Since my last two posts on autism, and all the additional reading and research I have now done, I have so much more to say on this topic that I almost don’t know where to begin. The surprises and beautiful paradoxes of high functioning autism, or Asperger’s (even though neither label “officially” exists since autism definitions were recently rejigged…how very “convenient” to lump together some of the most gifted people with those deemed to have severe disabilities) are just so relevant to any discussion about human evolution that I find myself almost at a standstill; too much choice of topic.
So, to keep things simple, I will start with sharing some soundbites of observation, as they comes up for me, in a number of different posts. For a while, this may seem like this entire blog, and all my focus, has been turned over to some sort of Asperger’s obsession…but then that’s the nature of the trait for those of us who have it; we dive into our latest fixation with everything we’ve got. So lets assume this is a positive way to examine a topic…in depth, with enthusiasm and intensity and from many different angles. Its how new thinking starts to arise (since I already perceive a great deal of very “old” and stagnant thinking around this topic). Neurodiverse types also seem to have this trait (which will attract so much criticism from neurotypicals if we don’t fortify ourselves) of developing expertise in almost no time at all, almost as though we already knew what we just found out in advance and simply had to open the door to all the information that was already there in order to allow the flood to occur. No, its not chanelling; this is all us, even if it seems hard to believe. And yes, it can seem unfeasible to others….”but how did you know all this / how to do this thing without learning from someone else”…and it can attract such naysayers from amongst those who have to study hard to know things. Its like drilling down to a particular seam in all the layers and finding we have just hit gold…
In fact, let’s start with the premise (all too rarely expressed) that high-functioning autism is a gift. This should set the tone for this piece as I mean to go on…
Then, reference the title, let’s get something quite clear here; being creative is a way of living your life, not something especially to do with pursuing an “art”. Having clarified this point, I hope that anyone reading this can now allow that this topic relates to anyone on the spectrum, not just those who are “artistic” per se. Einstein was one of the most creative thinkers of recent history and, by thinking outside of the box, he shifted an age.
“There is strong evidence that such superstars as Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, code-breaker Alan Turing, and musician Glen Gould, among many others, all had Asperger Syndrome”, states the Asperger’s Association of New England site – What is Asperger Syndrome? This is just the very tip of the iceberg of exceptional individuals with Asperger’s, past and present, many of whom class as gifted. If you have (or suspect) Asperger’s, you might want to feel into whether you are gifted and prepare to be surprised since this isn’t about academic performance. I ran a gifted test recommended in one of the books I am reading on this topic and found that I am well into that domain. It’s also a well-rounded gift. Many lists of individuals with Asperger’s seem to concentrate on the scientists and mathematicians in that list, because of the autism link. I’ve trawled through Myers Briggs forums where overly opinionated members dispute that INFJs, being Feeling types, can be any kind of autistic since we are “meant” to be Thinkers but this is patently not true (I am INFJ), especially at the high-end where skill ranges tend to be more balanced. Also, autism does not exclude feeling, we feel intensely and often way too much, as I have often written about.
So let’s get something else clear here…high end doesn’t mean some sort of smug end where we are cleverer than other people, it simply means we are on the cusp between neurodivergent and neurotypical, which offers us a very diverse range of skills, all in one basket. In a very detailed test for neuodiversity traits that I ran yesterday (see the very useful graph that it generated, left), put together by Leif Ekblad, I came out as almost exactly split between the two, with a slight leaning in favour of neurodivergent. This also show an interesting split of skills towards the most appropriate domain for their practical application, for instance communication skills are stronger in the neurotypical range (which enables me to communicate with “normal” people) but my talents and perception skills veer decidedly towards the neurodivergent (which makes them somewhat more obscure but very interesting and unconventional, if bizarre-seeming to some people). This test has helped me to appreciate my unique mix of gifts as I see now how I was designed in such a way that I would be able to speak out for my own quirkiness (and I dread to think how I would have coped otherwise; which gives me great empathy for other autistics who rely on others to do their advocacy).
Straightaway, the parallel between what I see here and my fascination with the human potential to balance the left and right hemispheres (both individually and collectively) in order to enable them to work together more closely (a core topic and major preoccupation of my blogging) jumped straight out at me. Many of us aspire to balance these two disjunct hemispheres, to create a greater sense of wholeness in our health and in the world at large, but those who are rigidly neurotypical are distinctly not balanced so how would they understand what this looks like…and the same goes for those who are mostly neurodivergent who, as we know, struggle in so many ways. However, when we put the two together in balance, some very interesting things seem to happen. We get the melding of two world, as ourselves!
