This month Lydia Wayman, Autistic Speaks, writes about her extreme autistic detail and how facts, for her, are easy, comfortable and exciting.
“You’re thinking way too hard about this!”
“Oh my goodness, it really isn’t that big of a deal.”
“Come on, close enough is good enough.”
I think what people fail to realize is that, for me, extreme detail, precision, and in-depth analysis is interesting and even exciting. My favorite artsy endeavors involve hundreds of colors of embroidery thread, the tiniest weave of needlepoint fabric, and a lack of any pattern to follow. I just start, until I decide I’m done, usually a good six months later. Lately, I’ve taken to decorating little wooden trucks for some little boys I know. I use the finest point markers I can find, and when they’re too thick, I use pen to make sure the edges are good and crisp.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, as I’ve always had a tendency to focus on details. Some say I’m stuck. Well, maybe… there is an aspect of being unable to remove myself until my sense of precision is satisfied… but I’m also not unhappy to be there (unless someone else is trying to forcibly make me move on… scowl). This is where total stereotype gives way to seeming contradiction: autistic people are known for precision, but its close cousins, nuance and subtly, are not supposed to be a forte of brains like mine. We are known for seeing every single tree in great detail but never the forest; that is precision. But nuance relies on relationship, difference, at least two things. That’s the nuance of nuance (and why it’s not precision)–we may not see the forest, but show us two trees, and even if they’re nearly identical, we will tell you which is which and why.
When I can’t sleep at night, I let myself wonder as long as I please. Starting easy, I think about the subtle, nuanced differences between two words, like how native speakers know the right one for a sentence but, if asked to explain, likely won’t be able to do it. Take “ground” and “floor,” for instance. The ground is outside. The floor is inside. The ground floor is the indoor floor that is in contact with the outdoor ground. In terms of pronunciation, say these three words: Onion. Orion. Anion. They’re very similar in terms of syllables and spelling, but the emphasis is different in each. Why? I’m sure it has to do with the etymology, but I generally don’t allow myself to Google anything (oh, the torture!) when I’m trying to sleep, so I have yet to make it that far. I’ve spent ages thinking over the root gen– and the relationship between the many words in which it hides: genuine, genius, ingenuity, and how I would much prefer “ingenuine” to “genuineness” but darn that ingenuity for being so similar. Why?
When I’m not working or consulting or writing, and often when I am or more accurately, should be, I like to lose myself in reading. I’m all about nonfiction and even studies. I have my favorite subjects, but if it’s something I don’t know, then I have reason enough right there to find out and lose the next few hours of my life down the rabbit hole. More and more, I’m finding errors in articles in almost every level and type of publication. Last night, I caught two errors, likely typos, in an article on the national NBC page. Some smaller papers have articles that rack up a dozen errors–not typos, but blatant grammar errors. In my Master’s program (English and nonfiction writing, of course), one discussion focused on the fact that many journalists are expected to do their own editing as a means of avoiding the cost of a separate editor. I’m an eagle eye when it comes to grammar, but I’d be surprised to find a piece of my own writing in which I caught every mistake. I am a great one for replacing one word with another, i.e., Monday for money, propriate (not really a word, but a part of one) for prorate. I get it. I do it! But I can hardly contain myself when I see errors in nearly every single article I read.
Other than the time I read an article in the Miami Herald in which an author, unfamiliar with autism, referred to it as a disease in an attempt to avoid repetition, I don’t say anything, but I do get frustrated to the point I have to walk away. I don’t get upset when friends and family play fast and loose in informal writing; I have a hard time with accurate typing when I’m hurrying, and in casual interactions, I don’t mind anyone’s mistakes. But in the most formal and public of outlets, there is a way, and when it’s not that way, hell hath no fury like a language-loving autistic. The thing I do get all haughty about in any circumstance is the gross misquoting of facts. On a friend’s thread about the nutrition profile of her lunch, one pal of hers said that the cheese contained a lot of carbs. More often, someone will argue that his child’s autism cannot be genetic because there is no autism in his whole extended family, or that a child who isn’t “born with autism” cannot develop it due to genetics alone. In these situations, few people take well to the person who jumps in with anything starting with the word “actually…” That’s my favorite word, and that person is me.
I don’t think people stop to consider the many ways in which we process information, and how different statements might require very different approaches. As a nerdy thought exercise, I thought I’d give examples of the many ways we can approach information on this very simple basis: My dad turned 64 last week.
- You can believe that my dad is blessed to have reached 64 in almost perfect health (and someone else can believe otherwise).
- You can suggest that he really ought to get to the doctor for a good check-up (and he might say thanks, but no thanks, as he is not bound by your suggestion).
