OAARSN Book Review

Autistic people don’t read between the lines
A layman’s commentary on:

Autistic Thinking - This is the Title
by Peter Vermeulen.
Jessica Kingsley Pub; ISBN: 1853029955;  2001. 160 pp.

Recommended by Andrew Foster of Cambridge

This is a book that rings bells for a reader acquainted with autistic people. A few of them are alarms, but most of them ring with clear truths. It is refreshing to read, and sheds much light on things that we don’t spend enough time thinking about. The title gives a hint of the easily digestible nature of the book, being a gentle autistic joke in itself. 

Some very simple statements remain in the mind after reading the book. One is that there is some autism in everyone. That suggests that autism is a developmental stage through which most people pass.  A second is that autism is a disability: a statement of the obvious, perhaps, but necessary for those who would suggest that autistic people will be just fine if we would only try to understand them and integrate them into society. 

I only know one autistic person really well, and perhaps I only think of him as autistic now when he does something inexplicable or annoying. I use his autism as an excuse for my own responses. Most of the time his actions are familiar, even predictable, and part of the domestic continuum in which he lives. However, I’ve never analysed what it is that has let me feel comfortable with him, and what it is that remains a barrier to communicating clearly with him. This book goes a long way towards explaining both his thinking and my own.

Peter Vermeulen begins with the frequently used comparison between autistic people and computers, and an alarm rings. My friend isn’t a computer. Over half way through the book the author makes a fundamental point whereof I wanted to be reminded at the beginning: machines have no consciousness. As an engineer, I am familiar with amazingly complex machines that are power tools of the most amazing versatility, and some of them are computers, of course. But I never expect to encounter a machine that spontaneously projects passion, feelings, emotions. In the autistic person these are all present, as in the rest of us, and are expressed in ways that can range from tender to disturbing. No machine can do this, nor can it be programmed to do it. “Artificial intelligence”, or “machine intelligence” are well known fields these days, but no machine can perform any action that is not ultimately the result of programming by a human. The inner, intellectual core of the autistic person is not programmed or programmable, though outward behaviour may well be moulded by observation, persuasion and practice. 

If the computer analogy must be pursued - and I wish it wouldn’t - the difference between early operating systems such as DOS and Windows might be worth looking at to see if we all resemble computers. DOS was one of the first systems that enabled ordinary people to operate their personal computers. It depends on the operator understanding purely logical actions and then implementing them. It was the minimum system needed to make the machine work. Perhaps the autistic person simply uses the minimum that we all need to function. At least in the early stages, Windows was no more than DOS with a myriad of small programs added to make the machine perform frequently used functions with indirect, but easier - mouse click - instructions. It was claimed to be intuitive, but needed training and much practice for the user to become proficient and for the machine to become useful. The screen had become cluttered and the user had to discern which functions were needed for his or her particular applications, and then find out how to use them. Many of the functions seemed useless to the average user, but could not be ignored if the desired function of the machine - such as opening a word processor - were to be achieved. Despite the clutter and annoyances, nobody will go back to DOS for everyday use - the benefits of the new developments are too great. 

It is not so very different in the acquisition of social skills. In our human behaviour we have been programmed to do such things as smile, shake hands and wave to each other. Logically, these actions are useless, though they have come to be accepted and expected as the conventional marks of the various stages in human interaction. But social development has forced them on us, in the same way that Microsoft Corporation has forced useless computer functions on us if we want to be able to use their programs. The autistic person can be persuaded to smile, shake hands and wave, but surely knows that these things are not part of the core that makes a person function. On the other hand, it is often said that autistic people avoid eye contact. This is a cruel fallacy, and nothing is more poignant than the autistic person who looks you straight in the eye with a bright, intense expression that says, “I want you to know something”. This is a powerful attempt at self-initiated communication, and no computer is ever going to do that.

The author happily disposes of this reader’s initial concern with a thoughtful discussion of types of intelligence, showing that computers will always stop dead in their tracks at the point of needing the “integrating intelligence” that all humans possess in varying degrees. He also refutes the idea that autistic people are like robots, rather implying the opposite; that autism would be a good model for an advanced robot. Interestingly, he discusses the Turing test of an intelligent machine postulated by Alan Turing, the brilliant developer of some of the earliest modern computers, whose own life had more than a suggestion of autism about it.

A second, and intriguing, point made early in the book is the relevance of humour to autism. I had to stop a moment to think about this, since it was something I was aware of without it having aroused me like the computer analogy. The classic undergraduate psychology question is “What makes a joke funny?”  A workable answer is that a joke is an expression of disorder in life as we expect to experience it. It follows that perhaps humour is a positive appreciation of that disorder. This would make sense in the autistic view of the world, because the autistic person has a powerful affinity for order and routine in all things. The mature autistic person’s acute powers of observation tell him that the world around is not nearly as orderly as he would like it to be, and humour can sometimes make this tolerable. An example happened when we were working on a tree-trimming project - as orderly an activity as could be desired. However, my friend became disturbed at a few pine needles that were somehow out of place. I finally pointed out that there were millions of the things under our feet, and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it. There were no more disorderly pine needles after that, and the work proceeded smoothly. The reduction of disorder to humour can make life’s disturbances tolerable for all kinds of people. Humour is a serious matter, as the author points out. 

In the very illuminating discussion of humour, the author has valuable insights that apply to human interactions in general, as well as to the particular case of autism.  He points out that it is unreasonable to expect the autistic person to read between the lines and still expect him to appreciate the joke. One thinks of the type of drama so popular in the 1960s where the entire story seemed to be between the lines, and simply attempting to understand what was on the lines ensured that the story would never be understood. If we can learn to communicate explicitly an illogical, or paradoxical situation to an autistic person when we want to tell a joke, then we may well become better communicators ourselves. 

