Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What Am I Missing?

It's a very strange feeling reading blogs by psychopaths*. As an autistic person, I've gotten quite sick of my people being compared to psychopaths, simply because researchers made the unfortunate choice to use the phrase 'lack of empathy' to describe both groups, even though they're talking about an emotional difference in psychopathy and a communication difference in autism.

But even though I'm nothing at all like a psychopath, I keep resonating with what they say.

SociopathWorld has a blog entry titled A Prosthetic Moral Compass? in which the author poses a question to other sociopaths - if there was a cure for sociopathy, would you take it? (He mentions the cochlear implant controversy, and in other blog entries he's talked about the autistic rights movement as well.) The following reply looks like it could have been written by an autistic person just as easily:

"But seriously, would you change if you could? I wouldn't, not today although that hasn't always been true. When I was much younger I really hated it a lot and would have gladly changed and tried to do so. But today I am done with all of that and quite happy with who I am and what I do to people." 

If I could cure my autism, there's no question about it. I would refuse. Amanda Baggs once said (unfortunately I couldn't find the quote) that for her, the times when she wanted a cure were the same times that she was suicidal. Dying and being cured would both involve destroying who she is.

It seems many psychopaths feel the same way. Another psychopathic blogger, Zhawq, shows on his blog a gradual evolution from denying that he's a psychopath and trying to prove his diagnosis incorrect, to accepting that his diagnosis is accurate, to challenging some of the mainstream ideas about psychopathy. This evolution is something I've also seen in many autistics, including myself (though my acceptance of autism predated my actual diagnosis, it came after others had suggested I had a neurodevelopmental disability).

So I can understand how they feel. But on the other hand, I'm a victim of abuse. Though my abusers were most likely not psychopaths, they did things that psychopaths are statistically more likely than non-psychopaths to do. I have seen in myself the damage this caused. And when I read accounts by people who were hurt by psychopaths acting psychopathic, I can understand how they feel as well.

If I were a psychopath, it would be easy for me to decide that since morality doesn't make sense to me, it's not really important. I've certainly felt that way about many other things, such as sexuality or embarrassment, that I don't feel the same innate drives around as others do. And I can understand the resentment that comes from everyone else insisting something is important that you don't see the need for. And it's not like people's philosophical ideas about what differences are acceptable and what differences aren't changes the feelings that growing up different provokes in people. We all travel down the same paths, whatever the specific symptoms our differences cause. We see the options of 'sick' or 'bad' and we don't like either one, neither of them gives us the self-respect we need. In that way, psychopaths and autistics aren't so different after all.

And yet - what about the people who are hurt by psychopaths? I can't forget them, either. And I can't see how to compromise between the need for all neurologies to be accepted and the need to protect people from abuse.

And all this makes me wonder. Is there something autistics don't see as important that is as central and important to non-autistics as morality is to non-psychopaths? That thought makes me worry. Certainly, there seems to be a sticking point for many non-autistics when they encounter the autistic rights movement, but I've never gotten a clear sense of what it is.

* I use 'psychopath' and 'sociopath' synonymously. Many people, including many who are described or describe themselves by either term, see a distinction between the two, but it seems to me that everyone who describes a difference between the two draws the line differently. Same sort of situation as Asperger Syndrome versus High Functioning Autism, and I'll do the same thing as I do there - use one term for both categories.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Demand Avoidance and Executive Dysfunction

I sort of feel like my demand avoidance and my executive dysfunction are in conflict.

If I had executive dysfunction without demand avoidance, I'd do best in a highly structured setting, where my lack of internal organization is compensated for by a great deal of external organization. I've heard this kind of thing commonly recommended for people with conditions that involve executive dysfunction, such as autistic people, ADHDers, etc. And it often works.

But my demand avoidance makes me intolerant of structure. I panic under too much structure. I start fearing that there won't be room to be myself. That I will lose my identity when everything I should do is laid out too clearly. Or that they'll make me do something that's wrong, and I won't be able to stop it. I'm hyperaware of all the dangers of submitting to a high degree of external structure - a high degree of external control.

If I had demand avoidance without executive dysfunction, I'd do best with no structure at all. I've read that entrepreneurs often hate external structure, and that's why they strike out on their own. But I could never be an entrepreneur, because I'm too disorganized. If I tried to start a company I'd chatter to everyone about the company, take the first couple steps of starting it and then get bogged down and give up on it. Being an entrepreneur requires good executive function, which I just don't have.

When I'm in a completely unstructured setting, I do better than in a highly structured setting. I don't panic, and I can get some constructive things done in an 'accidental' sort of way. But I don't perform to my potential. I don't achieve many things that I could achieve.

