I recently watched the movie The Imitation Game, about the computer scientist Alan Turing and the defeat of the German Enigma encryption machine during World War II. (This post isn’t really about the movie, but I’ll take a quick detour to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and was emotionally moved throughout; I highly recommend it.) It has been posthumously speculated that Turing had Asperger’s syndrome, and this speculation seems to me to have had an obvious influence on the direction, writing, and acting of the movie. While I don’t want to get bogged down in controversies over historical accuracy, cliche methods used to win movie awards, or any attitudes or comments of the director, writer, or actor concerning autism, there is one facet of how Turing was presented in the movie that I do wish to discuss. I came out of the movie having strong but mixed and confused feelings about the portrayal of Turing in relation to his possible autism. It has been a little tricky to sort out those thoughts and feelings, but here’s my best shot at it.
“Textbook” Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism
The mixed feelings largely had to do with my impression that numerous scenes were presented as a stereotyped or “textbook” case of Asperger’s syndrome. I’m not sure that they were actually created with this intention; indeed, public comments by the director, writer, and actor all suggest that they were in fact very concerned to avoid doing so. But it still could have been unconscious on their parts. If I were a generally distrustful person, it’d be easy to speculate that their public comments didn’t actually line up with their private intentions, but I’m not inclined to think much of that thought. Maybe it was instead just my own thoughts being projected onto the movie. Maybe it was my irrational anxieties regarding the impressions my friends would get who had accompanied me to the theater. But whatever the cause, the feeling definitely made me uncomfortable, yet I wasn’t entirely sure the discomfort was warranted.
I’ve had this thought in the past too, while watching the movie Adam, also with a couple of (other) close friends. But is this really a problem if these characters are written to exhibit numerous classic symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome? Does that make it fake? Or excessively fake, I should say; it is purposefully crafted fiction, after all, so it is already inherently “fake”, albeit not in a necessarily unfavorable way. Besides, maybe these seem like “textbook” examples simply because they significantly overlap the central region of the Bell curve for the population of aspies. Nothing wrong with a stereotype if it is relatively accurate and not used in a demeaning fashion.
But this line of thinking doesn’t really satisfy me. The main reason being the immense variety within the autistic community. (Even neurophysiologically, autistic brains seem to be unusually idiosyncratic.) There are most certainly a number of symptoms that are considered to be common among the autistic community, else the condition couldn’t even be diagnosable given our current scientific understanding. Despite that, it is not necessarily common for a large number of these symptoms to be exhibited by any single individual. It happens, for sure, but such a person isn’t likely to be average case representative of the population, as they are likely to in fact fall nearer the fringe of the Bell curve. Too much pop culture exposure like this an easily lead to a pervasive misunderstanding of autism, not at all unlike how Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man was probably the canonical example of an autistic person in many people’s minds for so long.
Personal Effects of Popular Misconceptions
What might be a result of such a popular misconception? It can produce a subtle (or sometimes blatant) unwillingness among others to acknowledge a person’s autism or suspicion of autism, or an unwillingness to recognize the depth to which it affects them. This unwillingness can come in the form of statements such as, “You don’t seem autistic”, “It doesn’t seem to affect you very much”, “You apparently handle it just fine”, or “Yeah, but everyone experiences X from time to time; it doesn’t make you autistic”. I’ve even heard of numerous cases of professional clinicians discounting a person’s suspicion of autism, or even a professional diagnosis from a different clinician, purely on the grounds that the person makes eye contact just fine, or has friends and an active social life, or can hold down a job, or actually experiences and expresses empathy. Thankfully, I’ve not had to contend with much of this yet, and in the few cases where it has cropped up, I at least know that it was minor, innocent, and well-intended. I feel bad for those who’ve had to deal with the more significant or demeaning variants, or those who are need of support which is denied them on such grounds.
Curiously, this can easily apply to self-reflection as well. For adults never diagnosed as children, it can be all too easy to dismiss the possibility of having autism on the grounds that one is not like the depictions common in pop culture. Even after one has accepted a diagnosis of autism and integrated it into their self-identity, they may still question just how much it affects them, either relative to the average autistic person, or relative to the average non-autistic person (whatever “average” means in either case). But this relativity is hard to figure out. Autistic people have been autistic their entire lives, so whatever their experiences have been thus far, in one sense these experiences are the very definition of normalcy for them. Any deviation from the overall population’s norm can only be inferred indirectly, and often with a great lack of clarity. For me, recognizing that I experience and think differently from most others has been obvious for a long time, just based on superficial observations and descriptions. But figuring out the nature, the extent, the import of that difference has been a much more difficult process, and is still ongoing, as I suspect it will always be.
All of this highlights a very important aspect of autism, one that seems to me to be fairly common across the entire spectrum, based on the informal research I’ve done so far. Traditionally, it has manifested as descriptions of being “lost in another world” or “trapped in a solitary shell”, clearly with a focus on the more severe cases of autism. But I bet similar but more subtle effects occur across the spectrum. For me, it is my weakened ability and reluctance to express my private experiences to others. I’m slowly becoming aware that a great deal of my inner experience remains unavailable to others. It’s not exactly that I always used to presume that everyone could read my mind. I’ve seen this offered as a possible symptom of Asperger’s, and that may in fact be the frame of mind for some people on the spectrum. But in my case, I would describe it more as a lack of awareness as to the magnitude and relevance of the differences. I didn’t realize that the difference might be so large, nor did I ever really consider that such a difference might be quite an important factor to be aware of and manage, as has become more obvious to me this past year.
