Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Big Bang's Sheldon

I imagine anyone who is reading my blog has heard of Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.  And anyone who knows a bit about Asperger's can tell Sheldon's character fits the mold.  The show has enough popular following now that my wife affectionately says of me to her friends, "He's my Sheldon."

"Big Bang" co-creator, Bill Prady, who based Sheldon on computer programmers he used to work with, has said they were afraid that if they labeled Sheldon an Aspie, they would have too much responsibility to depict the condition accurately within a sitcom.

I understand the dilemma, and wouldn't have been offended if the show labeled Sheldon an Aspie.  If people thought Aspies are all like Sheldon it would get them a lot closer to the truth than what most know now.  I wouldn't want Sheldon labeled with the DSM 5 Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnostic since it is too broad.  Aspies like precision, and saying you're an Aspie is more precise than saying you have ASD. I'm fine with the medical establishment using the ASD definition, however I still tell people I have Asperger's.

I'm a bit surprised how the show appeals so much to NTs, but it's easy to see the appeal for Aspies (and aspie-like geeks/nerds).  Besides identifying with Sheldon (and even Leonard's social discomfort), the show takes away some of the stigma of being a nerd.  To take a line from Huey Lewis, maybe it's even hip to be square.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Systemizing and irritability

Aspies (and people on the spectrum in general) are known for having low frustration tolerance.  An explanation for that can be found in the way Aspies think.  Asperger's expert Simon Baron-Cohen explains that Aspies are more systemizing and less empathizing than NTs.  Wired has an online version of Dr. Cohen's Autism-Spectrum Quotient quiz you can take - I score in the 30's.

So what does systemizing have to do with irritability?  I think the answer can be found in Dr. Daniel Kahneman's work.  I have often been asked, "Do you ever stop thinking?"  When we systemize, we work in the part of our brain Dr. Kahneman calls system 2.  How do you tell if you're in system 2 versus system 1? Kahneman posited an "effort diagnostic." You're definitely in system 2 if interruption by a concurrent activity — say someone practicing trumpet while you're trying to read the paper — proves irritating.  Unlike NTs, who basically run on system 1, Aspies are usually running on system 2.  As such, the chance of an interruption irritating an Aspie is much higher than NTs.

Although I can't change the way I think (and wouldn't want to if I could), I can reduce the chance of being interrupted.  When I'm at home I tend to wait until nobody is around to do work that requires the most focus.  Interruptions still can't be completely avoided, so I've trained myself to react with less anger when I get interrupted.  My reaction used to be, "Argh! You've made me loose my train of thought!"  Now I'll mostly ignore the interruption while holding up a finger to let the person know I'll get to them in a minute.  When I complete my thought I'll stop to respond.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Other Minds Problem

In my first post, I referred to a Psychology Today blog article about Theory-of-MindOne of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote about the concept in "What the Dog Saw".  He referred to it as the "other minds" problem.

He writes, “one-year-olds think that if they like Goldfish Crackers, then Mommy and Daddy must like Goldfish Crackers, too.” He goes on to explain that infants can’t work out that what is inside their head is different from what is inside everyone else’s head.  “What is the first thing we want to know when we meet a doctor at a social occasion?  We know, sort of what a doctor does. Instead, we want to know what it means to be with sick people all day long. We want to know what it feels like to be a doctor, because we’re quite sure that it doesn’t feel at all like sitting on a computer all day long, or teach school, or sell cars.”  He says that is because, "Curiosity about the interior life of other people's day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses."

When I read that I remember feeling surprised and confused.  Do most people really want to know what it feels like to be someone else?  That might explain why my mother keeps boring me with the details of the lives of people I've never met and have no interest in knowing.   I have a great curiosity about the world, and my curiosity about people arises from people being a part of the world around me.  An interest in things is often listed as an autistic characteristic, while I guess an interest in people and their feelings would be a neuro-typical trait.

When you meet a doctor, are you like me and want to know what she does, what kind of equipment she uses, and what field she specializes in?  Or are you more interested in knowing what it feels like to be a doctor?  Leave a comment.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Social Instincts

Aspies are often described as lacking "common sense".  A more technical definition of common sense is social instinct.  Social instincts are inherited knowlege; things that you "know" without having learned them.

A simple example of a social instinct is flirting.  While a neurotypical person will get a feeling when someone is flirting with them, an Aspie will have a hard time telling if someone is interested unless they are directly told.  Aspies also have difficulty communicating non-verbally, so even when they can tell someone is interested in them, they can't respond in the subtle indirect ways that is socially expected.  That means the Aspie either doesn't communicate their lack of interest (what might be misinterpreted as leading the other person on), or they respond directly, "I'm not attracted to you."  Unfortunately, direct communication is sometimes misinterpreted as rude or hurtful.

Another example of a social instinct is deference to authority; the feeling people get that motivates them to obey an authority, even if it is not logical or beneficial to obey.  This instinct is why most people would obey a police officer who orders them to step aside when walking down the street, but they are not likely to obey a panhandler that does the same thing.  As an Aspie it makes no difference; I'm not going to obey either.  From reading Malcolm Gladwell (my favorite author), I learned how obedience to authority can be bad.  I feel fortunate that I'm not influenced by the irrational instincts of a neurotypical person.  I think the late Pierre Trudeau realized the burden emotional instincts can be in his famous quote, "reason over passion".

Social instinct is the knowledge of previous generations being passed on genetically (most likely epigenetically).  So instead of using instinct, Aspies can learn some social behaviors.  For instance I have learned to flirt from reading The Game.  Now I can enjoy the innocent fun that can be had from flirting.  I've also realized that when I'm trying to cash a cheque outside my home branch a little flirting with the teller is much more productive than demanding compliance with the Bills of Exchange Act.  And for those who don't know me, yes, I've actually cited the Bills of Exchange Act  to bank tellers.  More than once.  As Homer Simpson would say, "Doh!"

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Prediction circuits and mindblindness

One core characteristic of Asperger's (though not specifically referred to in the DSM) is problems with theory of mind, or mindblindness.  I think there are multiple different brain mechanisms that can lead to mindblindness.  Problems with the brain's prediction circuits is one of them.

Prediction circuits in our brain are key to our ability to learn.  When what our brain senses is different from what is predicted, our brain learns based on the difference.  Neuroscience has shown that prediction circuits are involved in vision and in motor skills.  I believe they are also involved in social learning.  When we interact with other people, the brain predicts how people will react, and can learn when people react differently than we subconsciously expect.

In addition to impairments in social interaction, which is one of the DSM  diagnostic criteria for Asperger's, many Aspies have impairments in motor coordination.  If the brain's prediction circuits have problems, then it could explain the Aspies that are clumsy both socially and physically.  Impairments in motor coordination is not one of the DSM diagnostic criteria for Asperger's, and many Aspies (like me) have the social impairments without the motor impairments.  In such cases, we need to look more specifically at how socialization works in the brain.  That will be the topic of my next post.