Struggling with a latently diagnosed social disability as described in this interview with my friend and Autism Speaks board member Dee Ocleppo Hilfiger (aka Mrs. Tommy Hilfiger), I now retrospectively see that people have invariably either loved me or hated me on the basis of an initial impression. Regardless of how they feel, they almost always have a visceral response upon first meeting me.
When I think in terms of sociality, which is fundamentally defined as how one associates with others, I’ve come to the realization that, unlike most people, I experience no “grey area” at the interface of personal or professional relationships. I’ve come to expect and accept this over time.
With that said, researchers have recently explored the evolutionary implications of this type of neurodiversity, which as this article states, confers many autistics with “exceptional memory skills, heightened perception in realms of vision, taste and smell and enhanced understanding of natural systems such as animal behavior.”
The suspect, high functioning, pseudosavant autistic played by Jim Parsons on the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory captures the autistic's perpetual preoccupation with him or herself and an unintended disregard for others' perspectives. In the case of the portrayal of Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), the dual doctoral-holding “mad physicist” is quite oblivious to most of the events and people around him.
This social or environmental blindness resonates heavily with my own experience. For the sake of the study of comparative psychology and acknowledging neurodiversity, I suspect that as an autistic, my emotional intelligence is comparable to the social acumen of a prairie vole or at best, a goldfish.
Since my diagnosis three years ago at age 40, I have tried to reduce self-absorbed behavior, which I suppose has some adaptive benefits, but can be annoying to others. It is difficult to combat such hardwired behavioral tendencies, which are a consequence of lacking empathy. Unfortunately, many misconstrue such preoccupation with one’s self as narcissism. Although, I may at times exhibit narcissistic tendencies, I do not suffer from a narcissistic personality disorder.
I say with humble and perhaps self-deprecating sarcasm that if ever issued a court ordered subpoena, past girlfriends would testify under oath that self-absorption was a favorite pastime of mine when they knew me. It may make sense that if it is not instinctual for me or other autistics to empathize, it is pretty easy for us to spend an inordinate amount of time focused on ourselves.
I’ve shared this 2011 New York Magazine article entitled “Is Everyone on the Autism Spectrum?” with many people. It is a bit of a satirical and ‘tongue in cheek’ attempt to suggest Asperger’s Syndrome has become a relatively inclusive neurodiversity reserved for the most affluent and influential people on the planet and mostly men among this demographic. With that suggested, I have yet to meet anyone who wants to join the club!
According to the DSM 5, this neurodevelopmental disorder has been placed at one far end of the Autism Spectrum and has officially been renamed an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) along with other related disabilities. It earns the classification of “disorder” because it leads to dysfunction as a social disability.
Although, presumed high functioning autistics or Aspies (short for Asperger’s) like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, seem to have succeeded despite their neurodiversity through great genius as computer scientists, innovation and determination, not every one afflicted with high functioning autism is so lucky. Just as not every All-American high school athlete goes on to the pros, much less those who were mediocre athletes in junior high. Many and, in fact, most people with Asperger’s Syndrome don’t land among the “one percent” or even remotely close. I’d go as far to say that becoming such a fortunate and uber-wealthy statistic is reserved for people with far more superior people skills and emotional intelligence.
And even Temple Grandin, who is technically more low functioning than I, is among a very small percentage of tenured full professors and even distinguished tenured full professors. Today, it is hard enough for people to be promoted to tenured positions in Academia, as so few opportunities exist these days for ambitious scholars. But once a “disabled” faculty member obtains such a secure academic appointment, it is very hard for their social dysfunction to disrupt their scholarly work or place their job or career in the slightest bit of jeopardy.
So the notion that historically there have been a lot of Aspergergians among university faculty is a nice bit of trivia. However, it is not particularly comforting because with the exception of Temple Grandin who is a terrific advocate and fellow animal science scholar, I don’t see many admitting to or advocating on behalf of the low or high functioning adult autism community. Many are entirely unaware that they are socially deficient in the least or that their eccentric or even awkward behavior constitutes a deficiency from a neurodevelopmental standpoint.
The perhaps well-acknowledged notion that the Ivory Towers provide a refuge for high functioning autistics, if anything has been a great disservice to the global autistic community’s advocacy efforts. It is probably about as reassuring and helpful to the vast majority of people touched by this neurodiversity as ten-cent cup of coffee and a pat on the back.
Fortunately, in the United States high functioning autism meets the criteria for a disability covered by Social Security. That alone should give you some indication of just how much of a negative impact this social disability has on the lives of people affected by it and their families.
But choosing to divulge this information about my disability has been a catch-22. Without meeting me in person, many jump to the conclusion that I’m the real life Rainman. Although they might like to think that they welcome neurodiversity in to their life, they don’t. Most people are petrified by a disability label from their own insecurity and they shy away from any association. They see difference as a liability.
