What I Learned From the Bugs: Alienation and Othering

“Great truths are sometimes so enveloping and exist in such plain view as to be invisible.” ~Edward O. Wilson

I went to study Entomology, and four years later found that I had discovered far more about my own species than I had about insects and other arthropods. What I learned about humans was enlightening, and often very disquieting.
Frequently, if you can’t see something, it’s because it seems normal and appropriate. Alienating and Othering so permeates the many facets of culture as to be invisible.
Take for example writings about people, either individuals or groups. These can be works of fiction, clinical accounts, self-help or parenting or therapy books, historical or sociological analyses, in fact, any sort of book whatsoever that refers to people with differences. (I was going to say “differences from the norm” but we also find this in books about women, and surely half the population has to be considered a “norm” from a sociological if not a statistical perspective.)
Frequently such accounts use the omniscient writing perspective, which makes it very easy to Continue reading What I Learned From the Bugs: Alienation and Othering

Colony Collapse Disorder : Blogging Against Disablism Day

This post marks Blogging Against Disablism Day. (Yes, I’m late getting this post up. It got postponed after finishing audio-recording the last chapter of a textbook this morning before going to jobs #1 and #2, and after getting groceries, and after making dinner, and after unloading moving boxes, and after more-or-less-sitting and watching an episode of House with the family. I’m so lazy.)

(photo description: close-up shot of a fluffy, golden honeybee sitting calmly on a person’s hand)




The honeybees are in danger.
I don’t care; I hate bugs!
Too few people with disabilities complete their education or are fully employed.
That’s not my problem; I don’t know any of Those People.
Curiously, these two things are more related than you might imagine, at least on the social level. Continue reading Colony Collapse Disorder : Blogging Against Disablism Day

Ecological Adaptation and Disability

While soaking my aching joints in a hot bath, it occurred to me that as an organism, I am not naturally suited for the environment where I am living. It’s below the freezing temperature outside, and I don’t hibernate or have enough fur or feathers to keep me warm, plus I would have extreme difficulty acquiring enough food to eat with just tooth and nail. Furthermore, human young are born at any season, and take years to rear. From a purely biological perspective, you would think that this hominid species would be limited to foraging family groups living in tropical areas. We are in high contrast to other intelligent, tool-using species that are well-adapted to their environments.
In biology, there are a lot of different means to achieve the same end. All living organisms need to acquire particular kinds of molecules and the energy to assemble them into useful materials so they can grow and reproduce, and also be able to get rid of the kinds of molecules they don’t need; if they reproduce sexually then they need to find another organism with compatible genetic material; and lastly they need to be able to fend off other organisms and to protect themselves from abiotic (environmental) forces that interfere with these activities. Organisms are “successful” by how well they adapt to the available ecological niches, or how well they can create or exploit new kinds of niches.
Cetaceans (whales, porpoises, dolphins) and proboscids (elephants) are nearly-furless, polyphagous mammalian species that are well-adapted to the ecological niches they inhabit (“polyphagous” means an animal eats a variety of foods, which increases the chances for successful foraging or hunting). They have relatively large brains for their body size, and are intelligent animals with long memories, good learning and problem-solving abilities, and forms of language. Hominids (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans) are furred polyphagous mammalian species that are well-adapted to the ecological niches they inhabit. Hominids also have relatively large brains for their body size, and are intelligent animals with long memories, good learning and problem-solving abilities, and forms of language.
Ecologists refer to such species as being “K-selected” or “K-strategists”, because the numbers of these animals will (under natural conditions) come close to the “K value”, the carrying capacity of the local environment. That means that the population numbers remain fairly high and stable, and this is reflected in the animals’ ability to live a long time and be able to care for a limited number of slow-maturing offspring. The intelligence, knowledge and learning ability, and forms of language contribute to that ability to rear those offspring, and to pass on knowledge in forms of culture.
In some contrast, the fourth hominid, the human, is a nearly-furless, polyphagous, invasive mammalian species that is poorly adapted for most of the ecological environments that it inhabits. Humans are also K-strategists, although being an invasive species with high adaptive abilities, sometimes exceeds the local carrying capacity of its environments. Because of this, humans have the ability to change local and world-wide environments to a far greater degree, and in a shorter period of time, than any other organism.
The only reason why the species is not limited to foraging bands living in tropical areas (the primæval “Eden”) is because we can create so many tools that compensate for our various deficiencies. We have been able to expand our niche beyond that which is biologically natural by taking tool-making far beyond the immediate-problem-solving level that other animals employ. Social insects such as termites, ants and bees create structures, farm fungus or herd aphid livestock, transform raw materials into honey, structural waxes and papers, but the individual species are still limited by their requirements for specific ecotones.
When the “naked ape” is disabled by not being naturally-adapted to its current environment, it responds by creating long-term tools. We create clothing and shelter to cope with colder temperature ranges. We manipulate food resources by herding, farming, hoarding, drying, fermenting, and freezing, and also by selecting, breeding and displacing species far from their natural places of origin. We create machineries of transport to move ourselves and our things. We create tools to compensate for limitations of sensory perception, to increase our ability to get information about our environments. We create tools for the greater memory/storage and dissemination of cultural information.
The human is a terrestrial anomaly because it actively seeks to put itself into disabling environments, and creates tools that will allow it to live and thrive in those environments. Orcas and other dolphins don’t create tools that will allow them to live on land, and elephants don’t make tools that will allow them to colonise temperate zones. Meanwhile, there are millions of individual humans who would not be able to physically survive in their natural environments, and I don’t just mean the “extremophiles” in low earth orbit or Antarctica. Easily 99% of the humans alive today rely upon the accommodations of farmed food, shelter and clothing, plus things like corrective lenses, hearing aids, wheels, and health-maintaining pharmaceuticals.
There’s a reason why we have different connotations for the words “nude” and “naked”. A human is only nude when they feel safe and protected from the world. But a naked human hominid, stripped of its clothing and other tools, is fairly defenceless, and not easily a successful organism in most environments.
One of the benefits to being able to modify environments according to needs is that humans are able to create so many more niches. We can create different personal environments by using different materials to perform different jobs. We can compensate for different abilities in ways that other animals cannot, and thus succeed individually. Our ability to make long-term tools and create micro-environments for ourselves allows us to be successful to live out our natural lifespans, to rear children and care for each other at different life stages.
Given that humans must compensate for so many natural disabilities, it’s surprising that we will go out of our way to create additional disabilities for ourselves, those handicaps that are created by the social environments. The idea that people should be “independent” and not need things to enable us to function is wholly absurd. We all need other people and things to learn and to function; it’s the specifics that sometimes differ. These are artificial barriers to successful living, not natural barriers.
The human being as a species is simultaneously the most disabled and yet the most successful organism on the planet. We need to remember that, especially when we seek to pretend that disabled people are not “normal” people. Specific disabilities may not be average, but being disabled is inherently normal. You can’t get much more inherently disabled than being a naked ape outside of “Eden”.

