality, and that it was not at all consistent
with what I knew about her."... "Schreiber then got
in a huff ... she said, 'But if we don't call it a multiple
personality, we don't have a book! The publishers want it to
be that, otherwise it won't sell!' That was the logic ... "
of MPD to child abuse has become one of the thornier issues
of the day, bringing with it questions about the validity of
the recovered memory of trauma and accusations that therapists
have led their patients toward faddish diagnoses. Sexual politics
enters into it. Was the explosive increase in cases of MPD in
the 1980s the result of an alliance between a strand of feminism
and certain echelons of the therapeutic community? Was there
an even more peculiar alliance between a strand of feminism,
a little too anxious to see child abuse, particularly the sexual
abuse of little girls, in every home, and Christian fundamentalists,
eager to agitate against the supposed spread of child-abusing
cannot be settled here. Nor do they need to be. It is enough
to refer to Dr. Spiegel's testimony, to note that no cases of
Satanic abuse have been verified to date, and to cite Ian Hacking
to the effect that no statistically sound studies connecting
MPD to child abuse have been put forth. MPD has become problematic.
It is worth
ruminating on the possibility that having had the rug pulled
out from under it in psychiatry and psychology, MPD has achieved
new legitimacy -- has assumed a new identity, so to speak --
in the study of computer culture. It is certainly the case that
neither Sherry Turkle nor Sandy Stone, a writer on computer
culture with a similar interest in the multiplication of personae
(see The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the
Mechanical Age, 1995) ever turns back to seriously examine
the roots of a diagnostic category they deploy freely in their
analysis of life on-line.
coming to the fore. The crisis of confidence in MPD can only
partially explain this. A further contrast between MPD and autism
can help get at a deeper cause.
from psychology. It hangs on one of the deeper, least questioned
assumptions of psychological theory, Freudian or otherwise:
an ounce of childhood is worth a ton of adulthood. What happened
to you as a child -- what Freud described as "unrememberable
and unforgetTABLE" -- slams into adulthood with the cumulative
force of an avalanche.
good-bye to all that. It's a question of neurology. It's the
always that way. When Leo Kanner described autism in 1943, he
fell back at times upon the standard fare of psychological causation.
Autism derived from bad parenting, especially bad mothering.
The child who shrinks from touch has been conditioned to do
so by his 'refrigerator' mother. Bruno Bettelheim continued
in this vein with The Empty Fortress (1967), where finely
drawn portraits of autistic children are compromised by labyrinthine
The psychological explanation of autism has been rejected today,
not least of all by autistics themselves. As Temple Grandin,
the high-functioning autistic profiled by Oliver Sacks in An
Anthropologist on Mars (1995), plainly put it in an interview
I did with her (see http://amug.org/~a203/temple_blume.html):
is a neurological disorder. A child is born with it. It's caused
by immature development of the brain -- that's been verified
by brain autopsy studies -- and not by bad parenting or the
autistic describes her farewell to psychotherapy as a crucial
act of self-assertion. (This and like quotations come from Internet
listservs). After spending her "... teens in a state of
suicidal clinical depression as a result of bullying and feeling
that I must be a failure or insane for being different,"
she found this opinion "only reinforced by the psychotherapist
I got sent to, who decided that all my problems must be the
result of 'sexual repression.'" She declares herself proud
to have "walked out after 6 sessions," and concludes
that being diagnosed as autistic "was the best thing that
ever happened to me."
hardly the only -- and far from the main -- reason for the current
elevation of neurology. The opposite may be closer to the truth:
the elevation of neurology supplies us with a reason for the
increasing attention being paid to autism.
related drugs take a neurological approach to problems once
considered psychological in origin. They emphasize wiring over
psyche, neurons over consciousness, circuitry over childhood.
That such a reframing invites abuse goes without saying. A Time
Magazine (5/5/1997) cover story about addiction tells us
it all comes down to neurotransmission: the amount of dopamine
-- a neurotransmitter associated "with pleasure and elation"
-- can be increased in the brain "by a hug, a kiss, a word
of praise," or by "the potent pleasures that come
comes neurobabble. As Americans we will certainly not refuse
the chance to simplify and babble-ize any paradigm that comes
But we shouldn't
be surprised. If we seriously believe that we live in an age
where digital media exert an ever more powerful gravitational
field, drawing everything else in the culture inevitably toward
it, then we should expect that neurology -- whether expounded
with the finesse and humanity of an Oliver Sacks or in the reductionist
fashion of Time Magazine -- will gain ascendancy.
resemble bits, bytes, and computer registers.
man is a giant step toward -- and concession to -- the cyborg.
be useful at this point to give a definition of autism, before
admitting there really isn't a very good one, and that autism,
unlike, say Downs Syndrome, is less a discrete condition than
a cluster, or better yet, a continuum of affects. (It is also
a cluster of acronyms, HFA for high-functioning autistic, AS,
or Aspie, for Asperger's, a milder form of the syndrome, ASD
for Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and, of course, NT for none
of the above).