In my case, I find that people are already intimidated by what I think of as useless academic credentials. But I’ve elected to let them be as intimidated as they want by the letters after my name, and in some instances, my life story, which has been filled with the unusual and the adventurous. Not many people have raised and trained grizzly bears in Alaska, or have swum in crocodile infested waters or been chased by a zebra. When I then share my disability it tends to soften the blow. Some have trouble reconciling the fact that a disabled person like me may be far more educated or intellectually gifted than they are. In some cases, that generates wonder and amazement and in other cases envy and hatred. I don’t think of myself as a savant or certainly idiot savant, because I’m not bright enough or deficient enough in regard to any one cognitive faculty. However, I’m not sure meeting any specific criterion is what is really important. What is imperative to understanding the human condition is teaching tolerance and demonstrating the capacity for ability and deficiency within the same person.
Unfortunately, this social disability afflicts me everyday and often to my great detriment. It is far more pervasive than any neurotypical person might appreciate. For lack, of a better comparison, it has been commonly described as being socially blind.
Acquaintances and long term friends have said, "Autistic!! It can't be! "You are so gregarious and can be so charming and even endearing." And yes, it is also true that I have, in my humble and occasionally narcissistic opinion, a phenomenal sense of humor.
I'm very sarcastic much like Jerry Seinfeld, if not the late Rodney Dangerfield. Seinfeld incidentally thinks he may be on the Spectrum along with the likes of Daryl Hannah. But again, this hidden disability" is all about not being able to empathize and this social deficiency gets me in trouble.
Empathy is a trait conferred by neuroanatomical circuitry and in the case of autism, it is an all or none characteristic. Autistics have no empathy, period. While sociopaths can turn empathy on or off, they still have this ability to view things from the perspective of others. This perceptual capability is a hallmark of sociopathy and psychopathy, and it makes those afflicted with Antisocial Personality Disorder, emotionally manipulative.
What sociopaths lack is any care in the world for the welfare of others. In essence, they lack compassion. Autistics, on the other hand, may have tons of compassion, but harbor no empathy, and so it is sometimes challenging to be appropriately caring or adequately sympathetic under the right circumstances. While many high functioning autistics and those afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome like to claim they have empathy, they don't. Unfortunately, this delusion perpetuated by some misinformed neurodiverse communities, leads to a misunderstanding of a critical feature of autism, and subsequently confuses and misleads the general public and the medical establishment. Ultimately this erroneous belief system, which has inadvertently been adopted by healthcare providers, places many socially disabled people at a significant disadvantage for getting the support they need. With that said, such misplaced appreciation for the characteristic features of high functioning autism demonstrates that just as there are dumb and stubborn or uneducated sociopaths, there are dumb and stubborn or uneducated high functioning autistics.
Autistics represent a population of neurodiverse individuals who share many of the attributes that are absent or rare among the worldwide population of sociopaths. Both examples of neurodiversity exist on spectra and so although in the case of empathy autistics are completely void of such social and emotional acumen, other features of the social disability may or may not be expressed in every individual. There is a saying that if you meet one person with autism, you meet one person with autism. The same is probably true for sociopaths. I’ve only met a few of these social deviants that I am aware of and although there do seem to be similarities among sociopaths that are quite blatant, there are certainly differences.
And as a side note, there are actually more than twice to three times as many sociopathic and psychopathic adults walking the planet as there are autistic adults. Ironically and unfortunately, our lack of empathy as autistics makes us exceedingly vulnerable to the emotionally manipulative sociopaths and psychopaths we may encounter. In fact, sociopaths can typically detect my naïveté a mile away. I don't see the red flags they present in day-to-day life that most people see. That leaves me both easily exploited and confused. For more information on sociopathy, I recommend reading the book The Sociopath Next Door.
In contrast to a sociopath, I’m pathologically honest and direct--another hallmark of autism. Sociopaths are perhaps most known to the general public for being pathological liars. Not only am I honest to a fault, which means I rarely filter my candor, but if I don't like you, I may tell you or show you and I might even do it immediately. This has left employees and miscellaneous subordinates running for the hills. I’m not a dictator, but I’m exceedingly direct. In essence, I don't tolerate “bullshit” provided I can recognize it in the first place.
I concede that my “bullshit detector” is not always working properly, but when it is working, I typically confront the source without hesitation. My suspicion is that the vast majority of neurotypical people avoid confrontation. Some researchers and practitioners refer to the autistic brain as being highly masculinized and in many ways this can be interpreted as “cerebral masculinity” or just plain old insensitivity. As I’ve become more self-aware, I discovered that I do not beat around the bush. Rather, I tell it like it is and that frightens both the deviant and hypersensitive. And my strong premonition is that this explains my inability to read between the lines. These deficits or attributes may go hand in hand. Incidentally, it makes small talk very challenging for me, and presumably that is because such insignificant discourse is related to these other hard-wired communicative behaviors and executive functioning skills of neurotypical individuals or lack thereof.