My Off-and-on-and-off-and-on Love Affair With Computers

At work there’s a computer room that I take great pains to avoid spending much time in (to erm, avoid great pains). Don’t get me wrong – I love computers, in general. It’s not so much the noisy CPUs (which in this case are tolerable) but rather the old monitors which flicker, every last one of them. If I have to spend more than 20-30 minutes staring at one, I am setting myself up for risk of a migraine. What’s curious (if not outright frustrating) is that not everyone understands what I’m talking about when I mention that I can’t really spend much time working with some computers because of the screen flicker. Either people can see it, or they can’t.
The whole issue of monitor flicker is due to the Refresh Rate setting, which I used to know how to change in old Windows OS, but not in the current one. Whether or not you can see the flickering depends upon the way your brain is wired. But regardless of your ability to vouch for this phenomenon, there is some basic science that is commonly accepted in the computer industry (and elsewhere), so you don’t have to take my word for it!
The annoying/tiring flicker of monitors and fluorescent lights is related to Flicker Fusion Frequency (FFF). You have seen and hopefully played with “flip-books”, little booklets of cartoons, when you flip the pages, at the right speed of flipping the pictures appear to get animated. This works just like a motion picture (movie) film is a long serious of still shots that are run quickly by, giving the illusion of motion. The “flicker-fusion frequency” is when the stills flicker by at a speed fast enough that your mind fuses them together.
This kind of action is measured in Hertz ( Hz ); 1 Hertz is one cycle per second. For example fluorescent light fixtures run at a rate of 50 Hertz in Europe and 60 Hertz in the US. Fluorescents, unlike incandescent lights (ordinary lamp bulbs) do not emit continuous light. Rather, they flicker


Each OFF-ON is one cycle. But because the off-on is a sine wave function, they go off and on 100-120 times per second.
Most average people cannot consciously discern that flickering, because the “average” human FFF is only 25 Hz. (I should note that although nearly all humans with adequate vision have the sensing ability, not all have the perceptual ability to discern the flickering — perception is how the brain interprets the sensory inputs.)
The flickering effect is most noticeable outside the corners of eyes, where the rods (light sensing) parts are most sensitive; the cones (color sensing) are most sensitive in the middle. That’s why you notice movement or faint stars outside the corners of your eyes. Theatre movies run at a slower rate of speed (24 Hz) because they are shown in dark surroundings. When something is brighter, it requires an even faster flicker rate to not be noticeable.
Old computer monitors and CRTs (Cathode Ray Tube — those old TV-like green print on black screen terminals) ran at 50 Hz, too. If you happen to recall getting CRT headaches that would be why. In contrast, LCD panel monitors have a refresh rate around 200 Hertz!
When a visual input goes higher than an organisms FFF rate, it has reached the Critical Fusion Frequency (CFF) and is no longer perceived as flickering, but as steady. The human CFF is about 50-100 Hz. Apparently some people (including many people with ADD and autistics) have a higher CFF threshold than the neurotypical human. So things like fluorescent lights are more bothersome. (Insects have an even higher FFF than humans; flies have a FFF of 300! You gotta wonder what it does to insect colonies kept in incubators under artificial illumination.)
A Swedish ergonomic study found that individuals with a higher critical fusion frequency experienced more stress and decreased accuracy under fluorescent light conditions. Their recommendation was better ballasts, rather than using incandescent or natural lighting. ::rolls eyes::
To prevent this problem on your computer, either get a plasma screen, or if not budgeted for such, then set your refresh rate to its maximum capacity — German researchers recommended 70 Hz for the general population (sorry, reference link now broken).
UPDATE:  The older fluorescent lamps had magnetic ballasts, and those seemed to be the problematic sort.  Newer fluorescent lamps have electronic ballasts, and fewer issues – they also seem quieter!

