Autism and The Urban Hermit

Have you ever noticed how some people can just pick up new skills with amazing speed, while others have to work really hard to even come close to being good at the same things? And, of course, there are those who will never get it no matter how hard they try. Regardless of the particular skill you’re talking about, every human will fall into one of these three groups when it comes to acquiring it.

Like most people, I fall into the middle group when it comes to most skills. Unlike most people, I have to admit to falling into the last group when it comes to what you’d call the “social” skills. In fact, I’ve been referred to as everything from “socially inept” to “socially retarded” depending on how nice those doing the name-calling wanted to be. But I have noticed a very real link between my acquisition of skills and my being socially inept, and that link is tightly bound to my having become what I call an “urban hermit” today.

That link lies in the fact that I require almost total social isolation, what I think of as “the head over heals” approach, in order to learn a new skill. This has been the case for as long as I can remember. I first noticed this about myself in grade school. Try as I might, I couldn’t really get a handle on my subject lessons until I spent time alone with the materials. And as time progressed and the subjects became more difficult, the more deeply isolated I had to be just to have a chance at grasping them.

Now I personally don’t think that there is anything wrong with the parts of my brain that are used for learning technical skills. But obviously, whatever part(s) helps to manage my handling of social situations has been at least a little bit defective for a very long time. And that is why I’ve decided to talk a little about my fascination with, and apparent connection to, some of the other “social retards” amongst us.

When I was a small child, there was a guy that lived in my neighborhood who was “mentally retarded” in almost every way but one: he could look at the side of a brick building for a second and then tell you exactly how many bricks were in that wall. Being the “unbeliever” that I am, I took the time to actually do a count, including adding up those half-bricks you see on the ends, just to satisfy myself that he was right. Noting my fascination, others who had obviously done the same got a good laugh at the look of awe on my face when he turned out to be right.

Those other people called him an “idiot savant.” I’d never heard of such a thing, but the guy was no idiot by any definition I knew of. Although he avoided my attempts to get to know him, I learned enough to realize that there was an awesome brain hidden under that odd exterior. To this day, I believe that his “problems” had much more to do with a lack of social skills that with an inability to learn.

The other night I watched, once again, Discovery Science’s Memory Masters program. This incredible show is all about people, most of whom are considered “defective” by normal standards, who can perform amazing feats of memorization and calculation – far beyond what any so-called “normal” person can do. And earlier today I saw a section of PBS’s NovaScienceNow that dealt with new research into autism, the very “ailment” that most of those amazing people from Memory Masters had been diagnosed with.

Once again, I was left with the same impression I had of the amazing guy I met when I was a child: there is obviously nothing wrong with their brains ability to grasp – on a level most of us can only dream of – very profound and fundamental aspects of reality. Their “problems” all relate to their inability to behave in a manner that we “superior” beings find acceptable.

Frankly, as one who has always functioned better in the absence of other people, I have to admit that I admire the ability these people have to block out everything that isn’t essential to them. And the social misfit in me can’t help but feel anger at how they are viewed as being “broken” somehow.

But most importantly, I’m concerned by the twin facts that autism appears to be a disability that is somehow developed after a child has had time to be affected by the world around him, and that it also appears to be affecting more and more of our kids.

I can’t help but wonder if this is just another symptom of the much deeper disease transforming our world into a global asylum. The same asylum I attempt to avoid be being an urban hermit.

As usual, I have a song that I think is expressive of this “social” phenomena.

Rush – Subdivisions

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order. An insulated border
In between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided. The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided in the mass production zone

Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone

In the high school halls. In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out

In the basement bars. In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out

Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dream of youth

Drawn like moths we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction. Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly just to feel the living night

Well some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats. Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere to relax their restless flight

Somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights…

In the high school halls. In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out

In the basement bars. In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out

Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dream of youth

Is it possible that there are those who are capable, at an age before they could even attempt to verbalize it, of grasping what this song implies about our society? Perhaps they simply decide, on some very deep level, not to involve themselves with us at all.

I want ice water.

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6 thoughts on “Autism and The Urban Hermit

  1. Bravo. 5 stars to this.
    I just realized that I’m an urban hermit like you.

    ‘Their “problems” all relate to their inability to behave in a manner that we “superior” beings find acceptable.

    Frankly, as one who has always functioned better in the absence of other people, I have to admit that I admire the ability these people have to block out everything that isn’t essential to them.’

    How can retards like us analyzed this right?
    And blocking out everything that isn’t essential to them is a talent essential to life!


    • Thanks Poch. I realize that this is a sensitive subject for so many people, but I also realize that it deserves a better response than what I’ve seen so far.


  2. Well, then, Silky Sienna to the rescue!

    Maybe people just are not comfortable with this subject? I am.

    As a general observation, I cannot but help notice that all of society is becoming more ‘autistic’ as a mean whole- by this I mean, people are in the midst of others while choosing to remain isolated, by the Blue tooth in their ear, walking down the street talking to someone who isn’t there…like the schizophrenics you see on any city street…isolating ones’ mind into a computer. Attatched, blocking the rest of life out, in favor of a reality you can manifest at will, shut down when neccessary, turn off, or be hyper-attentive to, all at your own comfort level… We lost the tribe. The tribal effect is gone from most of our physical realities, or seriously diminished, and replaced by cyber-tribes on Facebook and chatboxes… but still, it serves as a point of connection, it is just unevenly skewed.

