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Sense of Self in Autism

Our sense of self follows from how we make sense of the world.

One of the most flat-out fascinating books on autism is Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation. (Grandin, Temple and Catherine Johnson. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. New York: Scribner, 2005.) Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University, is undoubtedly the best-known person in the world with autism because of her ability to communicate what it’s like to be autistic (at least her form of autistic) through her books, interviews, and talks.

She states that many animals are effectively autistic because they process their perceptions concretely, without interpretation – as do people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD). The rest of us, she observes, are busy deciphering sensory stimuli through our neocortex. Our brains “use the detailed raw data of the world to form a generalized concept or schema, and that’s what reaches consciousness. Fifty shades of brown turn into just one unified color: brown.” In contrast, people with ASD (as well as the farm animals she works with closely) perceive the world as a “swirling mass of tiny details.” This makes sense given the paper recently presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research, finding that children with an ASD have difficulty interpreting a sensation, especially if it’s paired with another, different sensation. This is why they get overwhelmed, and find it easier (and comforting) to concentrate on one thing at a time. To the rest of us, these kids may seem confused, irritable, frustrated – or, alternatively, zoned out, disengaged, or antisocial. They retreat inward, away from the sensory ‘noise’ and the bustle of unpredictable human interactions.

I want to propose here that the way we process environmental and emotional stimuli has a direct bearing on our sense of self. Not just how we come across to other people (our personality) but how we sense – and thereby conceptualize – ourselves.

Evidence for the validity of my statement can be seen in a remarkable report from a few years ago. The research found that people with a high-functioning form of autism have a weaker sense of self than people who do not have an ASD. Furthermore, the weaker the sense of self, the more pronounced the autistic symptoms.

If you’re familiar with the late Ernest Hartmann’s framework of Boundaries, then you know about the salient differences between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ boundary people. I will venture to say that people with Asperger’s have thinner boundaries than those who have a more severe form of ASD. This is because the latter are more armored, more protected, and have firmer delineations of thought and feeling. Interestingly, another study presented recently at the International Meeting for Autism Research showed that children of fathers who are in technical occupations are more likely to have an ASD – and children whose parents were both in technical occupations have a higher risk of having a more severe form. This finding would not have surprised Hartmann at all, as his studies yielded consistent correlations between boundary type and occupation. (Examples of thin boundary occupations are artist, musician, fashion model; thick boundary occupations include military officer, salesperson, lawyer.) I am proud to base much of my work on Hartmann’s concept.

Sense of self, it turns out, has a lot to do with two more conditions that scientists – along with regular folks – find astounding: savantism and prodigiousness. If you remember the movie Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman, you’ll know what the first is all about. And if you recall the film A Beautiful Mind with Russell Crowe, you’ll recognize the second. My next post will explore how extraordinary sensitivities are often present in these remarkable people.

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