All In A Row

One of the “soft signs” for identifying autistics is the predilection for lining things up. Like anything else, this isn’t an exclusive activity, but rather something that is done in more pronounced frequency than the average population. Meaning, it’s not that neurotypical people don’t line things up, but rather, don’t do so with such intensity or such relish. What’s the big deal (the fascination) with lining things up, anyway? Why line things up?
There are a variety of inter-related reasons. For one, it makes it easier to find things without the “mental speedbumps” so I don’t get distracted and forget what I was doing in an ADHD moment. When pulling out four spice jars from the fifty others lined up on the pantry door racks I don’t even have to read the labels, just because the alphabetisation helps maintain the intrinsic order: cardamom is between caraway seed and cayenne pepper. This is good because quite a few of my (recycled) jars don’t even have labels.
Lining things up gives the hands something to do that isn’t mentally demanding, so the brain is free to relax and think about other stuff (some people describe knitting as being like that). This is like walking a labyrinth or meditating in its focused, relaxing qualities. Think of it as meditation for the ADHD person who can’t sit still!
Lining things up is not unlike ironing out wrinkles; the symmetry gets rid of the unevenness in the universe and gives one a happy, settled feeling. Objects seem relaxed and more likely to stay where they belong when they are comfortable – they won’t unfathomably “disappear” from where they were last left! All is right in the world because they are where they are supposed to be, like when jigsaw pieces are fitted together. There’s a happy “zip” feeling from running the fingers along the picket-fence effect of objects in a perfect row. Lining things up makes the world less of a jumble – there’s a visual appeal to the evenness.
It can also be fun to manipulate the patterns and constantly be creating new ones, this being a process-oriented task rather than a results-oriented task because it’s the doing that is pleasing, rather than the finished product.
When I had more room (in another house), I lined up cans and boxes in the pantry, creating neat files of canned fruits and different tomato sauces that made preparing grocery lists easier. I got particular satisfaction pegging diapers on the clothes line in neat arrays, and also hanging up the clothes to dry with all the shirts in rainbow order. I’m constantly fixing the alignment of the houses on the Monopoly board, or facing and centering the chess pieces. If I pause in front of a library bookshelf for more than a minute, I leave behind me a section of books lined up along the shelf edge. (No, it’s not quite at the level of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; I don’t do it to ward off Bad Things from happening, and it doesn’t create problems for me.) I keep my hangers sorted by style; crayons in rainbow order; reference books on shelves by category and novels by author; music CDs neatly lined up alphabetic within genre; positively relished organising my collections of stamps sorted by country, rocks by type, and insects by family; and tidy my wrapped tea bags or seed packets in neat horizontal stacks. I have been doing these things all my life, and in my mid-forties am not likely to change — there’s really no need to!
So, why not? What’s the big deal (the problem) with lining things up, anyway?

Things Of Which To Be Aware

NOTE: I should mention that this is rather much different than my usual sort of post. It’s quite the ADHD ramble, pulling together all sorts of odd bits and bobs and things that tickled my brain this morning. After this I’ll return you to the regularly-scheduled blog posts.


