By Lynn Whitlark & James Whitlark, Ph.D.
This is, as of 8/15/19, a work in progress, preparing an inquiry into the relationship and influence of time to the emotional experience of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and especially those viewed as “high functioning”, or with Asperger’s Syndrome.
[Square brackets indicate writer’s note for possible edits.]
Autism and the Autism Spectrum describes a whole spectrum (though not the whole spectrum) of not–neurotypical functions/ presentations/ conditions. Whether spectrum, sphere, continuum, or Venn diagram — it describes a wide and diverse group of behaviors, physical symptoms, characteristics, traits, and patterns.
On the autism spectrum, you find
- people who are non-verbal as well as those who speak often (and occasionally);
- those with oppressive social anxiety, as well as those who rattle off non-stop questions for anyone they encounter;
- those who make eye contact with everyone they meet; as well as those who do not, and may appear rude, or socially isolated within their own personal space;
- those who melt down when overwhelmed by the world around them, as well as those who retreat into near catatonic silent isolation, or maybe just curl up with a stuffed bear for the peacefulness of a nap;
- those who are hyper-sensitive to loud or high pitched sounds, bright or flashing lights, touching others, strong flavors and smells, crowds, and/or talking to strangers.
I could go on, but you have heard and seen lists like these before.
It’s a big tent.
Asperger’s Syndrome is the common name for one small portion of the spectrum, unfortunately named for one of the Third Reich’s dystopian mad scientist doctors who compulsively experimented on human subjects, and so the designation went un-used for decades because of its repugnant associations. It gained use beginning in the 1990s because of the utility of separating what had been called “high functioning autism” from the stereotype of children screaming and rocking with their hands over their ears like Dustin Hoffman playing Rainman.
Additionally, Asperger’s is not another name for the group sloppily referred to as “autistic savants” — a savant is a very particular manifestation in humans, and can apply to anyone with a wildly exceptional ability in almost any arena (though usually reserved for exceptional abilities in math, music, art, or puzzles and logic — even particular fields of knowledge like history, geography, or languages.) While there are “autistic savants”, not all those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis are savants; and not all savants are autistic.
Asperger’s refers to a narrow section of the autism spectrum/continuum, and includes both some of the characteristics that show up in other autistics, combned with some or all of the following, as well as some specific neurological manifestations:
- potentially high intellectual capacity,
- the ability to both create and identify complex patterns,
- hyper-focus on narrow subjects for extended periods of time, and
- an unconventionally functioning memory, such as an eidetic memory (which can manifest as eidetic visual memory — sometimes called a “photographic memory”, auditory memory — sometimes called a “phonographic memory”, or the extremely rare time-space synesthesia memory (hyper-thymesia) which is so uncommon that it went unrecognized as a phenomenon of memory until the last 25 years. And there are probably other types that have not yet been identified….)
- Asperger’s individuals usually have highly developed communication skills, but may also be completely or partially nonverbal; be unable to understand figurative language, some kinds of humor, sarcasm, or other non-literal communication; or be incapable of carrying on a conversation with more than one person at a time.
- They may mix well into groups of people with similar interests, or experience social anxiety or panic in any group of more than few.
I said all that, to say this:
I was listening to a woman talking about her grandchild who was diagnosed Aspie, and she was saying she’d bought a dog, because the physician involved told her that people with Asperger’s aren’t good at empathy (!) and she hoped the dog would be a good example, or teach the child to “how to love.”
No no no no no.
This idea that people “on the spectrum” do not feel emotions, or empathize with the emotions of others was the assumption for many decades.
But look at the first couple of paragraphs I wrote and the basic description of what autism in general can be:
–Hyper-sensitive to bright or flashing lights… the autistic’s response is to avoid places where those might come into play, like night driving, laser light shows, fireworks,displays, or certain movies.
Dark & quiet rooms are your friend.
–Hyper-sensitive to loud and hi-pitched sounds… so avoid rock concerts, opera, and marching bands. The problem isn’t the music — it’s volume and pitch.
–Hyper-sensitive to crowds and a crush of people wanting to hug, touch, get physically close, push you aside, slap you on the back, and shake hands. So avoid shopping malls, crowded sidewalks, huge sporting events, Jam-packed amusement parks, casinos, family reunions, church/temple, and again, rock concerts. Or school halls in the crush between classes. Grocery markets in the hours before dinner. Protest marches.
