Monday, September 9, 2013

Religious Observance In Adults With High-Functioning Autism: An analysis of accomodation issues by David N. Brown


David N. Brown has carried out a survey about religion among adults with high-functioning autism. The survey was composed to solicit information on religious beliefs, past and present experiences within places of worship, sensory issues, and social functioning. 121 responses were received from late 2011 through early 2012. Based on these results, Mr. Brown has prepared a full report including recommendations for accommodating people with autism.

Project background

The survey has been carried out as a master's project for Denver Seminary. The project and survey were proposed by Mr. Brown and approved by the seminary. Approved goals and parameters included surveying only people with autism, from a potentially wide range of religious beliefs and backgrounds; full confidentiality for all respondents; and the overall objective of providing information and advice for Christian and potentially other organizations on how to accommodate members with autism. No funding or any other direct support was received from the seminary or any other source.

Survey findings
  1. While more than a third of respondents self-identified as atheist or agnostic, the majority identified with a specific religious affiliation. Evangelical Christianity was the most common, and others appeared more commonly than in previously published data for the general population, particularly Judaism and “neo-pagan” groups. Despite the high proportion who self-reported as non-religious, respondents indicated more frequent and active participation in religious activities than might be expected for the general public. One-eighth of all respondents reported both regular attendance at a place of worship and involvement in additional religious activities (eg. Bible studies, charity, etc.)

  1. Respondents were asked to report their age based on decade of birth, in part to establish the state of autism research and diagnostic criteria at the time. More than a third of all respondents indicated being at least 40 years old. A comparable number reported being born between 1980 and 1991. When surveyed on diagnosis and diagnostic history, more than 90% specifically selected Asperger's Syndrome, and more than 70% indicated a current professional diagnosis. Those who acknowledged being undiagnosed most commonly reported that the possibility of autism had either been raised in a professional evaluation or supported by family and friends. Lack of a diagnosis was most common in those over 40, but also relatively high in those born in the 1980s.

  1. Respondents were specifically surveyed on their ability to drive. While almost half reported regular and unimpaired driving, a quarter reported being unable even to ride a bicycle. A significant but somewhat complex correlation was found between limited mobility and more limited participation at a place of worship: In particular, those who had no independent transportation still had a quite high rate of weekly attendance, but were underrepresented among those who participated in additional activities. Mobility also correlated significantly with age, with the greatest proportion of regular drivers being among those born before 1970.

  1. When questioned about friendships, the majority selected the option of “many acquaintances” with “few close friends”. By comparison, a small number reported “many close friends”, while 1/6th of the group selected “little social interaction of any kind”.

  1. Almost 3/4ths of all respondents indicated a social phobia. The most common selection was “fear or extreme discomfort” in crowds, which may in the strict sense be a symptom of sensory stress rather than a phobia. More than a third of respondents selected reported fears involving embarrassment, rejection and abuse.

  1. When questioned on marital status and romantic history, exactly identical numbers (31 or one-quarter of the sample each) selected either “currently married” or having no history of “serious” dating. When responses were correlated to those regarding friendships and attendance at a place of worship, those who reported no romantic history were in many respects favorably comparable to those who were currently married.

  1. Sensory stress was pervasively reported as an issue in places of worship and in other settings. When questioned on responses to sensory stress, 30% reported leaving a situation. Only somewhat smaller proportions reported either becoming “agitated” or avoiding certain settings and situations entirely. In addition, about 10% of respondents identified sensory issues as the main reason for leaving a place of worship.

  1. Many respondents reported serious social difficulties in past or present places of worship. Interpersonal conflict was cited more frequently than sensory issues as a reason for leaving a church, and many respondents who filled out an essay component of the survey specified that both had been factors. Essay responses commonly reported some form of social problems, including negative reactions by others to typical autistic behaviors. Even those who reported being satisfied with a current place of worship commonly cited (eg.) “acceptance” as decisive, strongly suggesting less positive experiences in the past. In light of these results, a second project was undertaken to develop a conflict-resolution curriculum for people with autism.

Additional information and resources related to autism by David N. Brown are available at

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Escape And Evasion by David N. Brown Mesa Arizona

Originally published 2009 at

I am a "semi-pro" writer, currently 28 years old, and diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. I first received that diagnosis in 2002, and was not made aware of it until 2004, when I was about to start my last year of undergrad. To me, this was like having a name put to all the problems I had had before. One of those problems was bullying.

I did not perceive bullying until I reached fourth grade, and as far as I can recall, it was not initially something I found that much of a problem. It was, I think, significant that most of the name-calling I experienced up to that time came from classmates whom I at least knew by name. My consistent response was to give as good as I got. From what I can remember, I came to accept exchanging insults with certain people as a kind of social ritual, which at times could be almost impersonal to me. I suppose these people might just as well be called 'frienemies', to use much later slang.

The first exceptions were two budding sociopaths named Robbie and Ben. They were a year ahead of me, and made a hobby of bullying younger children. They weren't particularly "physical", but the fact that they were bigger than us ensured that the only alternative to taking their verbal abuse was hitting only to be hit back harder. Many of my encounters were with Robbie alone. The first I can recall was when he introduced me to the first sexual "joke" I heard, with a punchline "OW!" supplied of course by me. On at least two occasions, he used force against me. Once, he shoved me off a sidewalk where his class and mine were lined up side-by-side, into several inches of irrigation water. Another time, he hit me in the crotch, and a playground monitor sent me to the nurse's office (but, as far as I saw, did not even try to find Robbie). The worst single occasion was in 5th grade, when I ran into Robbie, Ben and several other older boys while I was exploring the field at the back of the playground. They didn't hit me, as I recall, but they harassed me and followed me until I was in tears. Then they went inside, because 6th grade lunch hour ended halfway through that of the 5th graders. I find it striking that Robbie and Ben were not people I had any kind of relationship with, even as personal enemies. I never saw them except on the bus, the playground and occasionally the halls. They could just as well have ignored me and everyone else in my grade. Instead, they did their best to make our days worse. I suspect, in hindsight, that their influence and that of others like them was a major reason pointless, anonymous bullying became pervasive among my own classmates.

