I’m about to become ratherrrrr unpopular. Maybe. But I can’t keep my feelings inside anymore guys! (Can you tell I’m still channeling songs from Frozen?) Here goes!
The “Intense World” theory of autism drives me up the wall. It annoys me. I consider it a pile of well-intentioned hooey.
I will clarify. I don’t have any issue with the whole “Hey, when you’re autistic, sometimes you experience things too intensely for you to process right then” deal. Like, yeah. That’s true. But “sometimes” is the operative term there, and that statement doesn’t even come close to explaining autistic experience. In this post, I’m going to talk about why I find the theory annoying conceptually/personally. And then Part Two will include my scientific critique of the theory, so that those of you who don’t want to wade through research jargon don’t have to.
I have two big issues with the theory that are related to each other. One has to do with the way in which it explains autistic experience relative to non-autistic experience. The other has to do with the way it completely ignores and erases not just the diversity of experiences autistic people have, but also the diversity of biological and social forces that can shape what I refer to as a given person’s “flavor” of autism.
Autistic experience is not normal people’s experience on steroids. It is not just like normal people’s experience, just more intense. Our world is not just the louder version of yours. I also have trouble understanding why it makes sense to characterize non-autistic people’s worlds as somehow less intense than autistic people’s.
The whole “Intense World” theory relies, quite subtly, on a false distinction between “sensory” or “concrete” experiences and “social/intellectual” or “abstract” experiences. It presumes that autistic people have perceptually intense experiences at the expense of socially and intellectually intense experiences, and presumes that the opposite is true for non-autistic people. This kind of theory also ties in a lot to theories that assume normal people could access savant skills if certain parts of their executive/frontal cortices were inactivated. I consider these theories beyond insulting, because they treat autistic people (and all savants, really) like unchangeable fossils, incapable of growth or change, whose abilities and passions are the automatic product of biological flaws, rather than the result of years of practice, engagement and learning.
I challenge anyone to claim that loving another person isn’t simultaneously sensory and intellectual. And I’ll challenge anyone to claim that the same isn’t true of calculus—numbers and graphs are made of shapes and lines, after all. We all build our worlds out of sensory information—we filter, we focus, we string things together, we create patterns, we build giant structures in our heads, like giant Pacific-Rim-esque robot bodies of experience that we use to process the world as we move through it. Just because my Jaeger has more odd-things and screws and irrelevant moving parts than yours does, does not mean that my Jaeger is a bad one, but it also doesn’t mean that it’s just the “more intense” version of your Jaeger. I built my Jaeger, and you built yours. We build different things, and we build them different ways. The end.
Autism is not a monolith. It is not one thing. There is no such thing as one literal “autistic neurology” in real life—“autistic” is a term that we use to identify people whose experiences, behaviors and difficulties seem to fall within a common, potentially useful diagnostic category. And I don’t just mean this in the “some people are more or less severe” way, or even the “some people have more social trouble and less academic trouble” way. I mean that there is no single cause for autism, or a single kind of “family history” that causes autism, or a single type of brain characteristic/difference that causes autism.
One of the reasons that autism is such a heterogeneous and broad diagnostic category is because the “impairments in social interaction” and “restrictive and repetitive behaviors” are two nearly universal signs of human neurological and emotional stress. Social interaction is absurdly complicated, and considered somehow “impaired” in almost every single DSM diagnosis, if in different ways. And being restrictive and repeating habits is how a large number of humans limit their exposure to stressful things. While I both love, and believe in, the term “autistic” as a label around which community can form, I’m never going to be okay with suggestions that there is a singular biological signature for “autism” as such. To talk about “autistic neurology” as a unitary, shared biological reality (I don’t think all people who use this phrase mean it in this way, but I think many scientists do) is to buy into the idea that autistic people can be understood as a consistent, measurable biological deviation from the “norm.”
Autistic people are united because our society has chosen to devalue, oppress and erase people who are the kind of people we are. Societal prejudices lump all autistic people into a single subcategory under the heading of “Wrong/Broken Humans.” Don’t buy into the idea that our subcategory necessarily corresponds to a single, shared “genetic” or “neurological” reality. Autism is caused by autistic people being born and the label “autistic” being applied to them (either by doctors/family or by themselves, or both). You can’t understand a non-autistic person by staring at their brain; the same thing applies to any autistic person.
For my issues with the research behind the Intense World Theory, the science nerds can proceed to Part Two!