So, it's a balancing act. Give me only as much structure as I'm capable of tolerating, and be careful to add the structure in the parts that count the most. And I'll do the constant mental negotiation. 'Can I fit myself into this role without sacrificing too much?' 'Can I tolerate this or is it going to trigger a crisis?' If you don't overdo the structure, I won't panic and reject it all. But it's a balancing act, like trying to pet a timid cat. Don't come too close, don't act threatening, or the cat will bolt.

I'm lucky. The average university seems to have just about the right amount of structure. After having to leave school because no one would consider any less structure than far too much, I've finally found a place where I can fit myself in the gaps. It's not perfect, but if I'd been taught university-style since childhood, I probably wouldn't have needed unschooling.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Two More Emotions I Don't Seem To Have

I've mentioned that I'm asexual. Recently I was realizing that there are other emotions that most people feel and I don't seem to feel.

Embarrassment is one. I've never blushed, and from what I've been told blushing is easy to see in someone of my complexion. I've heard people talk about how they 'wished the floor would swallow them up' or something like that. When I've wished stuff like that, I was terrified, not embarrassed.

And in fact, I often seem to feel fear where others would feel embarrassment. This is probably due to bullying. If I do something most people would find embarrassing, it wouldn't normally bother me, except that I've learnt that other people are likely to treat me badly in reaction to it. (Ironically, my fear laugh tends to show up in situations where I feel threatened by another person, and probably some people have mistaken it for an embarrassed laugh.)

This study describes a protocol for eliciting embarrassment experimentally. They asked participants to sing, karaoke-style a popular song, and told them that two confederates would be viewing their performance. Then they played back a video that alternated between the professional performance of the song and their own performance of it, while monitoring heart rate and blushing, and afterwards asked participants to rate how they felt when they saw their own singing.

I often sing to myself in public. I tend to sing below audibility of others, because people give me an odd look if they hear me and this odd look reminds me of the way bullies would often look at me. But in a situation where I don't expect others to do anything to hurt me, I'll happily sing audibly. I'll even sing to a friend despite strangers being able to hear me easily, because friends are protection from bullies.

I also tell people incredibly personal things immediately upon meeting them. I've consciously curtailed this because some people have treated me badly up[on finding out certain things, but I don't seem to feel an instinctive need for secrets like most people do. If I knew no one would abuse me for it, I'd happily tell the entire world every thought and feeling I'd ever had. I do have a need for physical privacy (I don't want anyone to see me in the bathroom) but not for emotional privacy. I suspect this is linked to lack of embarrassment.

I wouldn't be surprised if lack of embarrassment is common among autistics. It could explain a lot. One big difference between autistic and NT kids is that NT kids have many activities they will do alone, but not in social situations, while autistics will often do those same things in full view of others. Things like scratching yourself in private places, picking your nose, etc. In addition, besides autistics actually having different interests and behaviors than others do, we probably seem even stranger because we're less likely to suppress an action that no one else does. Many times I haven't paid enough attention to others to realize a certain action is atypical, other times I just don't care.

Once, in the middle of summer, I had a rough day in large part because I walked outside a lot in windy weather (wind blowing my hair around is a very unpleasant sensation for me). I got home to find that the power was out and I didn't have any books to read. So I decided to walk to the library. But I was sick of wind in my hair so I decided to wear my parka with the hood up to block the wind. My Dad, driving home from work, spotted me and called out to me. He said he'd recognized me easily because of the parka - 'there's only one person I know who'd wear a parka in this weather'.

If you'd asked me whether it was normal to wear a parka in the middle of summer, I'd have said no. But it didn't occur to me that I'd be the only one doing it among a large social group. I also didn't think about what others might think if I walked outside in summertime with a parka on - what mattered was that, for me, excess heat was preferrable to more wind.

As for the other emotion I've noticed recently...

I don't think I feel hatred. I remember some people on a forum awhile back, saying that 'everyone has probably wished someone would die'. When I said I'd never wished that, they accused me of lying and pretending I was better than everyone else. But it was actually the truth. The closest I've come to a revenge fantasy was a fantasy in which I turned into a dog and mauled one of my bullies, and he got a permanent disability and his 'friends' turned on him and started bullying him too, and being bullied made him realize how bad it was so he turned nice and befriended me (not knowing I was the dog, of course).

I have said 'I hate you!' in the course of a meltdown. At that exact moment, I really do feel something similar to hatred. But the feeling disappears once I calm down. I've never hated someone in an enduring sort of way. I'm not sure if I've felt angry - most of the time when people think I'm angry, I'm really scared. But I think I have felt anger over injustice that doesn't personally affect me (therefore triggering no fear).