    Many of those who work in the technical industries have Aspergers, on the autism spectrum… blocking out a cumbersome and even threatening reality of sensory overload in the external world, driven to the inner world for their information…connecting information with ideas instead of connecting with people and social mores. Driven by genius. Non-compromising. What is important, salient, differs from the social standard…great knowledge is made greater by great thinking.

    Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton read like autism/aspergers adults. The brain’s the thing.

    I was far more obsessed with my own thinking when much younger, before moods got in the way, and my thoughts turned dark and against me…then I began to see thoughts as the enemy, as they hurt me, like knives driven into my head, again and again, me with no propper buffered helmet to keep them out…it used to be so wonderful in there…

    Izaak, I thinkyou may be onto something about yourself- you may review some of your behaviors when you were very little…any ocd physical actions, lining things up, fascination with doorknobs or vacuum cleaners? Rocking? Music as mind theatre? Limited food preferences? DO connections with others cause you sometimes piercing pain in the brain and gut- so you prefered surface contacts? Have you had fixations? I mean, MAJOR inner or outer fixations?

    The Spectrum ‘disorders’ (why everything is so quickly labeled a disorder is so disciminatory I feel) are also known to be a brain-processing difference…eye contact being an evidential problem… there is lots of information out there as to what may be contributing to this, and greater contention. I, for one, ascribe to the belief that food is at least a major contributor. In casein (all milk proteins) and gluten (in wheat, rye, barley and oatmeal) the gut is unable to process/metabolize these (leaky gut syndrome) and the proteins are not properly digested – especially in children – and the casein becomes caseinmorphin,,the gluten, glutenmorphin (if I remember the spellings correctly) and these act like hallucinagens in the brain. I can definately attest this is what was happening for me in my youngest years. One writer, who helped her son with various therapies including diet (Karyn Serousi- Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and PDD’s) compared the look in her sons eyes as being stoned, as when she did magic mushrooms in college…and in fact, the mushroom being a fungus…is comparable to the overgrowth of candida albicans fungus in the guts of autistic kids. I can say, based on my own experience growing up in the psychedelic sixties, that I was already and always stoned. And much of this, like any good little addict, I quite enjoyed!

    Anyway, that is why I am posting so many recipes on my blog-although originally I meant to share more of my experiences, in general. These will still come out- I have a few in draft form…but the food thing…my current obbsession. It used to be just a lot of quantum mechanics. But I never could count the bricks on a wall with one glance! Or like the true story in Rainman- counting the toothpicks in a spilled box.

    Oliver Sacks, the famous nuerologist, has written much on autism. There is a good book of 7 case studies called “An Anthropologist on Mars”, and features Temple Grandin…HBO featured a movie on her life last February, and it won an Emmy I think. She is quite famous and remarkable.

    I’ll go read the other article you recommended now…


    • Wow Silky, I’m both amazed, and embarrassed, by how much more thought you’ve given than I have to the actual physical causes of a wide variety of symptoms. From as far back as I can remember, my focus has been primarily on psychology first, and then philosophy later, as a source of answers. I more or less gave up on the psychology angle because there were just too many variables to consider. And while there are still many factors that contribute to a person’s own “philosophy of life” (something we all have and must obey whether, we choose to recognize it’s existence or not), the fact that we are all of the same species, and as such all share the same basic survival needs, means that a “philosophy of life” proper to the human animal can be deduced.

      If you’ve ever read my Opening Rant post (the first I wrote for this blog), you’ll know that I’ve believed from an early age that we humans have been destroying ourselves through the denial of our nature. But it wasn’t until I started reading the works of Ayn Rand that I actually found the words to describe what had always been more of a feeling than anything else. Even then, the whole picture didn’t fill in until I read “The Psychology Of Self-Esteem” by psychologist Nathaniel Branden, who had contributed several articles to Ayn Rand’s books. It was his description of the human animal as one who’s primary survival tool was his mind, and how the effectiveness of the mind is entirely dependent upon an individual’s evaluation of his own worth, that really opened my eyes to the damage we do to ourselves – and each other – when we continuously compromise our principles in the name of “getting along.”

      I absolutely still believe that that is true, and I also think it explains much of the dual epidemics of isolation and depression we see all around us, but I’m slapping myself upside the head for failing to fully recognize the contributing factors of metabolic poisoning through our diets and our environment. Your reference to the “psychedelic sixties” really hit home to me, as it may help to explain how attracted I was to hallucinogens back in “the day” and my continuing problems with both substance and food abuse later in life. It’s clear to me now that our survival, as a species, will require “cleaning up our act” on many levels.

      I can’t say whether or not I had a problem with being touched by other people as a child, as I grew up absolutely starved for physical contact. Let me tell you, the isolation has not helped me with that at all and, these days, the rare touch of another only causes me to question of the motive behind it. As far as the other symptoms you described, I can only recall that I had irresistible compulsions towards all things dairy, a certain kind of dust (both the smell and the taste), and to eating the burned heads off the old-style matchsticks. I remember my mother asking a doctor about the last two and only getting a “must be something missing from his diet” answer as a response.

      Lastly, I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one with a ton of unfinished drafts to get back to someday. And I’m going to try to remember the book and movie you mentioned – they sound like something I’d really like! 😀


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