This is why, if you even suspect you are Asperger’s, I would say follow that curiosity thread and start to realise the gifts; which is to start to see how these are not failings but specialities that you bring forth in a world that desperately needs them. Shake off the fear, stigma and embarrassment at being different and make use of these gifts, dare to explore them your own way, give them room to manoeuver and see where they want to lead you in order to fulfill your true potential. Remember, there are no accidents!
So, due to this mixing of skills, we find far less evidence of severe problems coping with the world, where the high-functioning autistics live, than further along the spectum. You could say, those issues that remain are probably more to do with our struggle living in a world created by neurotypicals, for neurotypicals, than to do with us being “broken” in any way; including sensitivities that we may have to the typical diet, environmental pollutants and other exposures of such a world!
In that mixing ground, we also find a whole lot of very interesting, creative, paradigm-pushing traits (I give you Einstein, Newton, Hawking and yes, even Van Gogh). Some suggest Steve Jobs was another Asperger’s, yet I’ve heard as many people fiercely dispute that he was not (and I quote) “a victim of autism”, which is the same vehemence I have come across when it is suggested that Alan Turing had Asperger’s. When you look at the choice of words, such as “victim” and “affliction”, employed by these people you can almost sympathise with why they are so dogged in their denials. Their refusal to believe that these very high-functioning individuals could have anything “wrong” is loaded-up by the idiotic yet pervasive belief that autism is a fault, an affliction, a problem or a mental disease and they are merely doing what they think they have to in order to protect the name of these high-functioning individuals. So what we need here is to cultivate some pride in the trait. Already, two days into my deep-dive on the subject, I am extremely proud of the wonderful and creative mixture of skills such people display…not to mention newly optimistic…since without creativity, our species is (frankly) f*ckd!
Actually, Jobs was also an exceptionally creative man with a whole lot of vision; as all artists are. His abilities, like those of other paradigm-stretchers, included that all-important melding together of two sides to make a vaster whole, including the ability to mix art with life so thoroughly that the lines start to blur. Have I not always said that life is art; a giant canvas on which we paint with the intentions we set and the very lines drawn by the our focus of our attention, our preparedness to break convention and to envision a whole new (or very different) picture to everyone else?
In a book entitled “Living in a Bubble: A Guide to being diagnosed with High Functioning Autism” Antony King describes how he first realised he was, potentially, Asperger’s. He is a musician by hobby but a gig in an art gallery caused him to consider whether he would get anything out of taking up painting, so he simply bought some oil paints and had a go. His first painting was so pleasing to him that he entered it in a competition in London’s Mall Galleries (which he goes to some, quite understandable, pains to point out are opposite Buckingham Palace, so this is quite a prestigious venue). To his surprise and delight, his painting got through the first stage of assessment and on to the second stage where you get to submit the actual painting to the gallery, to be assessed by the art experts curating the exhibition. He says he wasn’t at all surprised, or even disappointed, not to get through to that final stage (though at those events, it can be something as simple as your framing not being up to scratch, or the personal taste of the judge, that eliminates you). Literally thousands submit their work at the first stage and then less than a hundred are actually hung in the resulting show so the odds are pretty stacked and he did astonishing well to get so far. However, when he mentioned to someone at the gallery that this was his first-ever attempt at painting, the person asked “do you have Asperger’s?”, the surprise question that set him off on his journey of self-exploration.
I have an anecdote that is almost exactly the same. As my art website still recalls, I began painting on a whim when some forgotten oil paints, ironically purchased by my ex-husband but never opened, fell out of a cupboard during a time of intense stress and anxiety in my life. I decided to “have a go” and found, after one or two attempts, that they really weren’t too bad, in fact I had seen much worse on the internet. So, with the very typical degree of self-belief that people with this trait can often display, I showed them to a prestigious opera-garden venue near where I live and got some of these artworks displayed there over the summer. I then chatted to one of the most prestigious galleries in the region and became a regular in their gallery, taking part in exhibitions there and all over the region. I even submitted a painting to the Mall Galleries, just as Anthony King did, and got through to the very same stage of the selection proceedings, being rejected only once this enormous painting had been driven all the way to London and left for a week, which then meant I had to go all the way back to collect it. It was only the fact I couldn’t be bothered to do this again that stopped any future endeavors outside of my local galleries, though I have had a great deal of success on the internet and through licensing my images to businesses over the last decade.
The thing is, I was completely self-taught in oils, a medium that is renowned for being extremely tricky and even a little bit mysterious; implying you have to go to special classes to master it. In fact, I was quite stubborn in this regard, preferring to learn by trial and error than to listen to instruction or be shown. The same goes for playing a musical instrument, which I now do on a regular basis. My first attempt was to self-teach the piano, since I liked the idea and had found an unconventional method online that meant I could skip out all the formal training and music-reading and use a visual method instead (since, like most Asperger’s, I am a visual learner). However, once I ran out of this “visual” sheet music with its patterns that matched my internally-visualised finger placements, it lacked scope to go further (though I had taught myself two complex classical pieces as my first attempts; which gave me some sort of satisfaction for a while).