- You can try to prove that, on average, men are healthier at 64 than women (and you might be right, or you might be wrong, or your study might be flawed in some way).
- You can argue that 64 is the final year before truly hitting old age (and if you have enough good reasons, someone might agree with you, or they might not, but that’s up to them).
- You can provide an anecdote of a nutritional supplement that made you feel much better when you got into your mid-sixties (and you might be the only person in the whole world for whom that claim is true).
- You can analyze my dad’s health practices (and the data you gather and then how you manipulate it may reflect reality, or it may not).
- You can predict that my dad will live to be a hundred (and you could be right, or wrong, as he could live even longer or not as long as you thought).
- You can feel your own fear of turning 64 (but you can’t “feel” that my dad should really do xyz… you feel feelings, not facts).
- You can have the opinion that 64 is way too old to be any fun (and my dad can stick his tongue out at you and head out to his band’s latest gig).
You can contradict, persuade, attack, and do any number of other things. But what you can’t do is deny the very provable fact that my dad is 64. But no amount of feeling or believing, suggesting otherwise or attempting to prove something different, sharing anecdotes about your own 64th birthday, or fearing that my dad might not be 64 will change the fact that… he is.
Arguments, theories, and beliefs can only exist where there is uncertainty about a bit of info, or where someone seeks to extrapolate based on a collection of multiple bits. But if those ideas have any hope of being accurate, then the facts we use to weave and mold and put forth the ideas have to be based on basic building blocks of undeniably truth.
Cheese does not have substantial carbohydrate content. Two grams per ounce is not substantial in any diet save specific medical ones or the most extreme fads.
And autism can indeed be genetic but not hereditary, and many confuse the two terms. Genetics refers to the coding of your DNA, and every one of us has blips in that coding that did not come from either parent but are new in us. They’re called de novo mutations and are thought to be responsible for many instances of autism. And, hey, that’s a working hypothesis and may be dead wrong, but arguing that genetic conditions have to come from parents is not the way to prove that, because it isn’t even true.
And for the third point, genetics can impact a person throughout his or her life. Though I had some health issues as a child, no one would have ever imagined the extent to which I have them now. My health began to crash in early 2012 and has not stopped. My condition is genetic. Genes can also cause a person to develop breast cancer or Alzheimer’s, and those things are not evident at birth.
There is so much we don’t know, so much room to keep learning new things all the time. The facts surrounding controversial issues can be decoded in very different ways. Have opinions! Argue theories! Believe something totally different than I do! But please… note the difference between all the other verbs here and very basic facts. When information becomes available that appears to discredit your idea, be willing to adjust. Holding a position so firmly that you will continue to hold it no matter how much proof there is against it is not of any benefit to anyone. Seek truth above being right. I cannot understand why that statement even has to be made, but rarely do I ever see someone who can stop and say, oh, wow, I had better rethink that.
And if nothing else, dear goodness, have someone reread your formal writing before it gets put on NBC!
I waffle many times a day between a deep frustration with our society’s ability to think with nuance, to approach argument for truth’s sake and not the chance to spout four-letter words, and, honestly, to treat one another with respect. If I’m honest, I spend equally as much time sitting on my hands or biting my tongue, not out of any incredible love for deep truth but out of the autistic nature to want things to be right, because right is right, and that thing there, it isn’t right. I try to see the person, the need, the hurt or joy or desire to serve. When someone at work puts up a flyer with a misspelled word, when a parent tells me her autistic son’s story and how it was the “echinacea” that finally led to a diagnosis, when I hear about someone whose child was diagnosed with “PPD-NOS” after thirty years of uncertainty… what really matters, here, in this moment?
Facts are easy, comfortable, exciting. Even though I may not appear to be all that drawn to people, it’s not a dislike so much as an overwhelming flood… people are complex, out of my comfort zone, and entirely uncertain. I stick to the facts when the people are too much, when I don’t know how to reassure or comfort them. But it’s never, ever a matter of not caring… it’s a matter of caring so very much that I can only think in people-first ways for very brief periods. And then I retreat to my facts, my black and white, categorical, memory-friendly world. My brain is made to thrive in that place, just as others may truly thrive in working with people. There’s room enough for both of us, though, and I really think the world will be the best it can be when we recognize that all kinds of minds need to come together to make much-needed change. The beauty of humanity is in its vast differences, and my expression of it is no less valid.
So, let Bill Gates write code, and let Mother Theresa serve the poor, and let Anthony Bourdain run around the world eating nasty stuff. And let me be the Official Fact-Checker and Editor of the Internet… and pay me accordingly… and we’ll all be happy and purposeful, indeed.