characterizes autism by saying it comes with "a consistent
triad of impairments: impairment of social interaction with
others, impairment of verbal and nonverbal communication, and
impairment of play and imaginative activities." But he
is quick to add: "The ultimate understanding of autism
may demand both technical advances and conceptual ones beyond
anything we can now even dream of."
also be useful to hear a high-functioning autistic describe
autism from the inside:
you are surrounded by ten people rapidly talking to; you at
the same time (you're a politician answering questions, for
instance), and this goes on for SEVERAL HOURS. Assume you must
think about everything you say and can't ignore any of these
I'm sure you would want to run into a small room and lock
the door behind you. Well, this is how I feel when I'm talking
to two people (or one person, sometimes) ...
also that whenever someone touches you, it is painful. In some
autistics this is acute physical pain. In me (as an infant),
it was a feeling of being tickled VERY UNPLEASANTLY -- it sent
intense waves of sensation up and down my body and I cried.
Now -- consider that physical touch is one of the main ways
a baby bond with parents ...
out clearly in this account is just how much the name autism
may give misleading information about the syndrome, implying,
as it does, that autistics are inherently cut off from the outside
world, when in fact, to start with anyway, they are all too
exposed to it. The isolation sets in as a form of self-defense.
Lacking the filtering mechanisms NTs take for granted, and therefore
inundated by sense impressions, autistics shut down completely.
writes, "I know what it is like to feel my heart race when
a car horn honks in the middle of the night. I have hyperacute
senses and fear response that may be more like those a prey-species
animal than of most humans." When I asked her to answer
her own question -- "Why would a leopard in a concrete
cell at the zoo and autism have similarities?" -- she replied:
"The pacing. The leopard does it because of sensory deprivation.
The autistic does it because sensory stimulation is so overwhelming
he has to pace and rock to block the painful stimuli."
of susceptibility to external influences may be the reason autistics
have tended to think of themselves in mechanical, electrical,
or increasingly today, cybernetic terms. They do not experience
themselves as shielded from the outside world but as continuous
-- helplessly, uncontrollably continuous -- with it.
One of the
more striking portraits to emerge from Bruno Bettelheim's work
-- once the psychoanalytic swaddling has been removed -- is
that of Joey, the electrical boy. When Joey entered a room,
his first act was to locate an imaginary electrical outlet and
string an invisible wire between himself and it. Joey had to
be plugged in to survive. According to Bettelheim, Joey mimed
the act of wiring himself "with such skill that one had
to look twice to be sure there was neither wire nor outlet nor
plug." Bettelheim describes Joey's actions as those of
"a robot, but a helpless one."
Edison's rival in the electrification of the United States 100
years ago, described people as meat machines, a description
of the cyborg it is hard to improve upon. Sacks and others have
suggested that Tesla may have been a high-functioning autistic.
Any serious look at his life, and at the very characteristics
that have baffled (and seduced) his biographers -- reducing
them to tiresome romanticizing or to psychobabble -- leaves
little doubt. Tesla avoided touch, and was compulsive in innumerable
ways (he required 18 napkins in front of him before he ate,
divided his food into neat groups of three, walked around the
block four times before entering a doorway.) His sensory anomalies
read like poetry but felt like affliction:
fly alighting on a TABLE in the room would cause a dull thud
in my ear... In the dark I had the sense of a bat and could
detect the presence of an object at a distance of twelve feet
by a peculiar creepy sensation on the forehead. My pulse varied
from a few to two hundred and sixty beats ... A renowned physician
... pronounced my malady unique and incurable.
And he had
extraordinary gifts of visualization. What Edison might fail
to materialize in a year of experiment, Tesla would design,
test, and debug to perfection all in his mind's eye.
All of this
may seem like no more than a grab bag of gifts and impairments
until compared to the portrait of Temple Grandin that emerges
from her two memoirs (Emergence, Labeled Autistic, and Thinking
in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism),
after which Tesla ceases to be quite so mysterious -- except
in the sense that autism itself remains mysterious. Especially
with regard to sensory anomalies and visual gifts, Grandin and
Tesla are profoundly congruent. Temple Grandin brings Nikola
Tesla into focus.
often enough on his belief that human beings were meat machines.
