Underdog, Outsider, Autist - The Speed of Dark
September 6, 2007

My mother used to tell me that I only rooted for the underdog. The first time I heard her say that, I thought she meant the cartoon ... and I did very much adore Underdog. It wasn't exactly true, what she said, but at five, six, even eight, I really didn't have the words to explain what the difference was.

It was true if I saw someone being picked on, I would go try to help that person. Go tell a teacher, intervene myself if I thought I could make a difference, go to the person in pain afterward and try to lend a hand, or an ear, or a shoulder.

I had occasion yesterday to really examine how I think, what processes my brain goes through to arrive at the conclusions it does. Part of this is because I was re-reading The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. It's a book about Lou Arrendale, a man in the near-future who happens to have what we would call high-functioning autism, maybe even Aspberger's.

It was partially due to re-reading this book that I remembered Mom's comment, complaint, really, that I always cheered for the underdog. Her fear at the time was that I would get hurt doing that one day. In Texas, in the 70s during the time of busing, she may very well have been right. I probably would have.

But it wasn't so much that I was rooting for the underdog as it was how strongly I identified with the outsider. These are not necessarily the same group. My favourite books all underscored this:
The Outsiders ... S.E. Hinton (that's just a gimme)
the Bagthorpe Saga ... Helen Cresswell
Ender's Game ... Orson Scott Card
Chaim Potok's books, and here's where I really began to understand the depth to which I identified with the outsider. In The Chosen, the narrator is Reuven Malter. He is an outsider peering into a form of orthodox Judaism he has not seen before. But the true outsider of the story is Danny, the Hasidic rebbe's son who would prefer to study psychology and not become the next rebbe. And while I enjoyed the two books which dealt with Danny and Reuven, they always bothered me deeply as well. Because I wanted Danny to be the narrator. I wanted the true outsider to narrate the books. And I suppose that this is one reason I prefer My Name Is Asher Lev to most of Potok's other books.

And then, of course, there's Moon's The Speed of Dark itself. Lou is an outsider to "normal" society, but Moon crafted the book so that we are also an outsider to Lou's society ... and yet inside it all at the same time. It's an incredible crafting of a world for any author to be able to do that to the extent that Moon does.

What is particularly fascinating to me about this book is it lays bare the way we categorize people without thinking of the complexities and truth of those categorizations. I don't mean categorizing as "normal" or "autistic" but something even more detailed such as: austists do not recognize social cues. Autists recognize patterns.

And what all of this reminds me of is something I began saying in elementary school: we are all on a continuum, or, more accurately, a series of continuums. Our lives and beings seem like one huge mixer board of slides and the position of each slide on its little scale is what makes one person different from another.

Perhaps my slider for patterns is high, but not so high as someone with certain levels of autism. My slider for certain types of social cues, like how to tell if someone is chatting and being nice, or is actually flirting, is very low.

Thinking about this, I wish that we could identify all the sliders available on the human mixer board rather than all the genes in the human genome. The problem with this, of course, is that the human mixer board is not something we can see so readily as the genome. And, perhaps, mapping the genome will help us define the mixer board. Theories of multiple intelligence fit right into this mixer board concept of humanity. As does the kinsey scale, and, I think the Meyers Briggs personality scales.

And what happens when some sliders are turned all the way up and others all the way down? Then you have severe disorders. I think that's where you see severe autism or people like Mother Teresa or sociopaths. The bulk of us live in variations along the mid-range. The extraordinary people are "dialed up."

The next set of questions, at least for me, is what causes the sliders to move? I'm sure some of it is "preset" within a certain range at birth. I feel certain that experience can move the sliders, some sliders are probably more prone to movement than others. Accident, trauma, these can move the sliders in unpredictable ways and to extremes that they otherwise could not reach based on "normal" nature/nurture parameters.

I come to all of this because the more often I read about autism, the more I can see, not the differences that mark an autist, but the similarities.

Which all comes down to this: I wonder if any work has been done on the difference between birth-autism and trauma-autism. Because I see a LOT of similarities between people who have undergone certain kinds of extreme traumas, particularly as children, and people labeled autistic at birth. (Well, okay, so they're not often labeled autistic at birth, but I use that to say there are people who are apparently autistic from birth and some who seem to acquire some aspects of autism from trauma.) Please note that I am not saying parents or trauma causes autism. Autism is a disease or disorder. But I do wonder if there are people with certain slider settings who can undergo early traumas causing new slider settings which are similar to those people with autism.

For example, there are a few cases of children raised in total silence and not taught to speak. When discovered, they share a lot of characteristics with some "dialed up" autistics. The difference is that some of these children who were abused in this way can eventually change their slider settings into something closer to the mid-range that we call "normal." Because the autist has his or her parameters set more by nature than by any lack of nurture, there is only so much movement possible on the slider. (Without medical intervention, I mean.)

The question, then, for the trauma-austist is how to identify that some sliders are out of whack with the "norm" and then how to learn to move those sliders.

The question for the birth-autist is: can we learn anything from the trauma-autist that will apply to moving the birth-autist's sliders as well?

Posted by Red Monkey at September 6, 2007 11:41 AM | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


serenity said:

Very insightful and thoughtful post. I like the concept of a slider, a continuum, on which we as humans function...at some points in our lives the slider finding its way to the extremes, much like the swing of a pendulum on a clock. At some point we find ourselves more balanced in the center, more at peace, which seems to be something more achievable in our old age than in our youth. The other side of the story of course is that our society is set up to place us in boxes, boxes that force conformity and uniformity, having little tolerance for those whose sliders fall outside that which is deemed "normal". Perhaps it is not only those who live on the fringes who may wish to learn about adjusting their sliders, but our wider as world as well who could use a few lessons about the value that can be found in the extremes. Wouldn't it be nice to appreciate the talents and genius a bit sooner than a generation or two or more after the death of some of those who made contributions that we only came to appreciate long after they were gone, who lived lives often tortured not only from their own personal struggles and heartaches, but were tormented by the societies in which they lived. In this regard, it doesn't seem that modern society has come very far.

Thank you for a most thought provoking post.

p.s. I too loved Underdog....There's no need to fear, Underdog is here :)

September 6, 2007 1:18 PM
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