But as the abuse spread, from enemies I at least knew by their first name to the horde of poorly known or entirely anonymous hecklers, I no longer had even the context of attack and retaliation to place it in. I think it was "stranger bullying" that finally left me feeling paranoid and demoralized. The worst of it came when a student who was in my class, but whom I never talked to, invented an insulting nickname for me. It was, I suppose, an insult I would have found routine and unimaginative even then, but it incorporated my own name, and that made it seem personal even from people I was sure were strangers. I hated it, and people who knew that made sure to share it with others. It seemed to spread to everyone in the 4th-6th grades, and then to the boys in my church. I became convinced that the only boys who would not use it against me were those who simply did not know who I was.

A common theme on this site is school officials who do nothing except punish victims. My experience was typical of the pattern. I very vividly recall going to a playground monitor, perhaps only once, and being told that she would not punish any bully unless he actually hit me. (In that event, we both got detention!) I took this, in what I can now recognize as typical "aspie" literal-mindedness, to mean that school policy said that no one could be punished for abuse that was "only" verbal. It was only when I finally started writing out my story as an adult that it finally occurred to me that it was far more likely that she was just making an excuse not to do her job. Yet, I think the bullies themselves must have had more or less the same impression, since even Robbie and Ben usually avoided hitting me until they provoked me into hitting them first.

Looking back on the fiasco of the school's discipline, the worst part is that I could have seen even at the time that the lazy playground monitor was not representative of the school staff. All my teachers were distressed and even angry at what they knew about the other kids' abuse. Even then, it registered to me (if only as the occasional anomalous datum) when my teachers became concerned when I came into class in tears, or so angry I threw things around room, or with bullies still at my heels. At one point, I heard even the principal say, "This nonsense has to stop!" Looking back on those times, I can no longer imagine that the staff would ever have upheld that lazy "monitor's" decision. If there had really been no penalties for verbal abuse, I am now quite sure that plenty of teachers and staff would have been willing to change the rules to add them. (I am sure it's possible I have misunderstood and misremembered what even the monitor really said and did, but I am not able to view her any more leniently for that.) But, at the time, I was not able to imagine that one adult could fail to speak for all adults, or to doubt that having one adult refuse to punish the bullies was the same as all the adults knowing and doing nothing.

In hindsight, I am pretty sure I misjudged even the other students. I was aware at the time that many if not most of the people calling that loathsome nickname were people I did not know by name. The natural conclusion now is that my nickname was that those "anonymous" bullies knew nothing about me except my nickname. Since not knowing so many of the bullies also left me with no good way to judge their numbers, it seems quite possible now that there weren't even that many of them. But, at the time, I never doubted that the bullies were, if not the actual majority, representative of how I was and would be treated by anyone who took notice of me at all. Once again, I held this belief in spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary. I think I would have been aware enough at the time that the name-calling strangers were qualitatively different from my past "enemies"; even Robbie was someone I knew by name and had had a few civil conversations with. By 6th grade, the people actually in my class (including old "frienemies") were at least showing open respect for my intelligence; in hindsight, I think I was even "popular" after a fashion. But the name-calling never seemed to get better, and I could well have been right. My reaction was to do something exceptionally misguided: I tried to avoid everyone in 4th-6th grade.

I first tried to spend recesses in the library instead of on the playground. The library was supposed to be closed. At least once, I got in anyway, but the staff threw me out. Then I hit on going to a playground that was supposed to be reserved for 1st-3rd graders. This would get me out of the haunts of my current abusers, and I figured that the younger kids would not know who I was. Sure enough, I never heard the name spoken while I was on the other playground. Even so, I was constantly afraid even there. I was afraid one of the bullies in my own grade would follow me, and be followed by the rest. I had an at least equal fear, absurd in hindsight, that sooner or later the younger kids might start bullying me as badly as my peers. I considered myself safe in their midst only because they might not know of me and "the name". I believed I could only stay safe if I kept "unnoticed". (As I recall, it never occurred to me that they might be afraid of me, or that there was no way a 6th grader among 1st graders could fail to attract attention.) So, I refused to play with or talk to anyone even among the much younger kids. In my perception, interacting with people was not a solution to abuse, but its cause.

By and large, my problems with bullies ended at the start of jr. high (7th grade in my district). Unfortunately, this was when I ran into the worst of the bullies I had to endure, a boy named LaGrand. He had a diverse repertoire of abuse. The worst of his tricks was to make noises I couldn't stand (an Asperger's symptom that got worse at the time). During the second half of 7th grade, I had to spend four of my six periods with LaGrand, including PE and shop. Shop was worst, because the teacher had a habit of walking out for most of the period and leaving us to ourselves. Ironically, I really didn't like shop class that much, even apart from LaGrand, but I didn't realize that because I spent much of the time hiding to a storeroom to get away from LaGrand. When I stayed, I would end up either in tears or trying to hurt LaGrand. (And we were alone with a shop full of tools!) I learned after the fact that the teacher would be furious when he came back and found me gone. LaGrand never seemed to get punished. I am sure I could have had LaGrand expelled or at least pulled out of my classes at any time if I had reported him, but I still expected adult inaction, and I assumed they knew what was happening already anyway.