So then I recalled how much I had loved the recorder at school; how I had taken it off to my room and taught myself a range of songs, in fact anything I cared to adapt to this instrument, by listening plus trial and error, rather than by following sheet music or the narrow repertoire of my school recorder group. I continued to play both the descant and tenor recorders until I was in my mid-teens so here was a clue. This time, age nearly 50, I bought myself an Irish whistle and, in short time, a professional Low D whistle and simply taught myself over the space of a couple of weeks. To start with, I watched a few YouTube videos where the sheet music was displayed as you played but I soon became bored with this. Instead, I would listen to Irish traditional music and folk and just play along…then I moved onto all kinds of music from classical and opera, some contemporary pieces, whatever takes my fancy really, and I just play it…learning the notes “my own way” and remarkably quickly. This is now a regular hobby, with a collection of backing tracks I’ve compiled, and I enjoy it very much. It’s not for an audience, or for anyone else’s critique, it’s all just for me!
This propensity to teach ourselves new skills and prefer to do things our own way from the outset is, I suspect, a trait of high-functioning autism. It makes us into mavericks, it sometimes increases what looks like our failure or non-completion rate (it took nine attempts to gain my driving license as I struggled with being assessed while I took the test, though I am an excellent driver and was told this early in my lessons) and it frustrates the hell out of partners when we prefer to construct things “out of the box” without first consulting the instruction leaflet. However, it also makes us movers and shakers when it comes to making paradigm leaps. Because it is only when we take what we already know as given (as in, in-built…trusiting in our innate abilities) and yet still look afresh at a task, rather than doing it the failsafe way we have all been taught to do it (often, for the longest time since that method was first invented), that we get to take the next leap into a brand new method that may surpass all the rest. These traits minimise the tendency to live life by rote, doing things “because they have always been done that way” and, yes, repeating the same mistakes over and over. Rather, we prefer to go back to the very beginning so we can experience the learning process for ourselves, all the way through all the stages, rather than taking it as read that someone else has come up with the “best” method for everyone else to follow.
Systems built around protected ideas of “how things should be done” are the shortcoming of this world. The world of oil painting is full of procedural snobbery, as I discovered on approaching the more prestigious galleries, which will often start their consideration of your work, not by looking at it but, by asking “where or under whom did you train” and then asking about your methods/paints/canvas type etc. They would rather hang a piece of uninspiring rubbish painted with a prestigious brand of oils on Italian linen by someone with the “right” credentials than someone who breaks any of these protocols. One prestigious gallery laid down such terms and told me she was prepared to overlook my lack of credentials if I followed her instructions regarding subject, materials and scale to the letter. With their client base, it might have been lucrative but I was too much of a contrarian to agree so I got in my car and drove away, never to return. I was right back where I had been before, in the world of small provincial galleries, art trails and local guilds, where the exposure was gentle and enthusiastic but I was never going to make much income. I was following the pied piper of my inspiration, not the silver dollar.
So I created my own art-world using the internet and by stretching my techniques, doing things with the paint that would be so frowned upon in conventional circles, such as mixing it with other mediums or sanding it back repeatedly to incorporate many layers of overlapping pigment, deconstructing as much as adding. I now play with digital art (since this lends itself better to working with layers) and, with a very typical degree of changeability in my “big passion-area” (which really can change like a weathercock in the wind), I unceremoniously dumped oil painting for these digital mediums with barely a backward glance over my shoulder. People still ask me “why don’t you paint?” or “how could you give up when you’re so talented at it?” but that wasnt enough for me; I need newness and a sense of pushing boundaries, which I wasnt getting from that medium any more. Should that ever become boring, I simply know I will move on; but a business plan this does not make!
This behaviour, of course, does not fit with the commercially motivated plan of most representatives and, I suspect, this is a typical pitfall for those with Asperger’s, unless they manage to keep their true passions to one side as hobbies (which is to assume they don’t take over all of their thoughts, day and night). Galleries have often expressed frustration that I don’t have a style, even a subject or medium, that I stick to religiously so that collectors can get to know or recognise me and thus want more of my work. I pulled out of galleries with this mentality until there was only one left and, when that had to close, I shrugged my shoulders and went my own way. I learned a long time ago not to rely on my talents for a steady income. A need to milk an income from my talents only limits them and I will resist such harm being inflicted upon my sources of inspiration with all my might!
