A theory of mind: suggestions regarding Asperger Syndrome

Abstract: I propose that Asperger Syndrome is not a disability but a natural response to a particularly contradictory society. The response is socially beneficial while it can sometimes hurt the individual and those around them.

“I am going to argue,” he said, “the very thing that you said was so ludicrous and impossible.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m going to base the defence,” said Father Brown, “on the fact that the prosecuting counsel has a bald head.”

G.K. Chesterton “The Mirror of the Magistrate”

Full disclosure. The author has something like “Schroedinger’s Asperger’s”. Diagnosed with Aspergers by an Irish clinical psychologist (not self-diagnosis; the lady has, I think, since retired), diagnosis not confirmed by Pakistani-Irish psychiatrist. This may have to do with cultural difference between them or, more likely, mean that the psychological symptoms are there but the maladaptation needed for a formal DX is not there. Anyway the clinical psychologist view means this is not an external subject for me.

So, to the point. The conventional wisdom about Asperger Syndrome seems to have something to do with “theory of mind”. It ascribes to people with the syndrome some inability that has to do with understanding other people, with forming a theory about how their mind works. But many people with the syndrome, including those with a full proper DX, are actually very good at building systematic theories of everything from mathematics to the cosmos itself. Why would just one element of the cosmos – the mind – suddenly become an exception? That would be like a person who generally has perfect eyesight but somehow can not see elephants?

I think that a different angle understanding this particular syndrome – specifically “high functioning” Aspergers in verbally proficient people, as distinct from Kanner syndrome – might be useful. It could also put the focus a bit less on alleged “abnormality” or “disability” of such people and more on the peculiarities of society that might be leading to the problems between them and other people.

And to reach this understanding, I would do the thing traditionally considered unscientific. Ad hominem. I would look at the researchers who described the syndrome. Starting, of course, with Hans Asperger himself.

Hans Asperger. The officer in the German army. No, I am not pushing the “Nazi Asperger” thing here. He was not in the SS and was generally not evil; many people were caught up in the military machine of the Reich and were still trying to be good people and did the best they could in the circumstances. Asperger got pretty far on this road. He did not kill people; he did not torture or persecute people; instead he (with a Roman Catholic nun) opened a school where he educated and helped children.

This school was in Croatia, under a regime of a group known as the Ustasha. The Ustasha were a local version of the Nazis, with a twist. They did not care very much about Jews and indeed some Ustasha hid Jews from Germans. Instead, their big enemy were the Serbs, and they massacred about 300,000.

For a German Nazi, the enemy had a distinct face. The typical Jew looks different from the typical “Aryan”. Not so for the Ustasha. Serbs and Croats are basically identical ethnically and linguistically; the only distinction is ancestral religion.

The children in this school spent their formative years in the Ustasha totalitarian environment. They were bombarded with social messages that made some people just like them into “enemies”, based on something completely intangible. Basically, the entire environment did not make sense. (Not that the Nazi one did, but here is was even more obvious). People were devising ways to survive under this regime, so social messaging, verbal and non-verbal, became a mesh of interwoven half-truths and outright lies that contradicted each other at every level.

Now that I described it this way, would anyone find it abnormal that some children did not manage to respond properly to all cues in this kind of society? Or was it perhaps more abnormal that most actually did? Who was disabled – the child who needed Hans Asperger’s help to survive this hellish mess, or the child who rolled with it perfectly? And was social isolation in such an environment, which Asperger described in his subjects in 1944 (!), even a bad thing at all?

Very importantly, I am not blaming Hans Asperger for the mess. He did not create the regime. He did not even really uphold it – that was the job of armed henchmen and of propaganda hacks (one can argue that one of the hacks was Aloysius Stepinac who was later made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church – so much for general norm). Asperger helped people, innocent children, survive under the regime. But, being only human after all, he might not have fully realized the enormous abnormality going on around him. And he might have seen some natural reactions to it as more abnormal and more disabling than they objectively were.