During the summer between 7th and 8th grade, I went through a significant transition. I began attending a church youth group (to this day, church provides my best social outlet), and spent a lot of time with new and old friends. I believe this was the first time I enjoyed social interactions in a large group. The summer was marred by the thought of going back to school and having to face LaGrand, but I think the new positive experience made it easier to make a resolution: If he bothered me, I would fight back until he left me alone or was gone from my presence. Sure enough, on the first day of school, I found LaGrand was in two of my classes (advanced placement English and history), and he immediately started harassing me again. My response was to tell him, very loudly, to castrate himself. I was sent out of the classroom, and the next day, the teachers had switched his English and history periods, so he wasn't in my classes any more. When he harassed me in lunch and in the hallways, I attacked him and choked him. We both spent the rest of the first week of school in all-day detention, and he never bothered me again.

I would say now that was the end of the intentional abuse I experienced. Unfortunately, I believed otherwise at the time. All the way through 12th grade, I continued to believe I was being actively abused and rejected, to a degree that could be considered paranoid. When a classmate made noises that caused me stress, I readily suspected he was doing it to harass me. If he didn't stop the first time I told him to, I would be sure of it. I repeatedly made threats over noise, and on several occasions actually attacked someone. On those occasions, I am sure I seemed like a bully myself. Then there were my first romantic interests. I spent all of jr. high pining for a girl who would not talk to me, and in 11th grade, I asked out two girls I considered friends who stopped talking to me immediately thereafter. In hindsight, the problem was just that I had no idea of the right way to interact with them as friends or potential girlfriends, and also that I was not able to interpret their behavior toward me (par for the "aspie" course). At the time, I felt very strongly that they were not just declining to date me, but rejecting me for every quality I had as a person.

I should mention a little about how I coped with the bullying. From my earliest years, I would make up stories. In 4th grade, I started drawing cartoons, and around fifth grade, I started drawing a regular strip called "Gordie", about kids going through the same experiences I did. It could easily be regarded as my imitation of the "Peanuts" strip, but when I look at them now, I find them even more like the Dilbert strip, which would have been very new and quite unknown to me at the time. Like Scott Adams with the office culture, I was able to observe the things that happened around me, send it through a funhouse mirror of satire and fantasy, and have a good laugh at the results. I believe that was also when I settled on something that I still find distinctive about my original work: I tried to create characters that were funny, but still reasonably intelligent, competent and even successful. In any event, I got plenty of humor and comfort from this in the midst of the abuse, and also entertained my classmates- maybe part of how I got noticeable respect. There have been times as an adult when memories of the bullying have made me feel as depressed or even more so than I did at the time. It has helped me to reread my old cartoons, and try to remember what it was like when I first drew them.

There is no doubt in my mind that my elementary school contributed to the bullying problem by not having enough alternatives. If the school had left the library open, I would have had a sanctioned refuge from the predatory strangers on the playground. If the school had provided a selection of sports, clubs and academic activities instead of turning us loose on the playground where the only vestige of rules and structure was a fat, lazy monitor, I might actually have had fun and learned to make friends. Incidentally, in the last week of 5th grade, the school arranged for the entire grade to go to some kind of science and nature camp, which I would have loved a few years later, but at the time I repeatedly refused to go. They finally parked me in a third-grade classroom with a load of exercises. I'm not sure whether I did this more because I was afraid of being away from home, or because being at school alone seemed preferable to being in a new setting with a bunch of known bullies.

Regarding bullying, I can draw two major conclusions from hindsight. The first is that bullies behave like predatory animals: As a rule, they ONLY target the potential victims who are LEAST able to defend themselves. The second is that there is no way for a victim to respond effectively to bullying while it is still going on. I can see this especially in my experience with LaGrand. I spent an entire semester enduring his abuse, only to dispose of him by the third day of the next semester. I don't think it is coincidence that the summer and getting involved in church group came between. This ought to be the final rebuttal to the rationalizations that bullying "toughens" people, or that victims are somehow at least partly at fault because their behavior "invites" bullying. Kids and adults need to be forced to admit that if a person really has a problem, which he or she really has the slightest control over, the ONLY way to "help" solve the problem is to FIRST be kind and accepting toward them. If instead they isolate, exclude or abuse the person, the only outcome they can reasonably expect is for that person's problems to GET WORSE.

David N. Brown
 Mesa, Arizona

Friday, January 25, 2013

Autism and Overlapping Disorders by David N. Brown Mesa Arizona

Previously published at

Autism and overlapping mental disorders
By David N. Brown
This is a PUBLIC DOMAIN document (dated 8/13/09). It may be copied, forwarded,
cited, circulated or posted elsewhere. The author requests only that it not be altered
from its current form.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder:
• AS individuals characteristically rely heavily on routines and rituals.
• Easily fixate on a specific activity or subject.
• Possible distinction in perceived significance of act
◦ In OCD, commonly perceived as matter of safety.
◦ In autism, may be seen more rationally as matter of comfort
◦ Priority for intervention should be to make sure behavior does not lead to
self-injury, damage to property or inappropriate behavior in public. Don't put
excessive pressure on an autistic person to stop a behavior that causes none
of these problems.

