Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Learning to Act Human

In my research into my son's autism, I have recently come to realize a great many things about myself. If autism requires one to have (or have had) a speech delay, then I'm not autistic; if language precociousness is allowed, then perhaps I am.

In any case, the thing I have come to realize about myself is that I have in many ways spent a great deal of my time "learning to become human" -- or learning to "fit in" with normal human beings.

Most of the time, when I talk to a person, I am either looking all over the place or looking at the person's mouth. I have had enough people complain about these things that I have trained myself to look at a person in the eye. However, to do so takes quite a bit of concentration to maintain. If I think it is important to keep eye contact with you, I can, but it requires mental work to do so. Maintaining eye contact is, of course, natural for most people.

In one of his stand-up routines, Chris Rock observes that when you first start dating someone, you are not actually dating that person, you are dating their representative. This is not true of just dating, but of any initial social interactions. Again, this comes natural to people. Everyone understands you are supposed to present an edited version of yourself to others. This is innate. But not for me. I literally had to read somewhere that you should not put forward all aspects of who you are when you first meet someone, because it's off-putting. This was something that was seriously news to me. I saw the validity of what the person was saying, and put it into practice. My dating life improved considerably -- as evidenced by the fact I am married. That this took a while is evidenced by the fact that I am 42 and I only got married less than 8 years ago. My first actual girlfriend? When I was 26. Who knew that you shouldn't present yourself exactly as you are when you first meet someone? Well, most people, apparently.

I am sure there are many more, but these are the ones that stand out to me. I still haven't figured out how to engage in small talk, though economist Peter Boetkke's observation that in order to get tenure you have to subtract what he calls the "lunch tax" -- which is any off-putting (typically, political) discussion -- has benefited me greatly of late (keep all political views on the down-low, at least until you feel out the person to whom you are talking; keep any controversial beliefs to oneself; etc.). This is really a variation of the previous observation, just applied to work. But, again, I had to have it explicitly pointed out to me.

What this suggests to me is that there are a set of behaviors that are more natural for others that simply have to be learned by me (and, I would guess, others like me). I have often not even realized there is something atypical in my behaviors until they are pointed out to me -- either directly, by friends (or people who don't like me), or indirectly, by reading. Or perhaps, these behaviors are all learned by others, only my tendency to separate myself from other people resulted in my missing those lessons from life. This would be consistent with the intense world theory of autism.

Indeed, one of the reasons I separate myself from others is precisely because I feel them so intensely. Imagine having extremely strong feelings of empathy for others, then going to a party full of people. Worse, you cannot focus it on one or two people immediately in front of you, but feel it for everyone there equally. If you shut down socially, that intense feeling subsides. Imagine that every sad story makes you want to cry, that even slightly sad commercials or songs make you cry -- if you let down your guard. So you don't let down your guard so you don't spend the whole day weeping. Imagine that you had these feelings of empathy for every emotion. Wouldn't you want to avoid such situations? Or hope you had a mechanism to generally shut it all out? As a result, you are either on or off most of the time. Mostly off, so you can get through your day.

Given such sensitive empathy, one can perhaps understand my political views. They are a consequence of my great empathy for the poor such that I am motivated to learn what will in fact help them rather than just settle for feel-good proposals that end up harming the poor instead. Thus my support for free markets, as my research demonstrates free markets to be maximally beneficial to the poor compared to every other system.
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