–Hyper-sensitive to strong smells and tastes. So, no walking through department store perfume gauntlets. Or standing next to trolling teenagers dipped in cheap cologne and pizza sauce.
And the words that are important here? Hyper–sensitive. To sights. Sounds. Smells. Tastes. External kinesthetics like touch, temperature, speed, physical pressure, texture etc.
So why is it that internal sensory kinesthics (feelings, emotions, memory, and thoughts/self-talk) have been separated from the external sensory information? Because most doctors and researchers didn’t even consider these might be the same process going on inside someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Input is input. And overload can happen on ANY sensory channel.
Because early research into autism started with the presupposition that autism is a mental illness, a brain disorder, or a neurological error, that was the default explanation of why an autistic /Asperger’s person was covering their ears/eyes and screaming while rocking. Their brains weren’t working right. Autism was seen as a mental illness — a particular kind of mental brokenness. Those with autism couldn’t feel like “normal” people.
The notion that Aspies are actually feeling more than their neurotypical cousins — and therefore shutting off all that overload of feeling as a means of self-protection (in the same way they turn off the strobe light and thumping bass rhythm) — never seems to have dawned on them.
Until lately, that is. There are very recent exceptions, including the work of researchers Henry & Camila Markram in Switzerland, whose paper on “The Intense World Theory” attempts to address some of the same questions I’ve been asking…. ( https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2010.00224/full )
But if more researchers haven’t considered the possibility that people on the spectrum are experiencing extreme empathy — it’s because they aren’t listening to adults with Asperger’s/autism:
[Include at least 3-5 other article links with similar examples]
[Possibly also connects to publication re autism in the moral philosophy work of Dr. Indrajeet Patil (mailto:email@example.com ) at Harvard.]
As someone with Asperger’s, I avoid as many of these overload experiences as I can — but when staring down the barrel of a glad-handing car salesperson, or a smothering hugger, I just shut down all or as much input as possible. I choose to not visit popular cafes during peak mealtime. I shop at odd hours, or online, or not at all. I haven’t been in a mall in over a decade.
When overload situations come up unexpectedly, I retreat inside. I close myself off in a quiet, safe place and try to find a next action or next move that will provide escape or releaf.
For years, my office was 6’x10′. Tight. Quiet. A window where I could close the shades. A fan and a heater so I could tinker with the temperature. A way to listen to music through headphones to block out other sounds. And no space for other people. Both my office at work and my home office were set up as places where I could escape.
Now, I have a 5’x10′ bathroom — a tiny spa retreat with a small shaded window, a fan, heater, books, sketchbook & pencils, aromatherapy oils, candles, and music. It is a noticeable step up from the office-as-escape.
I keep these constructed safe spaces NOT because I don’t feel or empathize– but just the opposite. I am often overwhelmed by everyone else’s feelings of fear, helplessness, hopelessness, hopefulness, pushy helpfulness, anger, infatuation, despair, grief, guilt, hatred, impatience, hyper-critical self-talk, panic, superiority, greed, insecurity, nosey busybodyness, isolation, jealousy, pride and self-satisfaction, loneliness, joy, sadness, lust, hunger, giddiness….
In a crowd of people, all the emotions and internal kinesthetics of the crowd come rushing at me as though I had landed inside a giant stereo speaker, blasting unrelenting and unexplainable emotions through every cell in my body.
Years ago, before I knew anything about autism or Asperger’s, I was trying to explain how I believed my strange memory, sensitivities, and other odd parts of my mind function. I describe it via metaphor in this way:
When a movie is photographed on reels of film, the camera records images at a rate of 26 frames-per-second — and the film is shown by tracking the finished film through the projector at the same speed — 26fps. The phenomenon this creates is called Persistence of Vision. It is a trick of the eye/mind that makes a series of still photograph frames appear to move on the screen. — basically an optical illusion.
If you film a horse running for 10 seconds — shooting at 26fps and played back at 26fps — what you see on the projection screen is a 10-second movie of a horse running at the same speed he ran when the film was recorded.