Attention Deficit Disorder:
◦ May manifest either as “comorbid” disorder or as secondary effect of autism
◦ In typical “public” settings (classrooms, stores, etc, etc.) “attention deficit”
symptoms are likely to manifest simply as a result of sensory stress
◦ Ritalin may be beneficial
◦ Characterized by hallucinations, delusions and disordered thought and behavior.
◦ Autistics may have comorbid schizophrenia (believed to be rare) or experience
some symptoms (esp. hallucinations) without being diagnosably schizophrenic
◦ Significant distinctions based on response to hallucination.
▪ Rejects hallucination= not delusional
▪ Responds logically to perceived reality= not disordered
▪ An individual who is delusional but still “rational” represents the greatest
potential threat to self and others
“Delusional Aspie”: Zaratustra
• Is very sensitive to light, but oblivious to pain.
• Obsessive-compulsive tendencies
• Recounts what he considers real encounters with angels and demons.
• Bases his actions, including participation in sophisticated criminal enterprises, on these
perceived encounters.
• Responds to hallucination/delusion in calm and highly organized ways
◦ Ex. Shoots at demons, keeps accurate count of how much ammo is left!
• Motivations seem bizarre or wholly incomprehensible to others.
• Is obviously intelligent, and usually articulate.
• Is often violent, but these actions are consistently “cold-blooded” in nature.

David N. Brown
Mesa Arizona
David N. Brown, David N. Brown Arizona, Arizona, David N. Brown Mesa, David N. Brown Mesa Arizona, Mesa, Mesa Arizona, Mesa David N. Brown, Arizona David N. Brown, Mesa Arizona David N. Brown

"Vicious When Poked With a Stick": Dubious Descriptors of Autism by David N. Brown Mesa Arizona

Previously published at!topic/

A major concern for autism advocates is defeating myths about the autistic. These are mainly popular
misconceptions or outdated descriptions in psychological literature, but may include what even serious
professionals will believe and defend. Here are my picks for the worst autism myths.
One of the most vague of the common descriptors, perhaps especially among those trying to link
autism to mercury poisoning, is “tantrums and agression”. I find this perception reminiscent of a
critique I saw once of early studies of the Tasmanian devil. Such studies helped perpetuate (if not
create) the image of the Tasmanian devil as a uniquely ferocious and destructive animal. As the later
critic pointed out, these studies of the devils' behavior always read something like this: “Tasmanian
devil placed in barrel, then poked with stick by grad student. Viciously bit grad student's finger off.
Grad student given longer stick.”
The truth is that experienced clinicians have often characterized as passive compared to neurotypicals.
If it appears that an autistic has made an attack or other “aggressive” act without provocation, it is most
likely an illusion, created by one of several factors. The autistic may have been unable to communicate
a problem verbally, and so tried physically to “solve” the problem or draw others' attention to it. He
may have responded to a problem with passivity, successfully containing a reaction at first only to have
stress build up until he had a visible break-down. He may be unable to communicate the reason for his
actions, or not even try because he thinks others already know. Finally (I suspect most often), he may
have been driven to an inappropriate action by a group of bullies, and said as much, but been ignored
because the sadistic sociopaths who forced him to act inappropriately lied to clear each other and get
him punished for trying to fight back or escape.

One misconception which has been defeated, in professional sources and for the mainstream media, is
the idea that 75-80% of autistics have retardation. However, it is likely still to be encountered in some
“popular” sources, particularly those which claim autism as a form of vaccine injury. The rebuttal has
been that, while several old studies in which autistics were tested for IQ did produce such results,
further support came mostly from uncritical repetition rather than replication of results, and that the
results were unreliable due to autistic problems with communication. I, personally, rejected this hoary
statistic as soon as I saw it mentioned, based on an event I have not seen mentioned by anyone else:
Back in 1918, the now-infamous Yerkes-army study gave standard IQ testing to over a million
servicemen, including blacks who couldn't read and recent immigrants who spoke little or no English.
The “results” for immigrants and blacks were as bad or even worse than those of autistics. Thus, the
apparent “retardation” rate among autistics could and should have been recognized immediately as
what would be expected from any group of subjects with a limited ability to communicate.
Lack of empathy?
Another myth that there has been much progress toward overcoming is autistics lack “empathy” for
others (begging the question what the hell is wrong with “normal” kids who target the autistic for
abuse). Tests have consistently shown a real problem: Autistics fall behind others in applying “theory
of mind”, as measured most directly in “hidden object” tests. In the setup for the test, two children are
shown an object being hidden, and then only one is shown it being moved. The test itself consists of
asking the one who knows the present location of the object where the other person will look for it.
Children with sufficiently developed “theory of mind” will point to the original location, while those
without it will point to the current one. Autistic children do the latter well after same-age
“neurotypical” peers begin to do the former. The valid conclusion from this is that autistics tend to
assume that others share their own knowledge, thoughts and feelings. But many over the years have
dubiously defined the autistics' difficulties as a lack of theory of mind, and drawn the wholly spurious
conclusion that they have trouble recognizing that others have feelings at all. On the question (and
definition) of “theory of mind”, it would be better to say that it is impaired rather than absent in the
autistic: Autistics are clearly capable of recognizing other people as thinking and emotional beings,
rather than mechanical objects. The handicap is that when they try to envision the thoughts and
feelings of others, they have trouble coming up with anything but a repetition of their own thoughts and
feelings. Now, within the framework of this assumption, an autistic may go to great lengths to
accommodate others' feelings, especially by doing for them what he would want himself in the same
situation. But, of course, it is doubtful whether others will appreciate their actions or recognize their
good intentions.