Did you know that honeybees can learn to identify pictures of human faces? Some researchers, Adrian G. Dyer, Christa Neumeyer, and Lars Chittka, were able to train honeybees to cue to photographs of specific people as sources for nectar rewards.
For someone who has studied insect behavior and who has prosopagnosia (face-blindness, or the inability to recognise people just from facial features), this is fascinating. The bees could learn with better than 80% accuracy, which is more than I can do (described here). That is rather humbling. Of course, we might point out that the bees were only learning to cue to repeated flat pictures – in real life, humans are trying to cue to moving humans seen from a variety of perspectives. ::sigh::
There’s not tons of research done on insect cognition, unlike cognition in large mammals including elephants, chimpanzees and dolphins. Smear a bit of paint on one of those mammals, show them their reflection in a mirror, and the critter will stop, look, and then use their reflection to inspect their bodies, including touching the paint if they can reach it (as Larry Niven has pointed out in his science fiction stories, dolphins are notoriously handicapped by having short limbs – which similar problem Mat Fraser has humorously described in Ouch! podcasts; we all have issues).
I understand that when I look in a mirror and see a face, that it’s probably my face. But if cues like hair and glasses are removed from photos, I probably could not pick out my own face from a set of photos of other humans. In fact, I have been known to catch sight of myself in an unexpected mirror (such as wall tiles at a mall) and have not recognised that I was indeed seeing myself – I thought that someone was wearing clothes similar to mine. I am however, self-aware, although you may have to take my assertion of that as proof that I am aware of both the concept of self-awareness and of my own identity. (grin)
Bees probably aren’t self-aware, but if they were, it would not be self-awareness of the same scale as that of a mammal – even thought they can learn and can communicate, the brains of bees just aren’t that complex, and are mostly devoted to sensory processing. They are very tiny animals after all.
So here we have these self-aware animals: Mat Fraser, elephants et al. Then over on another part of the planet we have Deepak Chopra, who is also a self-aware animal, but seems to be in over his head, cognitively speaking:

“The entire universe is experienced only through consciousness, and even though consciousness is invisible and non-material, it’s the elephant in the room so far as evolutionary theory is concerned.”

Boy howdy. Chopra, in his masses of abstruse nonsensical verbiage, is anti-evolutionary and asserting that only metaphysical explanations could bring about the universe. I’d hate to be the one to break it to him (the ensuing argument would likely be so absurd that I’d want to again take up banging my head on the wall in frustration) but the universe is NOT “experienced only through consciousness”.
Animals, whether or not they are self-aware, are all conscious of their individual Umwelts, or subjective sensory worlds. So too are plants, which respond to sensory inputs of light, gravity, and touch-pressure, but plants are not conscious organisms – they do not really respond to music etc. Plants experience the universe, but not through consciousness. Chopra’s figurative elephant needs to give him a good whack with an evolutionary biology textbook.
If you want something of which to be aware, then don’t believe everything you read, even if there are lots of important-sounding buzzwords.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for some evolution humor that’s better written than Chopra, check out this satirical piece at the Onion: “Kansas Outlaws Practice Of Evolution”

It's Not Easy Being Variegated

Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’


“Why is she doing that – stop it! You’d better stop it right now or else!”

If I had a dollar for every time my mother had told me, “I don’t know why you’d want to do that,” I could buy a plane ticket to Helsinki. Mind you, she never asked why I wanted to do whatever the particular “that” was at the time. If it wasn’t important to her, then it wasn’t important at all. (This is so selfish and one-sided it slides into the realm of the pathological.)

All behaviour provides some kind of communicated message. The onus of burden on communication does not belong to either the autistic or to the people interacting with them. Rather, it belongs to both. Communication is a result. It takes two to tango, sender and receiver each way. Communication can happen in many ways. But unless both parties can find a way to share the message, and are willing to try, it won’t happen.
To make communication happen, we must be able to think outside of the usual verbal box. We have to really observe what is going on, and figure out why someone is doing what they are doing. A lot of people seem to have difficulty understanding the concept of cause and effect – they want to react to the effects, rather than figuring out the causes. It’s easier that way, I suppose; it doesn’t require any thinking.
Let me tell you a garden story as an analogy. In entomology we have a concept called the “pesticide treadmill,” where people find it easier to either spray pesticides on a calendar basis, rather than assessing the actual need for such and what is causing problems, or they wait until problems reach catastrophic levels and then spray. Both of these approaches are both a waste of time and money. Regularly scheduled “calendar spraying” increases pollution, and only pushes for greater pesticide resistance in the pest populations. Not surprisingly, waiting until the pest population blows out of proportion does not yield effective results either, either in terms of pest control or in benefit to the crop.
Sometimes people go around spraying insecticides on their plants, when what they really have is a fungus problem, or a nutrient problem, or an insufficiency of light. Amazingly, the insecticide doesn’t solve the problem! So, they keep on spraying … why? Because the first dose didn’t work. So they think they need more doses, and it should work if you keep giving enough doses. Hmn…
In much the same manner, some people want to do the equivalent thing with their clients or family members — treat symptoms with treatments, instead of figuring out what is causing the problem. Give them tranquilisers, or neuroleptics, or megadoses of vitamins, or chelation, whatever — some “treatments” are far worse than others, but it’s still trying to treat the symptoms rather than figuring out what is causing difficulty. (Amazingly, more doses don’t solve the problem!)
Or indeed, sometimes it’s easier to give “treatments” than to determine if there truly is a difficulty – not all different behaviours are problem behaviours.

“Help!” says a gardening class student, “my plant has yellow leaves! What’s wrong with it? Does it have bugs? Should I give it some Miracle Grower drops?”
“Um, ma’am, this is a variegated ginger. It has green and gold leaves. That’s the way it grows. It’s okay – it’s supposed to be like that.” Student looks dubious. “Your plant is just fine. Really. Enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with it – it’s naturally variegated from its genes, and that’s what makes it different.”
Student still looks dubious, and says, “I don’t know … it looks sick to me. It’s just too weird – I want my plants to all look nice and green.”
“If you don’t like it, then take it to the office, or to church, or whatever. There are plenty of people who love special plants like this.”