I was sexually abused by two cousins of mine. Most people, if they'd gone through something like that, would hate those two cousins. If they didn't, they'd hate my uncle, the one who screwed those kids up and made them into abusers (probably deliberately - he liked to corrupt people). I don't hate any of those people. Most people would also hate my first grade teacher, the worst teacher I've ever had. I have no idea why she treated me the way she did, and I would never trust her with a child, but I don't hate her. My emotions, when I think of her, are a muddle of fear, sadness, confusion, hurt and shame, but no hatred. Same with the bully featured in the revenge fantasy I described above. If he'd have said sorry for what he did and started treating me nicely, it's entirely possible that me and him could have become friends.

This doesn't mean I don't take revenge, but, as my revenge fantasy shows, it's always directly tied with the hope of changing the person I'm avenging myself on. If I realize my revenge-taking won't change them, the desire for revenge disappears. This is why I don't support our jail system - because it doesn't change people for the better. I find it very hard to understand why some people seem so determined to punish wrongdoers that they'd ignore anyone who tries to convince them that this doesn't work. Clearly, this is not just a rational attempt to prevent further crime. There must be an emotional component to it that I don't feel.

Note: I do not think my lack of hatred (or embarrassment, for that matter) makes me better than anyone. We can't help what we feel. It's what we do with our feelings that really matters.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Explaining Remorse

This is in reply to Zhawq's post How Psychopaths Understand Remorse. Zhawq is a psychopath who maintains a blog aimed at helping people understand psychopathy better. Anyway, in that post he asked non-psychopaths to comment on what remorse feels like. My response was too verbose for the comments thing, so I'm posting it here:

When I feel remorse, it's basically that part of me feels like I've stepped into the shoes of the person I hurt, and I'm feeling their pain and thinking about how they'd see me, and meanwhile I'm comparing all that with what kind of person I'd like to be and seeing that this particular action falls short of it.
For a specific example - I volunteer with disabled kids. Once, I was working with an autistic girl, taking her swimming as part of an activity program. For the first two days (in two separate pools) she swam happily, but the third day she refused to get in the water. I felt sure that as soon as she got in she'd enjoy it, so I was pushing her pretty hard. Finally I suggested to the other volunteer that we just pick her up and toss her into the water, and the other volunteer said she thought that would be wrong. So I gave up on getting the girl in the water and just let her draw on some paper instead.
Later, thinking back on that, I was horrified by my suggestion. I thought about how I'd have felt about a teacher forcing me into the water after I'd made it clear I didn't want to go in, how scared and angry and helpless I'd feel, especially if (like this girl) I didn't have the verbal skills to express my feelings. I thought about the teacher who have done things to me against my will (like dragging me out of hiding spots) and how I felt about that. And I thought about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and how I wanted the kids I worked with to feel about me and about themselves, and what I'd contemplated wouldn't fit with that at all.
But it's not just thoughts. All of this brings up intense emotions. I feel disgusted by myself, I feel ashamed, I feel sad and mixed up inside, etc. The day afterwards I felt out of sorts all day, until I'd confessed to my parents about this and decided that next time I'd apologize to the autistic girl (unfortunately her parents pulled her from the program because they'd mostly expected her to enjoy the swimming and she wasn't enjoying it).
It's hard to describe, I know exactly how it feels but I have no idea how to convey that to someone who doesn't feel that particular feeling. Kind of like when others try to describe sexual desire to me (I'm asexual). I really don't get how sexuality feels, I just get enough to realize it's something I don't feel. I'm guessing it's similar for a psychopath with regards to understanding remorse.
Also, with regards to things I can't help, I don't feel remorse about those. (Some other people do, but not me.) For example I have PTSD and mild autism and both of those combine to cause meltdowns when I'm upset or overwhelmed. Something will set me off and I'll start screaming, accusing my parents of not caring about me, threatening to hurt myself, sometimes even shoving or hitting my parents. I don't feel remorse for doing this. I wish it didn't happen, but I have no control over having meltdowns and given that I'm having a meltdown I generally choose the best course of action I was capable of. I know it hurts my parents when I do this and I'd like to figure out ways to avoid doing it for their sake, but I don't feel like a bad person for doing those things and I don't feel the strong compulsion to make up for it in some way. (Mostly I just want to forget about it because my meltdowns are far more unpleasant for me than for others.)
I hope this clarifies things somewhat. I'm not exactly normal in my emotional experience, but I'm certainly not a psychopath. (My guess is I'm actually less psychopathic than most people, because I don't seem to feel enduring hatred even for people who've hurt me deeply, such as the ones who caused my PTSD. This trait is probably partly why I'm trying to understand psychopaths instead of just calling them bad.)
Oh, and lastly - why I'd do something I consider immoral? Because I'm not perfect and I don't always think through the implications of what I'm doing at the moment. It's not always obvious as I'm doing something that it's something bad, it's only on reflection later that I realize it.