To illustrate the subtleties of the problem, I will give an experience from my adolescence: From
childhood onward, I have found insects fascinating and even beautiful. I especially enjoyed finding the
shed exoskeletons of cicadas, left intact on tree trunks. They reminded me of crystal sculptures, and I
would always stop for a look when I found one. Once, I found a number of molts while exploring the
woods during a church retreat, and while I was examining one of them, a girl passed by and asked what
I was looking at. I just told her to come and look. From what I remember, I was excited about sharing
an interesting and beautiful sight with someone else. She took one look, screamed and left. (I don't
remember if she ran.) This took me completely by surprise, and left me disappointed and sad. But I
suppose she just thought of me as some boy who set her up for a “gross-out”.
Unable to “read” body language?
This final myth is one that, to my knowledge, is taken for granted among specialists. Indeed, I do not
consider it false, exactly. I think saying autistics don't register body language is like saying a car with
no steering wheel handles poorly on corners. What's said is true, technically, but it doesn't get to the
root of the problem. In my own experience, I accepted this fully as applying to myself, and when it
came to social interactions, it was entirely true. But, relatively recently, I have realized that I had set
something of a double standard for myself. I am extremely visually oriented, as seems typical for
autistics, and I certainly can follow body language outside of social situations. If it is an animal in a
zoo or a TV nature program, a creature in a science fiction movie, or a character in a cartoon,
movement, posture and facial expression are not just things I follow but things I find intensely
interesting. As I reflected on this, I had to ask myself why I had not been applying the same skills to
other people in real life social situations. The only answer I could come up with was that when I talked
to people, I would usually look away from them, and I recognized that as nothing more or less than
failure to make eye contact (another pervasive autistic trait). I have heard different theories about why
autistics don't make eye contact. For myself, I have been able to arrive at a very simple answer: Not
looking at someone makes it easier for me to follow what he or she is saying. Thus, it is at least my
personal experience that I do not have trouble with “body language”; rather, I have so much trouble
with verbal communication that it is hard to do anything else at the same time.

The well-known failure of “facilitated communication” inadvertently provides strong evidence that
autistics may have average, good or even exceptional grasp of body language. Facilitated
communication appeared to give the lowest-functioning autistics the ability to communicate despite an
inability to speak. Critical cross examination showed that autistic children were reacting to “cues”
from the “facilitators”, very much like the historic case of “Clever Hans”, a horse that appeared able to
do math problems until someone blindfolded it. The verdict on “Clever Hans” is that, while the horse's
counting was illusory, the horse displayed impressive genuine intelligence through its ability to “read”
human body language. Facilitated communication offers a similarly dramatic demonstration that even
the lowest-functioning autistics are capable of recognizing nuances in body language.
A final perception I feel needs to be called into question is that autistics are solitary. I relate the
problem with this to a fine distinction in animal behavior. In the strictest sense, “social” animals are
those that not only gather in a group but work together for specific purposes. By this definition, a pack
of wolves is social in a way that a herd of elk is not. I have suggested the term “gregarious” for animals
that gather in large numbers without practicing higher social behavior. Similarly, the description of
“solitary” best applies to animals that are not just alone most of the time, but actively avoid each other.
(These distinctions inspired a joke in my description of the fictional species Archididelphis invicta: The
“gregarious” ones kill you if they don't like you, while the solitary ones kill you if you get near them.)
I suspect that the “natural” tendency of autistics is toward my definition of gregariousness: an ability
to tolerate the physical presence of others, despite a lack of interest in activities as a group. Where
autistic people instead avoid even being near others, I would predict that it is because others are doing
things that stress them or (as in my experience) intentionally abusing the autistic.

 David N. Brown
Mesa Arizona
David N. Brown, David N. Brown Arizona, Arizona, David N. Brown Mesa, David N. Brown Mesa Arizona, Mesa, Mesa Arizona, Mesa David N. Brown, Arizona David N. Brown, Mesa Arizona David N. Brown

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Conversations with "O'Cleary": Autism and Schizophrenia By David N. Brown Mesa Arizona

Previously published at:

One of the more esoteric areas of autism research is its relationship with schizophrenia. It’s probably not a question that most people know about, but among clinical psychiatrists and psychologists, there were decades of historic controversy and confusion over distinctions between autism and schizophrenia. When the late 19th-early 20th-century psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler first used the term “autistic” in professional literature, he was not discussing what we now consider autism, but schizophrenia. When Leo Kanner performed studies that would form the basis for the first diagnostic criteria for autism, several of his subjects had previously been classified as schizophrenic. Through the 1950s, 1960s and even into the ‘70s, there was ongoing speculation that autism and schizophrenia were interrelated, most notably a circulating theory that those diagnosed with autism in childhood would become schizophrenics as adults. (It is noteworthy that this theory went into decline at precisely the time when children diagnosed with autism under Kanner’s criteria would have been reaching adulthood!)
In hindsight, the fruits of this now-obscure controversy are a mixed bag. The case of Bleuler alone is highly instructive. Bleuler was best known both in his own time and in subsequent literature as a pioneering researcher in schizophrenia, and he favored quite broad criteria for defining the condition, and as late as the 1970s professionals were still debating how much to “tighten” the criteria.1 Furthermore, a number of traits of schizophrenia can now be recognized as at least superficially similar to autism, such as lack of “affect” or displayed emotion.2 From what is now known about both autism and schizophrenia, it is quite possible that he did in fact observe some individuals who would now be diagnosable as called autistic. On a darker note, Bleuler appears to have assumed an analogy between appearing withdrawn or detached, as is common in autism, and the landscape of outright delusion seen in schizophrenia. In hindsight, this was not only an unwarranted extrapolation, but a failure to recognize the strong possibility that an individual’s “withdrawal” might in fact be a response to social abuse.
Moving to the present, there are developments that could yet revive the issue. The professional literature has for some time been rather quietly recognized that a certain number of autistics are also diagnosable with “comorbid” schizophrenia. A number of researchers have gone further and proposed that autism and schizophrenia have the same or similar underlying cause(s) in genes and neurology.3 What may ultimately be of most interest is that a substantial body of reports has accumulated of autistic people experiencing schizophrenia-like hallucinations, without clear indications of full-blown schizophrenia. (For anyone who wants to go looking for examples, apart from online postings, William Stillman’s writings on the religious experiences of the autistic, with frequent paranormal overtones, may be as good a place as any to start.) This opens up the possibility of a discrete subcategory of autism spectrum disorders.
That will be as good a place as any to start my story.
I first found out that I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2004. Before that, I went through a regular alphabet soup of diagnoses: PDD, PDD-NOS, ADD, ADHD, and not improbably some I don’t remember or never heard about. As far as I know, the one thing nobody suggested was the one I thought about the most myself: schizophrenia.
To me, the centerpiece of my ideas about schizophrenia and autism is the character of Zaratustra. I first came up with him a few years before getting the diagnosis, and I always felt that, in some way, he was a kind of alter ego to myself. After the diagnosis, I realized that his character pretty well fit the “aspie” distinction. To me, the most important aspect of Zed is that, no matter how far he gets from what anyone else would consider reality, he is always rational. In other words, what he does will always follow logically from what he perceives as real and what he considers an appropriate and desirable goal. Perhaps the reason why I feel such an understanding for his character where readers get confused is that I can really picture what his inner world is like. Perhaps that should be frightening.
In this process, I now know that I hit upon a very important issue in psychiatric theory and practice. As per the psychiatrists, the defining characteristic of “real” schizophrenics is that they are not just delusional, but fundamentally disorganized. Thus, they tend to do things that, on consideration, do not make a great deal of sense even in the framework of their perceived world. For example, if someone otherwise “rational” perceived that a table lamp was telling him to go out and kill his bank clerk, he would probably assume he was hallucinating. (Actually, as psychiatrists use the term, this wouldn’t even qualify as a hallucination, because the perception is rejected, but I prefer not to make that distinction.) Even if he did accept the voice as real, he would probably still refuse to obey because it would be illegal and amoral. Or, if he were like Zed, he would at least ask the lamp what would be in it for him.
What I find intriguing about Zed is that he represents a combination of traits that would be exceptionally dangerous in an actual criminal. By comparison, actual schizophrenic criminals tend, from a purely technical standpoint, to be unimpressive. They are as disorganized in committing their crimes as they are about anything else; even counting bullets may elude them. Thus, they tend either to get themselves caught quickly, or to fail entirely in doing the deed. But, now and then, I run across a real case of a criminal who is clearly delusional, yet quite successful in planning and carrying out complex acts of mayhem. Over the years, I have racked up quite a list. I haven’t cared to commit any of their names to writing, but I am sure you, the reader, can already think of at least one. Whether they are well-known is quite independent of their evidenced capabilities; the single individual I consider most dangerous is probably the most obscure, and I would just as soon keep it that way.
What first got me thinking about schizophrenia, however, came years before any of this. Now, it should go without saying that I have a very active fantasy life. I have also always been very interested in phenomena that must be considered either unexplained, actually supernatural, or else hallucinatory: UFO sightings, Bigfoot encounters, poltergeists, etc, etc. But, I can’t say I have ever experienced anything that made me feel either out of touch with reality, or in contact with something beyond ordinary experience of the physical world. My closest brush with anything like the uncanny is one childhood memory: Sometime in later childhood, I woke up and saw an orange light coming from under a door between my bedroom and a family room, which wasn’t at all like the family room lights. After a while, the light flickered and went out. As such things go, on the whole, this would qualify as downright boring.
Then, starting when I was 15 or so, I started to have a completely different kind of experience. It never felt like a hallucination, but it made me fear very much that I was losing my mind. To describe it, I don’t think I can do better than repeat a fictionalized account I worked into my Zombie Vegas! series: “He did not perceive it as sound he actually heard. Yet, it was a voice, with tone and pitch and inflection, and it seemed completely beyond his control… The Voice had started during middle school. He had never believed that it was anything but a fragment of his own psyche, which had not made things the slightest bit better.”
My “Voice” was the persona of a fictional character named O’Cleary, from a jumbled mess of an aborted science fiction novel I worked on from 8th grade through high school. His story was that he survives a battle with monsters by leaving his companions and hiding, and afterward tells everyone else that the monsters can’t be beaten. He was never a sympathetic character to me: He was a coward and even a traitor, and he was supposed to be in some sense a threat to everyone else. What he really was, to me, was a voice that told me that I was going to fail (especially in any efforts at romance), and when I did it would be my fault, especially for not trying hard enough and not being brave enough. I never believed it was a “Voice” from outside myself, yet I was absolutely convinced I had to prove it wrong.
I can see now that this was, in fact, pretty much the reverse of reality. As I have recounted, in junior high and high school, I was anything but timid about approaching girls. By any standard, I was, in fact, too aggressive and persistent in trying to talk to girls. For a good part of my life, I don’t doubt that this was directly fed by the voice. Thinking about it now, I wonder about “chicken vs. egg”. When it started, I really was very reluctant to talk to a girl, no matter how attractive and interesting she seemed. But, I don’t believe now that this was not nearly as much a matter of being afraid as it was of what I was comfortable with. Back then, I was still easing my way toward enjoying being around people. There was no way I was just going to cannonball into a dating relationship, and I never expected or even really wanted to. I could feel perfectly happy just watching someone interact with others. I could even enjoy fancying that I was like a zoologist, observing without disturbing. (That other people would be aware of being watched, and might not appreciate it, is another point which eluded me.) But when I started listening to the “Voice”, I was willing to approach a girl again and again, even as she got more and more upset.
This continued right into college, and I believe it reached a critical level right about the time I learned of my diagnosis. This brought me to a situation where I was probably as in love as I’ve ever been, but still told myself the young woman was “just” a friend. (In perfect hindsight, I think the real best description was “acquaintance”, but I think the thinness of the connection only shows the disproportionate depth of my emotional investment.) Soon enough, this reached the point where she took me to task emphatically enough that I believed she never wanted to talk to me again- and I really never did. In hindsight, I do not believe that was really what she wanted, but I was ready to assume disaster. In more perfect hindsight, I think on some level I knew that not talking to her at all could be the best thing for me. But this didn’t save me from being around her in all the same places, or keep me out of especially severe bouts of depression. During one of these dismal, drowsy spells, I seemed to think spontaneously, who would miss me if I carried out what had for some time been my strictly hypothetical “escape plan”.
Even now, I don’t feel ready to talk about what came after that. Apart from anything else, I can’t recall with any confidence what happened. Time spent reflecting on the Bible marked a turning point. Learning about autism and Asperger’s Syndrome helped, and, in fact, I’m not sure if I could have benefited the same way if I had been told of the diagnosis earlier. Probably most importantly, I started sharing more with friends. It also happened that, at that time, I really started to wonder whether the “Voice” I had always considered an echo of my subconscious might be something more, and not at all good.
Through this process, I benefited particularly from better understanding what a positive religious experience could be like. To me, the existence of forces and entities beyond ordinary perception has always seemed like a straightforward and reasonable proposition. I had no trouble finding enthusiasm for Judeo-Christian Scripture in particular, on an intellectual level. But a sense of really relating to God long eluded me, in no small part because many people’s ideas of “talking with God” seemed little different than me being harangued by the Voice. Even now, I don’t relate to the idea of communing with the supernatural that way. (Quite a bit of my feelings in this regard have come out through my stories with the pragmatically pagan Carlos Wrzniewski.) But, I have come to the point where I can recognize a sense of something more, or at least different.
I suppose that leaves just one more thing to tell, which is the one thing that seems completely unbelievable. Indeed, when I fictionalized this story, I hesitated to recount this part, because it seemed so much like the kind of contrived deus ex machina resolution that countless authors have beaten into the ground simply because they could think of nothing better to do. But this is what really happened: The Voice just stopped. Even before I finished high school, O’Cleary was no longer popping up in my inner world. Even my depressive episode in college never repeated itself. It has seemed to me the closest thing possible to an answer to prayer- and I’m willing to believe that it was.
1 Encyclopedia of Schizophrenia, Noll, 339-340
2 Schizophrenia, Hearher Barnett Veague, p. 4.
3 See eg. Yael Dvir, MD and Jean A. Frazier, MD, “Autism and Schizophrenia”, Psychiatric Times. Vol. 28 No. 3, March 2011.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Responding to ANYtown by David N. Brown Mesa Arizona