If, however, you shoot for the same 10 seconds, but the camera shoots the film twice as fast, at 52fps, you end up using twice the amount of film because the shutter and spool are pushing twice as many frames through the camera as before. If you playback twice as much of the same 10 seconds of action, and play it back at 26fps — the horse will appear to run in slow motion. At half its actual speed.
Watching a horse run at full speed for 10 seconds won’t give you much of a chance to see how the horse runs. How many feet are off (or on) the ground at a given time? How different does a gallop looks from a trot? Is the horse dropping steps, or leaning into the inside of a turn? With twice the number of frames shot per second, you actually have twice the information, twice the viewing time, and twice the opportunity to experience that information, in the same way that looking at a single frame image for twice as long allows you to learn twice as much about what is going on in the image. You notice more — and therefore remember more. (And have twice as much opportunity to be overwhelmed by all that data.)
At its heart, this illustration hinges on and depends upon TIME. It’s a temporal metaphor. It depends on the math of frames-per-second of detail being recorded; and seconds-per-frame of data being viewed. Time is a critical component of memory — and, I believe, of Asperger’s.
The same amount of data is in the frame — but the Aspie is recording twice as many frames per second, and therefore has more temporal memory, more physical responses, more observations about the content and it’s meaning, and more overwhelm.
But there’s more.
And here is where we slip into purely “what if” ….
What if autism — the whole autism spectrum — is all describing a temporal phenomenon? A temporal disease?
Dis-Ease. A lack of ease. Not comfortable. Not simple or easy. Not a dis-ability. Not a sickness. And perhaps most importantly, not always an obvious dis-advantage.
I am not the only Asperger’s/autistic adult who says very clearly they would never willingly give up their autism. There are tremendous advantages to experiencing the world as I do. There are evolutionary advantages. My memory, the hyper speed of my attention, my ability to find and deal with patterns and complexity, and the relationships between complex systems are all pieces of what gives me pleasure, and what I contribute to the planet. Those are the things I bring to the table. I don’ need a cure or a therapy — I just need to figure out this puzzle!
Let’s consider the blind autistic young man named Kodi Lee.. Not Asperger’s, but a legitimate autistic savant, who plays piano like Carol King, and sings like Boz Skaggs. [Performance on America’s Got Talent, August 2019; https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8c0yFBfqoE ] He has to be walked onto a stage. He can’t see his audience. He doesn’t wear shades to cover his wayward blind eyes. His posture, facial expressions, tics and hesitations are clearly not neuro-typical. But when he sits down at his piano and places his hands on the keys — when he finds his microphone — he takes a few soft breaths… he transforms. Physically. Vocally. And just as obviously, he transforms neurologically. When he begins to sing, his brain is processing differently. He is singing about feelings and ideas in a way that connects him to a theater full of people he would never have connection with in any other way. He feels what he is singing — and so does everyone listening to him.
Music, story, theater, and dance — like film, are the creative arts that depend on time for their existence. We have to listen, play and sing in beat and over time for music to exist at all. Music, like a play performance, can become an artifact if it is recorded or filmed, but even that artifact is static in the same way a sculpture is. Or a painting. An architectural artifact. A recorded artifact still has to be experienced in real time to be experienced at all. Otherwise, it might as well be a record collection or a statue, locked in a dark, dusty attic; or a great work of literature with its pages glued together.
Once those artifacts exist, they don’t have to be made again and again. But music without technology only exists in real time. As with theater. As story. As dance.
And they exist in their OWN time.
So when the autistic singer begins to sing, he surrenders to the time inherent within the music. He surrenders the not-neuro-typical 52fps temporal patterns of his autism to the music’s time signature and pace. In other words, he may be surrendering his disabling temporal dis-ease to the ease of allowing the music to function as a regulating metronome.
And it becomes easy for him (and his audience) to feel, and to make an essential emotional connection.
Until the last 40 years, music was a part of education. Everyone sang. Huge swaths of the population played instruments — because the TV and the computer weren’t on constantly to entertain us. We entertained ourselves from an early age with rhyming songs and familiar folk music. Everyone made music as families, friends, churches, communities, clubs…. Comedian Rowan Atkinson plays the piano. Einstein had his violin. Mozart composed mathematics. Stephen Hawking had a playlist (https://www.wqxr.org/story/stephen-hawkings-essential-8-remembering-physicist-through-his-favorite-music/ ) Bill Murray is a pianist. Think about how many Asperger’s-like fictional characters resort to a temporal art, e.g., Sherlock Holmes with his violin, House with his piano, or Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who played an electric guitar.