But it takes extra time and effort to observe, monitor, and assess your plants for pest problems. A good IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program will save money in both reduced applications of pesticides, and increased value of your plants. But all this takes learning, observing, and thinking. Likewise, it takes learning, observing, and thinking to analyse the functional cause and effect of various behaviours.

Too often the child (or even adult) is perceived as being a problem, rather than as having a problem. Instead of figuring out what is causing the problem, the reaction is focused upon the effect that is the child’s behaviour. This has to be stopped right now; the child is being bad, children should not talk back, and children should not win arguments! (There’s a recipe for disaster; simply give orders without listening to others and taking their concerns seriously.)
Punishing the child for misbehaving should stop the behaviour, right? Possibly. Unless the child perceives that the punishment (such as an out-of-school suspension) is better than the problem that is distressing them (being bullied). Punishment can sometimes stop a behaviour (depending upon what’s going on), but it doesn’t often change the behaviour because it does not teach a person what to do instead. As long as the behaviour gains something for the person, it won’t go away. That “something” doesn’t always have to be an optimal result, merely a less-bad result. In other words, the behaviour serves some kind of function. When we’re untangling the problem, determining what that function is will be very important, because that’s the key to figuring out what is needed in the way of determining the true problem and a better solution.



Recess: Fun With Words


Recess means we take a break and play. It’s important to do that once in a while.

that there’s a German word for “that song stuck in your head”? Ohrwurm. Literally, an Ohrwurm is an earwig insect, and I have no idea how that bit of entomological etymology evolved. (Earwigs really don’t crawl into people’s ears, despite their names – they do happen to be beneficial predators of insect pests in greenhouses and orchards). I’ll be polite and refrain from mentioning which songs get stuck in my head – they’re usually the really obnoxious pop-music sort.

An Ohrwurm could also be That Word Stuck In Your Head. A lot of us have run into this perseverative phenomenon. You don’t have to be autistic or have OCD or Tourette’s, although it helps.

Repeating a word over and over is a called palilalia, which in an exquisite twist of cosmic irony, is a great word to repeat or play with as well: pali-lali-lali-lali-lalia! One of my favorite words to repeat over and over is “smock”. Say it several times quickly and it becomes quite silly sounding: smocksmocksmocksmocksmocksmocksmocksmock
Repeating that word very many times also tends to turn your lips to limp rubber, so be careful.

Smock is odd for being on my list. Usually the really good stim words have several syllables: Fescennine, balderdash, interlocutor, reticulated, knee breaches or isoflavinoid. I can play around with the syllable stresses on i-so-fla-vi-noid for a goodly number of blocks of rush-hour traffic driving. “Knee breaches” seems anomalous, but for reasons unknown odd clothing names will suction themselves to my consciousness. A couple of months ago, “dickey” was very sticky. (That’s a false blouse front, an absurd article if ever there was one.) This spring past, “galoshes” sloshed repeatedly around my cranium. The inside of my head can be a noisy place, tinnitus notwithstanding.

Instead of, or addition to engaging an autistic stim, you could have a Tourette’s phonic tic if you go blurting out some random word for no damn good reason at all. Although dramatically used in the media, it’s actually rather rare for Touretters to have coprolalia, where one unintentionally says taboo or cuss words. In real life, most of us really mean to when we say those words.

Speaking of stimming, one really has to wonder about chanting mantras …

Lexilalia is when you repeat words aloud after reading them. I run into this with scientific terms and names, many of which have such wonderfully theatrical sounds, like arcane incantations. (Turn on your mental Roll-of-Thunder and Great-Echoing-Chamber sound effects here.) My favorites are:



Chrysanthemum leucanthemum!

Gosh, isn’t that fun?
The first is a cloud form, the second refers to a common ingredient in mothballs, and the latter is the garden daisy. Horticultural pedants will note that the taxonomists (bless their wicked hearts) have renamed the daisy as Leucanthemum superbum, which isn’t quite as much fun, although I had a horticulture professor who instead of saying su-PER-bum pronounced the species as SUUP-er-bum.
For a while I would burst into uncontrollable laughter at one of my daughter’s Spanish vocabulary words, bufanda (boo-FAHN-da), which means “scarf”. My daughter then had a penchant for spontaneously hollering out the word just to watch me break into giggles. To her dismay and my relief I eventually became desensitised. I think.
(Special thanks to MOM-NOS for reminding me about this crazy topic.)