"We are automata entirely controlled by the forces of the
medium," he wrote, "being tossed about like corks
on the surface of the water, but mistaking the resultant of
the impulses from the outside for the free will." I want
to suggest that Tesla was a thoroughgoing materialist because
he was autistic. Believing that all entities -- human, inorganic
and mechanical -- impinge upon each other, that autonomy does
not exist, that there are no hard and fast lines between spirit
and matter, or between inside and outside, does not require
the believer to be autistic. But in Tesla's case such views
came closest to providing him with a language for the amplified
sensorium in which he lived.
thoughts and sense impressions would someday be transmitted,
with no more difficulty than radio waves or electricity were
in his day (partly due to his efforts.). He would have approved
the World Wide Web as a step in that direction (though attempts
by some of his more avid admirers to credit him with forecasting
the Internet must be rejected -- Tesla had no inkling of digitalization.)
however, nothing to stop Temple Grandin from seizing on the
Internet and the Web as the best possible metaphors for her
own brand of thinking.. When, in my interview with her, I remarked
that her latest book, Thinking in Pictures, had "occasional
signs of autism, abrupt transitions, sudden leaps of thought
not easy for the reader to follow," she replied:
leaps of thought are obvious to me. I'm going to write another
book in which I try to explain how associative thinking works
like links on the Internet. You might get a web page on bicycles
and you might want to know how you can go from bicycles to dogs.
Maybe it's something about dogs chasing bicycles. And then there's
a link to a site about obedience training in dogs. There is
a logic to it. It's not totally irrational.
thinking is visual and concrete, as opposed to verbal and conceptual.
"If you say the word, 'boat,' to me," she explains
"I see pictures of specific boats; I don't have a boat
concept." Web graphics naturally appeal to her.
has adopted the language of cybernetics at a deeper level, employing
it for introspection. "My processes aren't hidden,"
she told me. "The only things in my mind I don't see are
things, for example, like the circuits for walking."
said she adopted "Internet talk ... because there is nothing
out there closer to how I think than the World Wide Web. ...
I tell people, if you really want to understand how I think,
why don't you just go to the Internet, type the word 'streetcar'
into it. Start there, and see where it takes you." Streetcar
seemed exactly the right word to initiate a journey into associative
It is not
only that for many autistics the World Wide Web provides a rich
store of metaphors for their mental processes -- or that, in
reverse, the mental processes of autistics can stand in as symbols
of the associative hyper-linking graphic chaos of the World
Wide Web. There is a much more practical side to it. Simply
put, for many autistics the Internet is Braille.
wrote: "It was through the Internet that I discovered AS
and the whole concept of neurological differences. Without the
Internet, I'd still be seeing myself as the cause of my own
'failure' (failure to be NT)... . it wasn't until I met other
Aspies on the internet that I was able to gain a deeper understanding
of what being Aspie means."
building by means of the Internet is hardly unique to "Aspies."
But what this woman says next addresses the special relationship
-- the bond -- autistics have to the Internet: "The amount
of support I get from InLv [Independent Living, her listserv]
is incredible -- and one reason it can be so effective as a
support system is precisely because it is not 'in person.' Ordinarily,
the giving of support involves being with someone, and that's
always draining for me. In other words, even if someone does
give me support in person, I will have to spend some time recovering
from the experience of receiving that support." The Internet
allows autistics to get around one of Sacks's defining "triad
of impairments," the impairment of social interaction with
with autistics started on-line, and I at first wondered why
a correspondent I found so eloquent and brilliantly funny on
the Internet would feel "impaired" if we were to meet
in person. He responded that face-to-face contact would do nothing
to inform and a lot to confuse him. "Reading faces to me
is like looking into a rippling pond," he wrote. "I
am too distracted by the edges, glints of light, etc. to make
much out of it." As another writer put it: "Long live
the Internet -- people can see the real me, not just how I interact
superficially with other people."
autistics have been spoken for by others -- by parents and a
slew of specialists. It is partly because of this that the traditional
image NTs have of autistics is of a child unable to speak for
himself, requiring interpretation, intervention, advocacy. This
is changing. Adult autistics are finding their own voice. That
voice is tuning itself up on-line. As one writer put it: "The
level of communication possible via the Internet is changing
our lives, ending our isolation, and giving us the strength
to insist on the validity of our own experiences and observations."
a political dimension to this bond with the Internet. A project
called CyberSpace 2000 is devoted getting as many people as
possible in the autistic spectrum hooked up by the year 2000,
reason being that "the Internet is an essential means for
autistic people to improve their lives, because it is often
the only way they can communicate effectively."
gathering force on-line will be heard from off-line as well.
As one autistic put it: "When the computer became able
to connect me with others via the internet, my 'real' world
I want to
sum up before ending. I've made points in this paper about the
recent media spotlighting of autism, soon to peak with the release
of the Spielberg film about Mary and Jerry Newport
The relation of autism to neurology
The challenge neurology presents to psychology
The closer approximation to cybernetics and to the
cyborg neurology affords
The bond autistics have forged with the Internet
want to end by saying that the community of autistics, which may
not have matured and come to self-awareness without the Internet,
presents the rest of us with a challenge.
we all be increasingly confronted with, on-line and off, is,
to look at ourselves differently than we have before, that is,
to accept neurological diversity.
NT is only
one way to be.