Ponderings Autism

Definition of Autism – (psychiatry) an abnormal absorption with the self; marked by communication disorders and short attention span and inability to treat others as people.

I suspect the sentiments expressed below are echoed by many. Thanks to Jade for sharing her thoughts. Much appreciated.

Monday 30 March 2009

Dear Rev. Master Mugo,

Am sending this to your personal email address rather than posting it as a comment on your blog because blog comments ought to be brief, and I sometimes tend to ramble a bit. Of course if any of this you think might be of interest to other readers of your blog, and you want to use it there, please feel free.

Thank you for your blog entry about Amanda Baggs. I was especially taken with her saying that her (perhaps to others) puzzling behavior is her way of interacting with her world, and that it is just as valid a language, a means of communication, as is our way of speaking and interacting. The thought occurred to me that each and every one of us has our own unique way of perceiving and interacting with our world. The differences between our perceptions and natural interactions and those of our peers may be infinitesimal, but they are there. From birth on, we are taught, trained, forced, (the word “herded” comes to mind) to see the “real world,” and interact with it, in the same way as other members of our group. And, indeed, we strive to comply, and usually attain in our striving. But I wonder. Unquestionably, we benefit from learning to function productively and acceptably within our group, but for every benefit there is a cost. As we grow up and learn to perceive, behave, and communicate in the ways prescribed for us, does our ability to perceive and respond to true reality wither in inverse ratio? I think it does. I guess that’s why training on the Buddha’s Way is so hard sometimes. The autistic person unquestionably deserves our compassion, patience, and help, but also I think they have invaluable lessons to teach us if we will only be open enough to learn.

Rev. Master Mugo, are you familiar with Temple Grandin and her work? Dr. Grandin is a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, an author, and lecturer. She is also, and has been all her life, an autistic. Granted she is what is referred to as a high-functioning autistic, but an autistic all the same. In addition to her work in her professional field of Animal Science, she also writes and lectures about autism, and has even invented a device to help autistic children find a place of calm in the conflict between their strong desire for, and overwhelming fear of, physical contact. Her being able to work and contribute to society isn’t unique. Many high-functioning autistics have successful careers, usually in mathematics or computer science or some field that requires minimal human interaction. What is unique about her is that she was the first autistic person who found a way to explain to the rest of us what autism is like from the inside. Her first book, “THINKING IN PICTURES,” is a frank and thorough account of what it was like growing up as an autistic person and coming to terms with her autism and building a useful and satisfying life for herself as a respected professional person in society. If anyone wants to begin to understand autism, this book is a good place to start.

Thanks to computers and patient, devoted caregivers who are willing and able to act as the interface between the autistic and the keyboard, more autistic persons are finding a way to reach across the communication divide and share their world with us. Several months ago, there was a documentary on TV about a young autistic woman, unable to speak, unable to sit completely still, insists on always having two plastic spoons to hold onto, etc. One of her caregivers found a way to understand which key on a keyboard, the young woman wanted pressed, and discovered that inside this “severely disabled” individual is a very intelligent and thoughtful person. With helpful caregiver and keyboard in tow, the young woman is attending regular classes and preparing to graduate from college. And yes, she still insists on holding her two spoons.

I wonder. Between those we impatiently designate as “disabled,” and we who arrogantly believe that we are competent to judge, which of us is really handicapped?

Rev. Master Mugo, thanks for letting me ramble. I hope this finds you in good health and enjoying life. When are you coming back to visit us again?

Take care.
In gassho,

For your interest – Chapter 1: Autism and Visual Thought, Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin.

In Her Own Language

I thought this story and video would be enlightening for those who have an interest in how we, and others, respond to/communicate with existence.

The video opens with a woman facing away from the camera, rocking back and forth, flapping her hands awkwardly, and emitting an eerie hum. She then performs strange repetitive behaviours: slapping a piece of paper against a window, running a hand lengthwise over a computer keyboard, twisting the knob of a drawer. She bats a necklace with her hand and nuzzles her face against the pages of a book.

Then “A Translation” appear on a black screen, and for the next five minutes, 27-year-old Amanda Baggs — who is autistic and doesn’t speak — describes in vivid and articulate terms what’s going on inside her head as she carries out these seemingly bizarre actions. In a synthesized voice generated by a software application, she explains that touching, tasting, and smelling allow her to have a “constant conversation” with her surroundings. These forms of non-verbal stimuli constitute her “native language,” Baggs explains, and are no better or worse than spoken language. Yet her failure to speak is seen as a deficit, she says, while other people’s failure to learn her language is seen as natural and acceptable.

Thanks to Wired for the article, and to the kind chap who passed on the link.

Doing The Best One Knows

This morning I finally got around to listening to a recording of a Radio 4 program about Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. The Heinz dilemma is a frequently used example in many ethics and morality classes. One well-known version of the dilemma, used in Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, is stated as follows:

A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.
Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

There is much I might say however the hour is late and perhaps it’s best to just sit with the above. In fact that’s just what we do with moral dilemmas isn’t it? And then there is responding…best one knows how.

Hat-tip to my fellow monastic for the recording and to his late mother, who spent time studying with Lawrence Kohlberg.

Daughters Of Emptiness

What a wonderful surprise today! A package in the mail containing a book titled Daughters of Emptiness, Poems of Chinese Buddhist Nuns. Touching and tender verse. Thank you dear friend. Yes it was about a year ago we met. In London. Briefly. Dharma connections are a living treasure.

The following poem, copied from the Wisdom Publications website, is in the book.

The sequence of seasons naturally pushes forward,
Suddenly I am startled by the ending of the year.
Lifting my eyes I catch sight of the winter crows,
Calling mournfully as if wanting to complain.
The sunlight is cold rather than gentle,
Spreading over the four corners like a cloud.
A cold wind blows fitfully in from the north,
Its sad whistling filling courtyards and houses.
Head raised, I gaze in the direction of Spring,
But Spring pays no attention to me at all.
Time a galloping colt glimpsed through a crack,
The tap [of Death] at the door has its predestined time.
How should I not know, one who has left the world,
And for whom floating clouds are already familiar?
In the garden there grows a rosary-plum tree:
Whose sworn friendship makes it possible to endure.
Chan Master Jingnuo

Comments Galore!

Lovely crop of new comments. Wonderful! I guess everybody knows that recent comment can be views near the end of the side bar.