The Words Got In the Way

I remember being about nine years old (that would have been oh, 1971) when I realized to my utmost horror that because everyone’s experiences are different, that no one will ever understand my words with the exact same “flavor” that I mean them. This shocked me to the core, and I was inconsolable, silently numb for several days.
The whole reverberation only added to my sense of growing isolation. (“They don’t know what I am talking about. They will NEVER know what I am talking about.”) There is a word in Japanese, “yoin”, which means the experiential reverberation that continues to move you after the external stimulus has ceased. That moment was a negative sort of yoin.
My vocabulary (although large for a person of my age) lacked the sufficient abstract and philosophical terminology that would allow me to share my myriads of thoughts, so my failed attempts only served to worsen the angst. Then again, I am not sure how much the people around me, the children, teachers or parents, really tried to understand what I was getting at. Either they did not have the concepts themselves, did not believe a mere child could have such abstract concepts, or did not feel inspired enough to make the effort.
Because of my rearing and education, I (wrongly) perceived this inability to communicate highly abstract thoughts as being stupid, rather than as lack of knowledge. (Just as when I was trying to figure out how to optimize the size of a building one could create from a single sheet of construction paper, I thought I was stupid because I couldn’t do it mathematically. In truth, I couldn’t do it because the calculations I needed required the calculus that I would not study until decades later, rather than the simple arithmetic I had thus far been taught.)
Words are but an approximation, a systematized code to give a mutual “handle” on concepts. Because words are artificial constructs, and each person brings with them a slightly different version of the word, the meanings for words are always created anew, and evolve within the context of the discussion. Both the sender and receive give slightly different interpretations, based upon their ever-changing personal experiences.
Part of what it means to be an intelligent organism is the desire to share experiences with others. Intelligent apes and dolphins communicate things, although on less complex levels*. Humans communicate things not only by words, but also by other forms of expression, such as music, dance, and art. There are some days when any good communication seems a miracle! (Is anyone out there working on that Vulcan mind-meld?)
But when you do find someone of like mind, Oh! but when you do, it is the most amazing thing. The words barely keep up with the tumble of concepts that are flashing back and forth. Yes! They know what I am talking about! Yes! They have thought the same thoughts. Yes! They have seen things with much the same perceptual filters; they have the much the same Umwelt**.
These moments of rare experiential/perceptual connection to another person are a positive sort of yoin. They are yet rare; I can count them on the fingers of one hand. Perhaps finding others of similar neurological bent will increase the incidence for all of us, n’est-ce pas? We are all ever alone — but — I would add that we are able to upon occasion reach beyond our individual alonenesses and connect to others. The utter joy and delight, an almost transcendent sense of epiphany one can find in sharing an understanding with some people can be a profound thing.
But many times I have come off as being stupid or foolish. How do you explain to someone that they really cannot always assign mental processes to the results they see? (I think this is one of the reasons I like entomology; people are less likely to assume they can understand what is going on in the wee brains of “alien” insects; and yes, many insects are even capable of learning.) I cannot tell you how many times people have come off with some entirely off-the-wall assumption about me from what they observe.
I remember an incident from when I was four years old, and they were testing me for entry to kindergarten (my birthday is after the school year has already started, so I was always the youngest). An adult held up a pen and asked me, “What color is this?” I wondered silently to myself, “Does that mean the color of the case of the pen, or the ink inside it?” I could not really see the ballpoint tip to tell. I knew that some pens have colored nibs on their ends to indicate the ink color, but that not all of them do.
Then while I was pondering this, I had a horrifying realisation, “How can she not know what color it is? This is a grown-up!” I was shocked and concerned and trying to think of a rational reason why an adult might not know their colors that I sat there, silent and not answering. It’s not that I did not know my colors, but rather I could not figure out why she would not, and why on earth she would be asking me. I was just a child! Children don’t help adults – other adults do. Why wasn’t she talking to the other grown-ups?
Of course I was being clueless as usual, and did not realize that she was testing me; I took the interaction at face value. Meanwhile, this person told my mother that I was a foolish child who did not know her colors, and then she used the pen to write something down on a form. Fortunately my mother was there to assert that I did indeed know them, and once it was explained to me what I was supposed to be doing, I rattled off all sorts of color identities about objects, including pink and grey and beige.
In the end, it’s our respective perceptions that allow and limit communication. When we fail to do so, we must always realize that we all carry highly individual conceptual sets.
To borrow a line from a song, “I wanted to tell you that I love you, but the words got in the way.”
* Many animals (including insects) can both learn and communicate, but are not considered intelligent because they cannot apply the learning in novel ways to new situations.
** The Umwelt is a term coined by von Uexküll in the 1920s, meaning the unique sensory world of an organism — the stimuli to which an animal is responsive in a given motivational state; contrast to the Merkwelt, the set of all environmental factors that are important to the species, whether or not they can actually be perceived.