Previously published at

So, I’ve let this go again for a while, and just when I’m ready to come back, I find a major intrusion from reality, and this time I do believe I have something to say about it that will fit here.

I am sure it would be redundant to do more than briefly recap recent events, and I would prefer to keep it briefer than usual: Once again, someone has committed what is known as a “spree shooting”. As is usually the case, it is reasonably clear that the offender is mentally ill. This time, not for the first time, the possibility has been raised that had an Autism Spectrum Disorder. For the last few days, autism activists have been pushing back against these reports by emphasizing that autistic disorders are not associated with violence, up to and including repeating the long-standing axiom that people who are mentally ill are more likely to be victims of crimes than to commit them. I must say, I disagree with this response. For one thing, I think if the goal is simply to downplay speculations about crime and disability, then the activists might be better off not commenting. Historical precedent would suggest that such comments are most likely to appear early and then quickly fade, especially under low-key communication by concerned parties with the media. For another, I believe that there are real and very fundamental problems here that are overdue for discussion.

While I see no cause to doubt the above-mentioned statistical talisman about mentally ill victims vs offenders, I have always had a feeling that this is missing the obvious, and probably more besides. The most “obvious” problem is that making a talking point out of this comes close to pummeling a man of straw. Given the dissimilar nature of mental disorders, nobody is ever going to claim that all the mentally ill are equally likely to commit a crime: Obviously, individuals as different as an agoraphobic and a clinical pedophile are not going to pose the same (if any) level of threat to others. Nor is anyone likely to make any serious claim that those with any particular disorder are more likely to be violent than not: Even in the prison population, the large majority are considered “non-violent”! The point we are really making the closest approach to is simply that the mentally ill population, and any subset thereof, can and should be approached like any other people group. All of which takes us precisely nowhere in applying what we know or can reasonably deduce about the demographics of crime.

One of the less obvious issues in the equation is what could be termed disproportionate threat. This can be seen at play on two levels. First, even “violent” offenders are not equally prone to violence: Of the subset of “violent” crime, a large majority the offenses are attributed to a minority of offenders (I distinctly recall seeing the very persistent 80%-20% ratio come up). Then there is another consideration, entirely “obvious” but difficult to quantify: Quite simply, some people, even if they are no more likely to offend, are capable of far more damage if/when they do. Spree shooters themselves are among the most obvious examples, and historically they overlap massively with the even more quintessential case and point, ex-military offenders. One of the earliest documented spree shooters and my personal pick for the single most dangerous individual to come to my attention was a decorated World War 2 veteran who committed a rare building-to-building rampage in 1949. (I don’t care to repeat any names in discussing this sort of thing if I can avoid it, but here’s “his” website.)