But how do I communicate this difference to others, if communication of a private experience is specifically something I find so difficult, and if I don’t even have a strong grasp of what their private experience is like so that I might translate my experience into words that make sense from their perspective? (The notion of incommensurability in philosophy of science comes to mind.)
The Value of Characters More Obviously Autistic Than Myself
Upon reflection, I realize now that this might actually be a great reason to accept and even encourage the representation of characters with particularly obvious traits of autism, even if it might be somewhat exaggerated or caricatured (as long as it is done respectfully, of course). This is because such characters give me something clear and unambiguous which I can point to and exclaim, “That’s how I feel! That’s how I wish I could be! Those are the same problems and frustrations, joys and delights, confusions and puzzles that stream through my mind!” These sentiments would probably not be expected of me by most others, or at least not the force with which I want to state them. I don’t generally exhibit the same symptoms, or if I do, they usually appear to be far more mild. And it is only reasonable for others to presume that my internal state of mind corresponds fairly closely with my external presentation.
But that’s just not true. As I noted above, I can be very private about things. And few people will ever even know, because I’ve had so much practice at keeping things private. It is my default behavior, my modus operandi. I’ve gotten so good at it that I seem to have lost much of my skill to not do it (if I ever had any such skill to begin with). But I don’t want people to misunderstand me. I don’t want people to have an inaccurate perception of me. Not that I need people to know every little detail about what it’s like to be me inside my own head, but it’d be great if they had a generally accurate understanding. I also don’t want to be inauthentic; that’s intensely important to me. Granted, I rarely if ever try to actively mislead anyone about who I am or what I want, as that would severely violate ethical expectations I place upon myself. But I’m learning that my privacy can still be passively misleading, often in ways that are a minor detriment to myself, and on occasion a regretful detriment to others too.
Because of this privacy, any character that behaves relatively similar to how I behave cannot actually be a very effective tool for communicating to others the inner details of my experiences. A fictional character with well-masked autism might as well simply be non-autistic, for all practical purposes. But a clearly affected fictional character might actually be usable to communicate experiences to others that would otherwise pass unnoticed. What I realize now is that characters who more obviously exhibit autistic symptoms should not be seen as representing what I am like, as that is clearly not the case for those who know me. Rather, I would say that they represent what it is like to be me, a far less obvious concept, and thus a much more important concept for me to be able to communicate.
This perspective may help to strengthen my self-confidence, too. Quite often I’ve noticed a hesitancy to identify strongly with certain characters, for fear that I’m reading too much into that emotional connection that I feel. It’s like some weird and inverted variant of imposter syndrome, as if I feel “unworthy” to identify with those characters on the grounds that I don’t exhibit the same outward behaviors that they do. At the very least, I fear that other people will question the strength of my identification on those grounds, even if I don’t internally. But now I can see that I identify not because I am like that character in a way that is obvious to everyone else, but because I am like that character on the inside, to a degree that would understandably be unknowable to anyone other than myself.
Bringing this back around to The Imitation Game, I noted that I was emotionally moved throughout the movie, and one particular element that a had a very strong impact on me was the secrecy. Turing had a lot of secrets to keep. The more obvious ones, such as the military secrecy and his homosexuality, surely encumbered him with a tremendous amount of stress, and I certainly do not have any secrets of that magnitude. But I think that the movie did an excellent job going deeper than just this. Perhaps it was just me projecting, but I got a very palpable sense throughout of Turing keeping thoughts and feelings to himself on a near constant basis, exercising an immense degree of self-awareness and self-control. I would bet that most in the audience only noticed all of his unfiltered comments and behaviors, and got the impression that he wasn’t keeping much of anything to himself. This is in fact a common statement I’ve seen about Asperger’s, that those with the condition often have difficulty filtering what they say, and will frequently blurt out things that would have been better left unsaid. What the audience might not have considered is that perhaps such comments were really just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t underestimate the quantity of conscious, well-practiced, but nonetheless stressful filtering that might be occurring “under the hood” just to keep the number of embarrassing utterances to a manageable level. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had thoughts that I myself wouldn’t have considered embarrassing, but which experience has taught me would likely seem embarrassing to others, and so I’ve just kept them to myself, saving myself and everyone else the drama that could have otherwise ensued if I had opened my mouth. That the drama would have been pointless from my perspective does make the habit somewhat frustrating, but age and experience has a way of beating a person into accepting the practical at the expense of the ideal. This particular pragmatism has undoubtedly played a role in shaping my private nature, for better or for worse. Or perhaps I’ll throw out the value judgments and simply say that it has shaped me “for idiosyncrasy”.
Closing, Plus a Little Levity
In closing, I want to underscore just how laborious it can for be for me to open up and find the words to describe my inner experiences. This blog post alone has taken a full week and over eight dedicated hours to write, and I didn’t even really get into any details about my mental activities. I have discovered that simply talking about the fact that I am private, not going into the things that I am private about, is already enough to add a notable amount of stress to my psychological state. It’s been worth it to go through this process, and I’ll always continue to reflect and delve into my mind, because that’s just who I am. But I’m glad to be done with this particular blog post; I think that it is time to unwind!
To those who know me, I want to thank you for your patience and for your willingness to allow me my mental personal space and privacy. I’d probably be a woefully frazzled and exhausted person if I were frequently pressured to open up about my mental and emotional state at a pace beyond my natural capabilities. Have no doubt that any glimpses I offer into my cranial sanctum are signs that I truly do care.
No One Knows My Plan, by They Might Be Giants
On a lighter but still relevant note, I will leave you with a song by They Might Be Giants, No One Knows My Plan. This is just one of many of their songs that I have recently noticed speak to my aspieness. (Maybe I’ll blog about some of the others later…) Enjoy!