A few weeks ago I watched a Nova segment on mirror neurons, which are cells in our brians that activate both when we do something and when we see other people do the same thing. For example, when we smile certain neurons are active in our brains, when we see others smile, a different set of neurons are active, and those that are active in both situations are mirror neurons. These neurons are how we learn, how we relate to others, and largely the foundation of all civilization. So I was watching this with some interest when, towards the end, the topic turned to autism.
For nearly everyone I know, autism is defined as the condition Dustin Hoffman had in Rain Man. Some theorize that a lack of functional mirror neurons causes autism. The theory is that autistic people don't have enough working mirror neurons, so they have trouble picking up subtle social cues. When they see someone make a particular face to express some emotion, they don't learn what that face means. And eventually they grow to prefer activities they do understand, such as the Legos an autistic boy plays with in the Nova video I watched. There is a woman in this scene, presumably a scientist of some sort, watching the boy playing with Legos, studying him. When I saw that, I remembered a very similar scene from my own childhood, and suddenly I began wondering if I might be autistic.
There was a time during my childhood when a woman would regularly come to my house to watch me play with tinker toys. She would give me a pile of tinker toys, show me a picture of a completed object made of tinker toys, and then I would try to construct the object. The only object I remember was a ferris wheel, probably because it took me a long time to make.
It turns out that had nothing to do with autism. I called my mom and asked her about it, and she told me that the woman was doing some sort of study on how different parenting styles affect children. My mom was also rather dismissive of my thoughts that I might be autistic. She suggested I learn more about autism. My mother was a grade school teacher and has had a few autistic students, so I thought if she didn't think I might be autistic, it wasn't worth further investigation.
But then I started writing a new song, and it ended up being about an autistic kid. I started reading more about autism to finish the song. Then I came across a description of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night," a book Jessica happened to give me for Christmas because she thought I would enjoy it (I did). It turns out the narrator of the book is autistic.
As I read more and more about autism, I increasingly felt like I was reading about myself. Descriptions such as "prefers to be alone" and "little or no eye contact" (from the Autism Society of America) could probably describe any introvert. Many people who know me would say these phrases don't describe me. I think that's largely because I'm faking it. Almost all eye contact I make is a conscious effort to act normal. I know normal people make eye contact and I try to do the same. Most people make eye contact without thinking about it, but I generally don't.
Other descriptions of autistic behavior seem more specifically desriptive of me. For example, computer programming is popular among autistics, according to the Wikipedia article on autism, and I like to program. I think the "excessively lines up toys or other objects" characteristic, also from Wikipedia, is what really convinced me that I was on to something. My co-workers point out how odd it is that my thumb tacks are sorted by color, and my rubber bands by size and thickness. I don't know anyone else who does this.
Not everything is in its place in my apartment, but everything has a place. I can look at something and know where it should go. And it bothers me when Jessica is staying with me and there is suddenly stuff laying around that I am unable to put in a place, if only conceptually. I previously thought I was just strange in these ways, but now I have a name for this strangeness.
Initially, that name was "maybe autism." After too many comparisons to "Rain Man" I briefly tried describing what I thought was "very mild autism," but most people imagine autism is an either/or condition, rather than the wide spectrum that it is. It was suggested to me that I might have Asperger's syndrome rather than autism, and this is the current name I'm using. I choose this name not so much because I think it's more descriptive - I don't even know what the difference is between asperger's syndrome and "mild autism," though I gather there is one - but because it reliably avoids comparisons to "Rain Man."
I haven't yet spoken with anyone who seems to know more about this than I do. Nut like any good case of Asperger's, I trust the judgement of an automated computer program over a person anyway (just kidding ... sort of). I think I took the Wired AQ test when it first made rounds a few years ago, and I vaguely remember scoring just short of autistic and being surprised by this. I took it again recently and scored solidly autistic this time. I'm sure the score increase can be attributed to different expectations the two times I took the test, but both times point toward what I now strongly suspect: that I have Asperger's syndrome.
So what now? I've already found this bit of self-knowledge much more useful than previous bits. My Myers-Briggs classification is INTJ, which Michael Barrish recently pointed out is a nice way of saying "asshole." When I first learned that, I promptly forgot it until I recently went back to take a test and verify that I am, in fact, an asshole. And then there was the time I thought I had synaesthesia. Nothing has come of that. I guess time will tell what comes from my newest self-classification.