"Autism & The Internet" or "It's The Wiring, Stupid"

by Harvey Blume

4,987 words
posted:  july 1,  1997

In the Air

Let me start with prime-time TV.

On Sunday, 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.

There was 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" expertise.

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.

The plot 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.

The question 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:

Unidentified Man #1: (From Rain Man) Ray, how much is 4,343 times 1,234?
Mr. Dustin Hoffman (Actor): (From Rain Man) ...5,359,262.

Mr. Newport: I said it before he said it. People in front of me in the theater just looked around, and then I realized, 'Uh-oh.'

Jerry's 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.

Steven Spielberg 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 autism?

Certainly 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.

Dreams, 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.

These are 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."

Bruce Mazlish 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.

The last 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 scaled.

It's hard 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?")

In Screamers, 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.

The signs 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."

Her evidence 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.


Multiple 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.

To understand 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.

Except now 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:

"I 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 ... "

The relationship 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 Satanic rituals?

These questions 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.

Autism is 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.

MPD derives 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.

Autism says good-bye to all that. It's a question of neurology. It's the wiring, silly.

It wasn't 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 psychoanalytic reasoning.

No more. 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):

Autism 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 environment.

One high-functioning 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."

Autism is 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.

Prozac and 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 from drugs."

With neurology comes neurobabble. As Americans we will certainly not refuse the chance to simplify and babble-ize any paradigm that comes our way.

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.

Neurons resemble bits, bytes, and computer registers.

Neurological man is a giant step toward -- and concession to -- the cyborg.


It might 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).

Oliver Sacks 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."

It might also be useful to hear a high-functioning autistic describe autism from the inside:

Imagine 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 people.

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) ...

Imagine, 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 ...

What stands 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.

Temple Grandin 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."

This feeling 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."

Nikola Tesla, 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:

A 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.

Tesla expanded 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.

Tesla believed 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.)

There is, 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:

Those 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.

Grandin's 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.

And she 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."

Grandin 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 thinking.


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.

One autistic 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."

Community 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 others.

My contact 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."

Historically, 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."

There is 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."

The voice 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 expanded also."

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

I 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.

The 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.

Rev 1.1
Zachary Strider McGregor-Dorsey