The same kind of issues can be seen at play for mental illness. Many conditions offer nothing but obvious “outgroups”, as in the already-mentioned example of agoraphobia: People who by definition avoid going out in public are by definition unlikely to harm members of the general public! Other conditions may be said to put the individual “at risk” to offend, but make for a liability in actually carrying out the deed. Schizophrenia is the quintessential case and point: Schizophrenics are characteristically delusional, not only seeing and hearing what isn’t there, but believing it. However, the “classic” schizophrenic is also characteristically disorganized. He might rob a bank because his cat told him to, but even if the cat also dictated one hell of a plan, there’s not much chance he would carry it out successfully. The presumable principle is that this kind of “crazy” is predictably self-limiting, and there’s no shortage of real-life cases to support the point. My favorite is a famous would-be assassin who was still pulling the trigger when his empty revolver was taken from him. The ability to keep track one’s bullets is a key test of the organized criminal, and entirely failing to notice when one is out is a strong indicator that one is not suited for the “job”.

But then, there are offenders who defy these “rules”. The WW2 veteran I mentioned was declared schizophrenic and institutionalized for the remainder of his life. (Reading between the lines, it seems likely that there were people in the right places who wanted to spare him, and/or simply avoid embarrassing questions, on account of his war record.) It’s very unlikely that such a diagnosis would be accepted today, and any appeal for clemency would be denied. While he was by all indications delusional in some sense, his actions showed far too much planning and self-control for the schizophrenia diagnosis (which, significantly, was “tightened” in the early 1970s) to fit at all comfortably. Even more importantly, there was no question that he deliberately targeted at least some of his victims, which under the modern requirements for an insanity plea would be entirely sufficient to establish that he knew what he was doing and therefore could be held legally accountable for it. What is ultimately most significant about this individual is that similar “profiles” can be seen to pop up again with other exceptionally destructive offenders, including the subject in the present incident. Even subtle details, particularly a reported lack of vocalization, can be seen to match up closely.

So, exactly what are we dealing with? It’s my long-standing pet theory (developed with a little help from a couple fictional characters) that there is a significant subset of autistic people who have a combination of “high-functioning” traits and schizophrenia-like symptoms, which I have termed “delusional aspie”. (See “Autism and Overlapping Disorders” and “Conversations with O’Cleary”.) At least some “spree” offenders do seem to fit this description. This could be considered nothing more or less than an example of a “comorbid” disorder, which for schizophrenia in particular has been documented for about as long as both conditions have been known. (In fact, historic controversies occurred over telling them apart!) But then there is another way of looking at it. A psychiatric diagnosis is, first and foremost, a description of a pattern of thought and behavior. If an “overlap” of characteristics from two or more “established” diagnoses is sufficient to produce an entirely novel “pattern”, then at some point one has to consider whether it is, for all practical purposes, a completely different animal. Unfortunately, in the time it takes for the “pros” to sort out this sort of thing, it’s quite easy for whole generations to slip through the proverbial cracks, particularly by a) being “shoehorned” into a clearly imperfect diagnosis and treatment simply because nobody has anything better to do with them or b) simply receiving no diagnosis or treatment at all because nobody will venture to put a “name” to what is wrong with them.

Then there is another, very fundamental issue of criminal demographics. One of the most pervasive problems demonstrated by application of proper statistical analysis to crime is that popular anxieties tend to direct community attention away from serious “inward” problems. 1980′s-era “stranger danger” and its stranger cousin the “satanic panic” flew directly in the face of hard data on parental abductions and homicides (read Coulrophobia- it’s about time someone did). White Americans perenially anxious about blacks have long since been shown that about 80% of murdered whites are murdered by other whites, and even more strikingly, about 90% of people actually murdered by blacks are other black people. Such results of hard data can also be extended to murkier areas of folklore. For example, there can be no serious doubt that any factual nucleus of Medieval and Renaissance “blood libel” legends of Christian children supposedly murdered in Jewish rituals were simply prosaic homicides, and most likely perpetrated by family members of the victims. (Ironically, that very opinion is expressed frequently and vocally in contemporary sources, obviously to no avail against the prejudices of their peers.) It even seems possible that evidently high numbers of Jewish victims in “routine” homicides (ie beyond overtly anti-Semitic mass violence in the “pogroms”), which could be an indication of religiously-motivated or simply opportunistic attacks by (self-described!) Christian offenders, were in fact mainly killed by other Jews.

I believe it shall be “obvious” where this is going. If one accepts the proposition that one can at least attempt to treat crime among the mentally ill like that of any other people group, then the most intuitive conclusion one can make is that the greatest threat to someone with a mental illness should be another mentally ill person! Such a dramatic proposition should by all means be tested. But so far, I have yet to see it even mentioned, and I felt that it was long past time long ago.

Now I invite further consideration for just how this would affect someone’s mental condition, and indeed their entire perception of the wider world. If someone with obviously limited ability to function in society is approached by someone with ill intentions and a condition that is far less obvious, then the former party is the least likely of all people to recognize the latter as anything but a “normal” member of the public. If the more “functional” party then abuses the other, the less functional party has no way to recognize what is truly wrong with the abuser. Instead, the abused party might very well develop the notion that the abusive behavior is nothing more or less than what any “normal” person can and will do given the opportunity. Then the only “reasonable” defense is to withdraw further from “normal” human contact, which will carry with it predictable deterioration in condition and “functioning” and may all too easily make the subject an even more convenient target for the truly predatory abnormal. Sooner of later, the victim might even start to develop a plan for revenge, retaliation or merely self-defense… and we all know where that road goes to.

I don’t think I want to write any more about this now, if ever. I would like to think I have said enough. Call it what life, and my idea of a good story, is like: No answers, jut trying to ask the right questions.

David N. Brown
Mesa, Arizona