But now — in the quest to equip children for the demands of a STEM-emphasis education, (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics) many of the arts programs that were ubiquitous to formal education have vanished and left us with a generation of autistic children who have less contact with the temporal arts, and therefore fewer contact points with the regulating metronome they carry. Without that aspect of life and culture, it becomes hit-and-miss whether an autistic child will find a regulator at all.
The current most common metronome available, and now encouraged by therapists and doctors is ironically called stimming (stim , as in stimulation) and includes most any small, repetitive, rhythmic movement — from rocking and tapping/drumming, to spinning an object or snapping a rubber band. The stimming activity is calming, both because it is hypnotic — thus producing an altered state; and, because the repetitive action produces an intentional rhythm — it becomes the missing metronome.
While “stimming” is a fairly new idea, those with autism have been doing these small, private movements all along. Turning playing cards one-by-one playing solitaire, was my way of measuring out time when I was a child — for hours at a time, and electronic solitaire fills that function for me even now. I turn cards in rhythm, shuffle in rhythm, and call the cards out loud in rhythm. (A manual typewriter also works for me….) I find that watering, feeding, and grooming small houseplants like African Violets accomplishes the same thing.
Why then, talk about music, dance, and story? Why bring up the temporal arts at all?
Because the music makes a connection with others. Dance allows for an emotional connection — and physical contact, as well. Story opens up the book of our lives and establishes real relationship. Stimming is an effective solitary activity, to slow and calm the mind; but the metronome created by music takes the hermit out of their cave and into the greater world.
As to Einstein, he defined time as the non-static dimension of reality that keeps everything from happening at once. It is a Rube Goldberg overlay that sequences everything. It is the overlay that creates narrative structure so that every human who exists in time and experiences time can make the most human of all creations– the story. We all tell stories. We all place events in sequence so we can tell others what happened to us — perhaps the principle way we make human connections. Human emotional connections.
Mankind’s first and most important invention was not fire or the wheel — it was the idea and formation of TIME. And like its perplexing sister, gravity, time is a property of matter/energy.
What if… we didn’t understand what it was we made when we created Time? What if we got it wrong? Or got part of it wrong? Or left something important out of the basic construction? Or applied too many restrictions? A few incorrect rules? Or not enough variables? What if we didn’t realize that time could be understood or applied differently for different purposes?
What if…. as matter has more than one form (solid, liquid, gas, plasma…), what if energy has more than one form, and time is one one form of energy?
[That one is a tangle not unlike the tangle of belief and behaviors. If so, then we may be looking at chickens and eggs and asking for academic theory.]
We all know that time “feels” different in different circumstances. Time flies. Time slows to a crawl. We lose time. We re-live a time when _____ happened.
What if…. the ability to intentionally speed up or slow down the experience of, or perception of time can be learned, fine tuned, manipulated by the Asperger’s individual? Doesn’t that sound like an evolutionary advantage? What if Asperger’s, with all its co-morbities and stressers is part of an evolutionary shift, rather than a kind of broken-ness or illness?
Almost everything we think of as an evolutionary step forward has come with costs. The development of language meant we could share ideas, events, feelings, experiences… but it also meant we could be misunderstood or manipulative. Similarly, when we adapted to make tools for ourselves, the world became something we could make use of, and transform. Tools transform into swords, and the phrase, “a blessing and a curse” comes into existence.
Possible temporal dis–eases: (or dis-eases with a strong temporal dimension)
Parkinson’s [ parkinsonsnewstoday.com “certain neurons may explain why Parkinsons patients can’t properly perceive time” ]
[Factionalized characters exhibiting autism/Asperger’s
Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory
Professor Jasper Teerlinck, Professor T
Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock
Dr. Gregory House, House
Sesame Street nonverbal autistic character, Julia
Jerry Espenson, Boston Legal
Temperance Brennan, Bones]
Current public figures who identify as ASD, or Asperger’s
Vocabulary: Temporal Medicine, temporal arts, temporal regulator