I see how all this could be said to be typical of other high-functioning autistics, except perhaps those who have another income stream coming from a more predictable talent area. In my case, I have always lacked such a thing since I have to put all my efforts into the main area of my talents, even though I never know where they will take me. I remain clueless of any “work” schedule since I have no forward planning for my whims; not even until I get up on a particular morning and realise that I “must” write or create, must research through a load of scientific data and other ideas on the internet or follow a thread of bizarrely dot-joined ideas that occurred to me (and which make perfect sense to me…), or whatever it is, that day. These waves of inspiration can feel like a tsunami and I must be at liberty to explore them, as they happen, or they get lost on the wind. I can forget to eat, forget to even move, until the wave has passed over and heaven forbid anyone should try to distract or talk to me if I am in a flow. Imagine trying to hold down a job when you are like that; and yet I continue to feel as though every moment of my (financially unrewarded) life is painful rewarding in its own unfathomable way.
I’m not the only one to live like this and to feel it’s so worthwhile (not to mention the only way we know how to be, since there’s really no arguing with it). Mary Newport, who co-wrote “Mozart and the Whale: An Asperger’s Love Story” with her husband Jerry, describes having “explosions of creativity” and admiring Van Gogh as an artist with whom she shares similar “brain wiring.” I agree, since Van Gogh is yet another relatable individual with whom I have long shared an affinity, over-and-above all the more “popular” artists of his day. In fact it has been my stock-in family joke that people would only appreciate or understand me long after I was dead, as happened to poor-old Vincent. Yet it is this very feeling of being so far ahead of our time that makes high-functioning autistics just so beguiling and important.
So I think there is no disputing that this border-land between neurotypical and neurodivergent (as is so often the case where two worlds rub together) is a veritable gold mine of gifts waiting to be explored, for myself and others living on it. The good news is that those of us who live there often have no choice but to go our own way and so we do, with quite typical determination (to the point of stubbornness) and a relative lack of concern for what others think. It would be so much easier, however, if people would stop treating us as broken or ill, mentally compromised or afflicted in some way. This pervasive culture of imposing “mental illness” as a label on those who are different is so antiquated now that we can see it (and the harm it causes) spread right across all the history books, where it has been liberally applied to some of our great geniuses…until, finally (often after their lifetime) the sense of their viewpoint is finally appreciated. Yet this trend still continues, lorded over by those who decide what is and isn’t included beneath a particular diagnostic umbrella (taking away the label Asperger’s and lumping these traits together with the rest of the spectrum feels so retrograde…) and who attach ideas of pathology to traits that are really gifts.
“Different” doesn’t mean “wrong” and the ability of neurodiverse individuals to discern new methods, previously unnoticed connections, solutions and patterns is well established from past studies (again, think code-breaker Alan Turing). Until these heinously limiting mentalities are eradicated, there remains all too much to fear around the topic of neurodiversity, so people continue to deny and suppress it in themselves and others they know, believing it to be a sign of “wrongness”, purely because it fails to conform to some designated “norm”. Only once we start to notice how this trait is a case of something, albeit unconventional, going very “right”, thus a cause for great optimism, fascination and respect (especially in light of the pressing need to summon our collective human ingenuity in order to evolve ourselves into a far better world, and pretty quickly now) will this undeservedly shady, embarrassing, much-maligned trait be rebranded as a gift to be celebrated and explored.
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4 thoughts on “High-functioning autism and the creative, self-teaching maverick”
If I do decide to seek a diagnosis, I’d like to take this post with me and share it with the neuropsychologist. At the slightest hint of ableism, shaming, or framing neurodivergence as a pathology, I’d just point to this ! Thank you for writing this !
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I’m so glad you found it helpful and very honoured that you think it might be this useful to you, it felt important to write. The odd thing…only its not…is that when I got the email notification from wordpress that you commented, at 17.04 here, which went “ping” on my computer, I heard a distinct frequency tone, briefly, which made me curious enough to stop playing my whistle half way through a song, as I was doing at the time, to check my emails…which I would never normally do, as I get literally 100s of emails, most of them junk…and it was you. I honestly feel as though I’m more “tuned in” since I named and owned this about myself and I want to encourage others to flip it from “problem” to “superpower”!
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🙂 So cool! I definitely feel that we neurodiverse people have a true connection through the Internet–these electronic impulses connect us so clearly! I’m happy in that many of my gaming friends (both in Sims and ESO) are neurodiverse, so we generally “get” each other! And… of course the world of blogging is richly populated with neurodiverse! I read somewhere that “the Internet is to autistic people as braille is to the blind.” That is definitely true for me, as it allows me to connect and communicate with an ease I simply can’t seem to find or create in face-to-face interactions, which are often overwhelming perceptually and confusing in meaning! Thanks for taking a break from your music to read! 🙂
🙂 and I love that about the braille…my electrosensitivity has complicated my relationship with the internet and yet theres no doubt I love it and struggle to be apart so theres something new for me to evolve out of that paradox just around the corner…!
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