Now, Hans Asperger was not the only person to describe the syndrome. It is commonly accepted that the same set of symptoms was earlier described by Grunya Sukhareva, a psychiatrist sometimes incorrectly described as Russian (she was Ukrainian, or Jewish, or – th identity she would probably consider primary – Soviet). While her work was published in 1926, it was mainly based on her work with children in Kiev in 1917 to 1921.

During that time, the ruling regimes in Kiev were, in various periods, more or less in chronological order:

– The Russian Empire

– The Ukrainian “Central Rada” which at a point proclaimed a republic federated with Russia and later independence

– Early Bolshevik/Soviet Ukraine (Red Army)

– German-backed “Ukrainian State” under Hetman Skoropadsky

– Ukrainian People’s Republic under Hetman Petlura

– Second Bolshevik/Soviet Ukraine

– The White Russian Army under General Denikin

– Third and final Bolshevik/Soviet Ukraine, which ultimately became a constituent part of the USSR

The comparative benefits of the regimes (who killed more people and who killed less, etc.) is beyond the scope of this study. (It was a typical civil war with no “good guys”). But importantly, every single regime change brought about its own ideology, its own set of assumptions, its own attempt at social conventions. The children whom Sukhareva studied had to navigate a society that was being constantly re-created and modified by the changing regimes, again creating a contradictory mess of verbal and non-verbal messaging.

So, again some children totally failed at navigating it and ended up isolated… what was abnormal there? (I would suspect that Sukhareva, unlike Asperger, knew exactly how abnormal the situation actually was, but might not have been able to articulate that fully under Soviet constraints. Unfortunately I have not actually seen the work, and I’d love to see it – would be very interesting to try and read between its lines).

For all I know, there have generally been “epidemic flare-ups” of Aspergers in societies where social messaging became especially contradictory. This includes the late years of the Soviet Union and subsequent post-Soviet states, all seeking a new identity in a changing world. Also, the times in the West when social mores were shifting significantly (for reasons beyond the scope of this text).

And so here is my “theory of mind” for Aspergers, the stuff that Aspergers “sufferers” are not supposed to have (or something):

There is a feature of the human mind that lets it adapt to a society that is not exactly driven by logic. No society, in fact, is fully logical, and humans evolved along with society, so evolution created a social response mechanism. Verbal and nonverbal cues are all processed into a system that is never fully consciously realized. Responses expected by the particular society are duly produced. This helps the person gain cohesion with society. As cohesion is the main positive product of the mechanism, I will now use the term social cohesion mechanism.

There are always some contradictions in the cues. But when a particular society becomes especially contradictory, some people have their social cohesion mechanism overloaded. It usually happens in childhood as that is when they start to be immersed in society and the mechanism gains its data. When the mechanism is overloaded, it shuts down. The person still has intact conscious intellectual facilities, and often overdevelops some of them to compensate. (Or perhaps some of them, notably the ability to concentrate on a topic, develop more freely as the social cohesion mechanism is normally impairing their development to a degree?)

I would tentatively suggest that, far from being a disability, this is an evolutionary adaptive development, much like the social cohesion mechanism itself. We are talking social evolution here; the situation might not always be beneficial for the affected persons but it is vitally important for the affected society. The “aspies” are the guardians, those who bring a society going mad some sanity, a chance to right the wrongs. Remember the monarch who went out naked? Those who shouted “the emperor has no clothes” were the “aspies”. They failed to respond to all the social cues typical in a monarchy.

Now, “adaptive development” does not equal “great thing”. Compare a fever: it is an adaptive development, a response to an illness, a fever is never the illness itself. But we often take paracetamol to calm the fever, and we have a reason, as the fever exhausts us while also killing some microbes. Likewise, the unadjusted “aspie” might sometimes be a herald of social sanity but also can sometimes create problems for themselves or others. So, yes, help with asjustment can be a real and needed thing. But, like a fever, Aspergers can be an inconvenience but is not a “disability”, not an “abnormality”. It is, perhaps, at its root a social mechanism that balances other social mechanisms when they go runaway.