This book is a two way lesson in understanding thought processes. The “Green sweater situation” story is an excellent example of the thinking that non-autistic people can use to handle logical processes. It opens up the rigidly logical thinking of an autistic girl who associated a particular required behaviour in the classroom with the sweater she wore on a particular day. The example cuts through the unintentionally less logical, and more intuitive sequences that we often apply to what we do, and draws attention to every detail that affects the process. We usually make the flying leap across the details to the realisation of the expected action, while the autistic person evaluates every detail and stops when permission to proceed isn’t there. In the sweater story, it seems that it was the presence of a green sweater that gave permission to proceed to the required behaviour. The author says that this indicates a confusion of identities, and the girl assumed a different one while wearing different clothes - an interesting, but harder concept to comprehend. 

A change of clothing - a change of identity? Perhaps it is not so far fetched. Having seen the anguish that an autistic person experienced in using new clothes, the argument has some credibility. Being forced to relinquish even a part of a painstakingly developed identity can be excruciating. When an employer once wanted to me to wear a shirt carrying the company logo, I simply couldn’t give away even that little piece of my identity to him. I took it home and tore it up for rags, feeling a certain sense of relief - relief from an attack on my identity. In the more focused and intense autistic person, that feeling must be greatly magnified.

Vermeulen quotes a touching line from an autistic child: “Mama - can you put me together, please, because I broke?” There, a small person thinks - perhaps understands - that his identity is becoming fragmented. Perhaps the event that precipitated the plea was nothing worse a cut or a graze, but it said, more clearly than a medical or scientific person could, that identity is a terribly fragile thing, surely the more so in an autistic person’s mind, lacking much of the resilient emotional cushion that the rest of us have built up around ourselves.

There’s plenty of basic wisdom that comes from experience in this book. For example,  ”... people with autism often react slowly and display delayed reactions,. Our world moves too fast for them and, frequently, we don’t give them enough time to decipher it.”  Good advice.

Generalisations tend to set off alarms, but Vermeulen discusses one (p86) that is worth pondering and is worth quoting in full:

People with autism all tend to commit the same mistakes in interpretation. Their inability to understand the coherence in communication (idea) is closely related to the problems they experience with social coherence (context). The social aspect of communication presents the greatest stumbling block for them. However gifted they may be, the idea behind the communication often escapes them. The most essential aspect of the communication (the idea) cannot be experienced in its literal sense. Ideas are seldom expressed literally, in fact, they are not expressed but rather left unsaid. For people with autism, the ideas behind the communication are, literally, a secret.
There seems to be a theme developing here: Don’t ask the autistic person to read between the lines. To do so means that you are holding a secret from him.

It works both ways, of course:

A major mystery for people with autism is finding the way to adapt their communication skills to other people, to the context. This is not to say that they don’t try. But just as in the case of social behaviour, their efforts don’t often proceed past some ineffective copycatting.

The author is telling us to listen carefully and to understand the limitations of the person to whom we would listen. We mustn’t read between the lines, either.

After a few chapters the reader gets the impression that he or she is being taught somewhat like an autistic person. The author knows that many of the concepts and explanations will be unfamiliar, so they are repeated many times over in different contexts until the reader is trained and ready to move on. We don’t usually have to be taught about cohesive thinking, because it is something that has evolved within most of us, and don’t need to think about it. We have to understand what it is, though, in order to understand why our autistic friends can and can’t do things. Vermeulen hammers this point home until the most resistant reader begins to grasp and believe the concept. 

The chapters on rigidity and problem solving seemed closer to home for this reader. They narrowed the gap between autistic and non-autistic people considerably. Some of the behaviours discussed seemed much more familiar, and in another context might have been described by a useful word that seems to be slipping out of our language: eccentricity. It is an interesting zone where the distinction between autism and humour is pleasantly fuzzy. Still, the author cautions elsewhere against the damage that can be done by ridicule where, with care, the humour may instead be brought out and shared.

The author serves the reader well in facing quite harsh realities, speaking against some familiar conceptions. He refutes the idea that the autistic person is imprisoned in his or her own body, waiting to be released by a cure that has yet to be discovered. And not all autistic people have a high level of intelligence. He believes it to be a fact that, “Autism manifests itself on all levels of intelligence. Most people with autism also have a learning disability and are thus doubly disabled”. Later, he offers the useful observation that, “We can get closer to people with autism when we do not simply romanticise their stronger skills into talents but consider them as functional survival strategies. When we want to help them, we have to build on that”. This is surely a good survival strategy for those around autistic people, too. Unrealistically elevating one’s expectations leads inevitably to disappointment and reduces the capacity to be a friend and supporter.

As the book ends, the author returns to the computer analogy. This time it is less threatening, and the author notes that computers and autistic people share some difficulties. Neither of them can develop or relate to analogies - similarities are as far as they can go, by comparing remembered information with observed data. A crucial difference is that the autistic person adds the new data to his memory, while the computer will only do so against a specific instruction. 

I liked one of the closing statements (p147): 

It is a challenge for all coherent thinkers to assign a place in our society for people who think in literal terms. But people with autism need more than just help. They deserve appreciation for being themselves. They can, if we allow them to do so, contribute in a meaningful way to society. We do not need to offer individuals with autism a place in our society in spite of their autism, we need to offer them a place because of their autism.
At a job interview that I thought had been going pretty well, the interviewer suddenly said, “But reading between the lines of your CV...” and I knew it was all over. I wanted him to read what was on the lines. Instead he drifted away into a confusion of his own making, and I lost him.  Autistic Thinking - This is The Title has a good message. If you would communicate with autistic people, don’t ask them to read between the lines. Peter Vermeulen explains in admirable detail and clarity why this is so.