On Behavioural Observations and Assumptions

Traditional ways of understanding processes
Often science has taken the approach of understanding how things work by examining situations in which things don’t work, or in which they work differently, e.g. mutations in Drosophila flies or Arabidopsis plants, or disease processes. On one hand, these situations help reveal the mechanisms / processes by showing us where to look, and by giving us a comparison for what does or does not happen.
For example, when we have plants infested with insects, sometimes we see the insects (often we don’t see them because they hide on the undersides of the leaves; insects are not intelligent, but they aren’t stupid either), sometimes we see signs of the insects themselves (such as frass, a technical word for insect poop), and sometimes we observe or measure the symptoms caused by the insects’ feeding (such as red discoloration on sorghum from greenbug aphids).
When we have people infected with diseases, we can also see the outward signs or the symptoms reported by the patient, but we cannot see the disease itself. If the disease is caused by an organism, such as a bacterium, fungus, or virus, we can see the agent, but that is not the disease. The disease rather is the mal effect upon proper functioning caused by one organism upon another*. Diseases can also be autonomic, caused by something from within the organism itself; diseases in this sense are processes gone wrong.
Technically, something is a disease if it has a predictable set of symptoms, with some sense of the cause of those symptoms, and the physiology of how they are expressed. If the cause or the physiological dysfunction is unknown, it is not a disease, but a disorder. When repeated sets of symptoms are observed, they are referred to as a disorder. Although some disorders may be treated pharmaceutically, they are not diseases.
We cannot see the disease itself, rather, the disease is something inferred by the observations and dialogue between the people with and people without the disease. In contrast, a disorder is often only discerned by the people without such, because it is defined by comparison; order is defined by like, and disorder is defined by not-like. Diagnoses are defined by relationships and perception as much as, or even more so, the physical states.