Unfortunately, I may overreact to situations because I may process something as a threat when actually no threat exists. Alternatively, I may not see a threat when one actually does present itself. Undoubtedly, this naiveté has created lots of challenges for me. I'm not talking about physical threats from training grizzly bears; I'm talking about dealing effectively with manipulative and politically savvy and conniving coworkers.
Misreading and over- or under-reacting to a situation is also a hallmark of both low and high functioning autism. Unsurprisingly, extremely high functioning autistics like myself are commonly and erroneously diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Bipolarity can be treated, but unfortunately, autism obviously can't. For much of my adult life thought I just had an exciting case of Attention Deficit Disorder, which is a common co-morbid trait, but a characteristic that also can mask very high functioning autism.
To reiterate, I may have a ton of compassion, but what good is it if I lack empathy and can’t see things or understand another person's perspective. In essence how could I “apply” that compassion. For example, if you tell me that you got hit by a train and were thrown 500 ft and obviously survived, such a seemingly traumatic event would not necessarily resonate with me. I may not immediately appreciate that getting hit by a train might be a really horrible experience, having not been hit by a train myself. So I could likely respond by saying, "Wow, I've never met anyone who has been hit by a train before. By the way where is the restroom?" and walk away leaving you perplexed and invalidated.
Not to be considered an excuse, but your response to something I post on Facebook that you deem inappropriate or outrageous may leave me confused and ultimately I may become defensive about such a misunderstanding. For those who barely know me and even for some who do, my choice of posts may elicit concerns about my mental stability or suspicions that I’m under the influence of an illicit chemical substance. These are both fallacies. It is also not my intention to shock and awe even though I'm very good at it. Rather, such a lack of discretion and perhaps questionable judgement speaks to my inability to empathize and see things from another's perspective. In other words, I can't "get" that you may not "get" it. It just may be that I'm entirely insensitive to someone else's perspectives or experiences and in most instances I simply can't help it.
As a more benign example, let’s say you have invited me over and encouraged me to "make myself at home." As an autistic I may interpret that literally. To demonstrate, after observing that there is one Mountain Dew can left in your refrigerator, I’m reminded that you told me to make myself at home. So while most people would instinctively realize that although you said to make yourself at home, in reading between the lines, you might check yourself before grabbing that last can. Do to my literal interpretation and inability to read between the lines and despite etiquette training and proper rearing, I might drink that last can because, after all, you said to make myself at home. You'd find out and become annoyed, but may not communicate such frustration. Without further discussion, which would be unlikely in such an instance, something seemingly insignificant as this incident regarding a soda can, could easily set the stage for a deteriorating relationship dynamic based on subsequent and more critical misunderstandings.
So, no, I'm nothing remotely like Rainman, but I am in many ways a social misfit. As I've gotten older I've learned how to interact more adeptly from experience, but it is exhausting to have to think my way through social interactions, when everyone else has much higher social intelligence and socialize effortlessly. This places me at a disadvantage because I have to allocate so much energy to sociality. Perhaps now you can imagine why this social disability is so challenging when humans are the epitome of social organisms.
If others can not understand this social blindness, and most don't, how can they begin to be tolerant of it. Neurotypical people, be they friends, acquaintances or colleagues, may attribute my social blunders to a lack of etiquette or a blatant disregard for it. And then I may become reactive or more specifically, defensive, because I don’t understand others’ reactions to my awkward or untimely behavior. Essentially, left unaddressed a cyclical pattern of social dysfunction develops and is perpetuated to my dismay and possible demise.
As much as autistics are vulnerable to the emotionally manipulative sociopath or psychopath, we seem to be quite off-putting, if not frightening to a cohort of emotionally high maintenance or hypersensitive people. I’ve met my share and am never surprised that I don’t encounter them a second time. I clash with these types almost immediately.
With that lengthy discussion, I want to share that my new mission is not about safeguarding Indian elephants from endangerment or training grizzly bears for film, but rather my new purpose as I see it is to raise awareness and tolerance for neurodiversity whether someone is on the Autism Spectrum like me or on the Sociopathic Spectrum like Donald Trump.
He is an American wildlife conservationist, animal trainer and pop culture news and editorial contributor to a number of publications. His new celebrity influencer website is http://www.mysocialinfluencers.com.
As a zoologist and wildlife park curator, Jordan contributed regularly to National Geographic online as an editorial news science writer, as well as other wildlife science media outlets. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.