Postscript on gender issues

With this theory of the syndrome, we can look at the high prevalence of “gender issues” in “aspies” without referring to some dinosaur-type views. (The biggest dinosaur is “Aspergers means extreme male”. No, it’s just that the traditional male gender role is somewhat more accepting of ignoring social cues, perhaps in the name of being more successful at some form of domination or conquest. So someone with a reduced reaction to them can be read in that role).

Gender is a social mechanism. It starts with the way society handles biological differences between the sexes. But many things in the gender mechanism have no obvious current link to biology; rather they have evolved from the way biology affected society hundreds or thousands of years ago. To take a very rough example, “ladies first” was probably a means of preserving society’s reproductive capability; if a set number of people is to die, more men and less women killed means more children in next generation. But how many people thought about this on board the Titanic?

A society’s notions of manhood and womanhood, and (separately) masculinity and femininity, are complicated systems. They are taken as “natural” only because of the social cohesion mechanism. The “aspie” has this mechanism shut down but other intellectual facilities intact or overdeveloped (importantly, including emotion). Therefore the “aspie” can, for various reasons, identify with, or be drawn to, things that are seen as some gender or other. And they process it in various ways, including, yes, developing an “opposite” or otherwise “unconventional” gender identity.

This leads us to a hypothesis: other aspies might process the same situation by developing a hostility to the idea of gender in general or of masculinity or of femininity. (Or to men or to women; this requires additional reasons, Aspergers in itself does not lead to increased aggression, but it might increase the chances of trauma that does lead to it).

Therefore there might be many aspies among the radfem crowd. Which possibly makes the radfem-trans controversy a huge aspie battle? Wonder how that could be verified.

Very tentative postscript on practical conclusions

If any actual practitioners are reading this, they might be fuming. “Okay, this uppity brat is proposing some smart-assed theory, which does exactly nothing to help people who are measurably suffering from the condition; telling them they are some sort of brave guardians of society won’t make them into actual superheroes”.

Realising that, I got thinking about possible, tentative, practical applications of the theory, which itself is quite tentative. So we get to “very tentative” – and I continue with this disclaimer:

If “aspie” is no a disability but a reaction to society, perhaps try creating a small society that does not have the problem?

Aspies already flock to subcultures that have a modicum of logical organization; there are many in the open source developer crowd (Eric Raymond mentions this in his article http://www.catb.org/esr/faqs/smart-questions.html#keepcool ; note he proposes a somewhat similar theory but with an organic slant, missing some of the brain circuitry that lubricates “normal” human social interaction. I am not proposing that the “social cohesion mechanism” is quite so identifiable on the cellular level).

Unfortunately, such subcultures are often only logical where they diverge from “normal” society because of their mission. There have, for example, been issues with treatment of women in the open source developer crowd. And this is quite natural because there is no reason for open source to proclaim a logical method of negotiating sex-related communications – so the regular awkwardness applies. Clear sexual negotiation protocols are present in some other circles, which in turn have their own illogical spots.

It might be an interesting approach to try and develop micro-societies (for example, in a live-in summer camp) where all social interactions are guided by a clear and logically consistent code, and therefore interaction does not require the “social cohesion mechanism”.

There are huge pitfalls in this approach, of course. Such a “clear and logically consistent code” is supposed to exist for a large subset of human interaction, in the form of law. We all know how political the act of lawyering can be, how things can rely on irrational, unquantifiable influence on judges and juries even when no foul play is involved. So any micro-society with an attempted logical code might get lost it its own lawyering battles. Or it might try to avoid lawyering by having a few “omnipotent” leaders who define what “logical” is – and then things quickly turn into “influence the leader”, again by means having more to do with iffy social games (extolling the value of logic) than with actual logic.

So I’m not claiming to have a solution. Not even a very tentative one. This is only the start of an approach. Instead of trying to change “aspies”, how about trying to create small societies that work the “aspie way”? It is not easy. But if it succeeds, we might find that they work well for other people, too. And this could amplify the kind of evolutionary influence that “aspies” as a group are, in my theory, supposed to have – while attempts to “cure” them deprive society of their necessary balancing influence.

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