Limitations of inference

When we have people who are autistic (et cetera), we diagnose it likewise by the “signs and symptoms” or the observable data of the behaviors. What we cannot necessarily determine are the causes of those behaviors. It is an accepted fact in some disciplines of science (such as ecology) that the specific process cannot necessarily be determined by the end results! We can hypothesize several likely causes, or series of causes that would produce the current situation, and we can do experiments to test if we get similar results, but those experiments do not guarantee that the specific causes and processes are what caused the current situation.
Quite frankly, our ability to understand what is going on is limited by both our ways of thinking, and by our abilities of perceiving the world. Ethologists who study animals are more often aware of their inabilities to share the same perceptions as their subjects than are behaviorists, because it is more obvious that the Umwelt (perceptual world) of a honeybee is different than that of a human being.
What we can discover is determined by how we approach the problem conceptually as much as by the methods we use, or by the data we gather (i.e., “If the only tool you have is a hammer, all of your problems look like nails.”)
A person who assumes that the behavior exhibited by another person results from a particular set of sensory inputs and mental processing, is therefore going to be limited in, and also sometimes erroneous in their understanding of that behavior. Five different people can do the same thing for five entirely different reasons. For one of them to assume that the others do the same thing for the same reason they do is a kind of egocentrism. In this way, the much-vaunted neurotypical “theory of mind” that allows people to guess others’ motivations by implicit information can actually lead them astray, because they assume that others do things for the same reasons they do.
Conversely, when people do not see the expected behavioral results from certain circumstances, they can sometimes misunderstand what is going on and why. If several people laugh at a television show and I do not, they may assume that I do not have a sense of humor. In truth, I have a well-developed sense of humor, and will spontaneously giggle at things I remember, or jokes I remember and re-tell to myself, or laugh from other television shows, but I do not always find the same things funny that others do. In this case, their conceptual limitations prevent them from understanding alternative causes.
Even if all the information is present to be observed, and even gets recorded through some miraculous accident of experimental design, the underlying causes and effects may still be hidden because the observer has neither the intent nor the capacity to notice and understand it. We can only answer the questions we ask, even if additional answers are there in front of us. Likewise, if we ask questions the wrong way, we will not be able to learn the right kind of information.
The current mode of research has derived from the pathology model, where we try to figure out what goes wrong. This is not bad. This is a necessary approach, in many ways. But it should not be the only approach. One of the best ways to figure out what we should do, and what does work, is to examine the successes!
Problem 1: warped perspective
It is because of the historical origin of psychology, (it stems from studies of mental problems) that the dominant paradigm is “average = normal”. Much of the diagnostic phrasing is focused on disorders, and it tends to pathologize what is different from the norm. If you don’t fit within the boundaries, then something is wrong with you, not that the situation doesn’t fit you.
On the other hand, these situations also tend to give us a warped perspective. The warping stems from the fact that identifying processes by “broken-ness” gives one a “Dysfunction” – and dysfunctional – view of the universe. Things working = function = normal. Things working otherwise = not working = dysfunctional = abnormal.
To follow the disease model is not correct because average is presumed to be equivalent to normal. Actually, “normal” is a value-laden word, because “normal” means both “average” and it means “okay”. Abnormal means not-average and not-okay. It is a false dichotomy to assume that not-average means abnormal!
There are those who deny the appropriateness of difference; one must do their best to fit it and not be different to be okay and accepted. I am different in many ways, many not visible. One difference is visible: I have fair skin and rather than tanning, will freckle and easily sunburn. This is genetic. Because of this genetic difference, I exhibit different behaviors than do most of my peers. For example, I do not use tanning beds or lay out on beach towels to sunbathe, and will do my field work clad in a brimmed hat, sunglasses, bandanna, long-sleeve shirt, cotton gloves with the fingertips trimmed off, long pants, and socks. The average person does not wear this much clothing when outdoors on a 104° F/40°C day; however, no one would say that I am “abnormal” for exhibiting these behaviors. These behaviors are appropriate and healthy for someone of my genetic makeup; they prevent me from stressing and harming myself. These behaviors do not create problems for others, and only create social disturbance because they are uncommon in some social realms. There are no, nor should there be, any negative value judgments attached to behaving differently than my peers because of this genetic difference.
I am also sensitive to noise, especially chaotic or high-frequency noises, and will in some situations wear ear-plugs, withdraw to a corner, or limit the frequency or duration of my visits to certain places. These behaviors are appropriate and healthy for me; they prevent me from stressing and getting severe headaches. In contrast, these behaviors are considered odd or unacceptable, but without them I can end up twitching, grimacing or swaying from the noise stress, and these reactions are considered even more unacceptable!
Then there are those who deny differences exist as real differences, and that if one cannot achieve things in the same way or at the same rate as “everyone else”, then they just are not trying hard enough or are stupid. People with AD/HD (et cetera) are simply “making excuses”.
“Everyone else” is an interesting myth of self-contradiction; it assumes that everyone is the same, while at the same time acknowledges the fact that one is not the same. The myth of “everyone else” makes the different person responsible for the having and resolving the problem that others create. The meta-issue here is that the person’s difference is not the problem – the others’ lack of acceptance is the problem! I do not “suffer” from any number of differences I have, I suffer from the lack of acceptance and understanding of those differences and how I can best function.
The unsavory alternative to people rejecting differences can be their amazement that people can accomplish things “despite” disabilities. Imagine during World War II, when in the US women went to work in factories. That women had competently done hard manual labor in factories in previous decades was often forgotten (the working poor or various ethnic groups didn’t count of course); instead there was amazement and collective self-applause because my goodness, women not only wanted to do factory work (how noble! how patriotic!), but could even do the factory work and do it well (how extraordinary). Those women workers who could perform well were an inspiration, they could overcome their lack of mechanical expertise, or inherent female weakness or even the fact that they suffered from monthly hysteria. Of course, after the war was over, the women were to cheerfully return to their kitchens and let men do the “real” work; factories wanted their normal, able workers. Of course, such attitudes seem dated and silly now; there is nothing amazing about women working, just people with “disabilities” getting college degrees or married or having families or working or …
Problem 2: assigned motivations
Another problem with the current model is that it tends to assign motivations that do not necessarily exist. For example, someone offers to share with me a slice of his or her home-baked, fragrant, pecan pie. If I smell the pie and love to eat pecan pie, I should [want to] eat the pie, shouldn’t I? But behavior is not merely stimulus-response; there is also the previous history of the organism, the perceptual realm, the mental processing, and the current state of the organism. For example, previous experience may lead me to drool when I smell pecan pie, but if I am not hungry then I will not have this reaction. If my nose is stuffy from a head cold and I can neither smell nor taste much, then I won’t have this reaction. If the offer of pecan pie comes with the additional requirement of staying and eating it at an intolerably noisy-busy lunchroom then I may also decline to choose to eat the pie. The person offering the pie may imagine a whole variety of motivations for my refusal of the pie, including suppositions about my judgment of their ability to cook good pies, or my desire to socialize with them. These motivations are imagined, and do not necessarily exist!
Problem 3: disemphasis
Although my differences affect what I do and how I do things, they do not exist separately from me, nor they responsible things, e.g., my ADHD is not “being bad today”. I may be judged “unsocial” when rather I am adverse to be in crowded, noisy places. This actually transfers my real or perceived motivations from my thoughts and my actions, and assigns them to the “unsocial dysfunction”.
The problem with this is that it changes the emphasis of thought from who I am and what I need to “what my problem is” and “what treatment my disorder requires”. Just as hospital patients run the risk of not only acquiring not only nosocomial infections, they also run the risk of being identified by or replaced by and treated as their maladies, e.g. “the COPD in room 243”.
Lacking diagnoses (and attendant “treatments”) for many years, I cannot say what my life would have been like had I been considered to be a child student with disabilities. I can say that missed diagnoses are just as bad as mis-diagnoses. I can also say that as an adult, the time I must spend getting diagnoses done, paperwork filed to “prove” such (it’s not real unless someone else says so on paper), making arrangements for “accommodations” (one must be very “special” to have enough time to finish a test, and to take it without a lot of distractions), having to go through the schedule re-arrangements required for such, and all the other stuff rather detracts from other things I could be doing, like studying or lab work. This really improves my ability to be a good student, right?
* If disease rather is the mal effect upon proper functioning caused by one organism upon another, could we then assert that some teachers/ clinicians/ social workers cause disease in autistics by interfering with their normal functioning?