A recent episode of the NPR radio show Snap Judgment had a fascinating piece that caused me to again speak out to challenge the psychiatric assumptions that autism is a discrete biological “mental disorder”.
(The DSM-5 now uses the term Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism has many specific traits, according to the DSM, but most people exhibit extreme withdrawal from social interactions. For an excellent critique of the psychiatric model of autism and the lack of science behind this myth, read Dr. TImimi’s blog.)
I have transcribed the episode (#605; April 7, 2018) and annotated with my analysis. You can also listen on Soundcloud as you read along. It starts at the 23:00 minute mark and runs to 38:20.
Narrated by Dawn Prince-Hughes, the episode tells of her journey from homeless 15-year-old with autism to earning a PhD in anthropology. Her most important life lesson was experiencing bonding for the first time in her life — with her gorilla subjects. She is author of several books, including Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism.
To me her story is very solid anecdotal evidence that autism occurs merely as a result of her experience of her parent’s inability to attachment with her in childhood and anxiety that naturally flows from this traumatic experience.
“I really didn’t understand fully that I was different, because I really felt that I was part of everything around me. I really didn’t understand that I had a separate body, so I felt the plants around me, I felt the animals around me. I had cross sensing, so I could for example see very loud noises, taste sounds. It’s really difficult to explain, almost like trying to explain a color someone has never seen. It’s a very integrated experience.
[She is describing synesthesia, a condition where the brain combines information from different sensory modalities. While the cause of synesthesia is not known, we do know that when humans become highly fearful our senses become very sensitive. We are hyper-vigilant to external stimuli and perhaps this may overwhelm the brain with information and may lead to the condition. Given the other evidence I’ll discuss about Dawn’s childhood, this synesthesia is just one piece of the puzzle.]
This over-stimulation problem leads to difficulties communicating with people. I had a really difficult time in school. On a sensory level public school is a real nightmare. It smells bad, the clanking of the lockers are loud, the halls make noise, reverberate. You sit in a hard chair, hard desk, looking at a hard chalkboard.
[Many children with “ADHD” and behavioral problems also report that they are overwhelmed by the noises, the people, and the stimulating environment in school, which causes them to lose focus. Again, a baseline chronic anxiety leads to hyper-vigilance to what are perceived as threats, such as loud sounds or other people.]
People really couldn’t tolerate the ways that I was strange. They really did just think I was weird.
[As we will learn, Dawn’s strangeness was due to the fact that she was not connecting with others emotionally in socially acceptable ways.]
A lot of the things that I did with great intentions and an open heart were misunderstood. One example comes to mind. When I was in third grade I was really struggling by then. So I had this great idea. Everyone likes dogs, and dogs learn really fast, so I’ll just be a dog in class and everything will go better. My teacher will have an easier time. Kids will like me better. I got down on all fours, did a dog smile, opened my mouth, put my tongue out, crawled around and approached people in a friendly manner, wagged my tail, sat down on my haunches and paid attention when it was time to listen to the teacher. Well, she yanked me up by my ear, threw me in a corner, yelled at the class to quit laughing.
[Dawn had an innate desire to try to bond with others, which includes attempting to please them. But she had not learned in early childhood the correct ways to do that. So she tried to connect in odd ways. Attachment theory in psychology tells us that infants learn the intricate emotional and social dance of connection and bonding from their parents in the first few months of life. This happens when parents, especially the mother, notices a baby’s crying or smiling and mirrors this back, then provides appropriate care and comfort. A mother who is emotionally unskilled at connecting, due to her own childhood experiences, will teach her child that relationships are more distant, non-warm, and non-reciprocal. This “insecure attachment” by her mother and/or father is almost certainly what happened to Dawn. Was her mother overly anxious and intrusive or cold and non-responsive or even abusive? Dawn may have learned to withdraw to reduce the anxiety and stress of this relationship.]
Certainly my family were not immune to misunderstanding my intentions. And I was often at odds with them. I was going outside in the night to sort of calm down. I scooted around the house and looked into the window and could really see my family in a way that I guess was a lot clearer because I had a lot less sensory input. I could look in through the window and see my family and feel closer to them than if I was in the same room. The glass was the convenient barrier that allowed me to turn down the volume on all my senses so that I could relax and see things a little bit, I guess, like most people do.
[This confirms her hyper-sensitive sensory inputs, but may also indicate that her family was the source of much of that anxiety. Her desire to leave the house is indicative of her anxiety in the home — she did not feel accepted, and instead felt judged. Harsh, rejecting or judgmental parenting styles create insecurely attached children. Children who do not have secure attachment to parents naturally become more anxious and fearful. This anxiety overwhelms the brain. Our natural desire when feeling unsafe is to try move to a place or state that feels safe and calm. Home should be a place of safety and comfort for a child, but instead Dawn left the home to calm down, what I believe is a strong indicator of insecure attachment. In contrast, securely attached children seek out a caregiver for comfort when they are distressed. One style of insecure attachment is the use of avoidant behaviors. These children have learned that comfort is never or is inconsistently available from parents, so they detach. They do not seek comfort in relationships, but instead become detached and extremely independent. In contrast, anxiously attached children cling and become fearful if the parent leaves. The detached behaviors of autistic people are a clear sign to me that they have avoidant attachment patterns.]
I left home at about 15. At that point in my life I knew people were not connected to me. I just decided to leave. I went down to the end of the driveway and stuck out my thumb and I was homeless for five years off and on.
[Early departures from home, moving a long way from home, or teenaged pregnancies are signs of attachment difficulties. Children who feel welcomed and a sense of belonging do not prematurely disconnect from their families. She also is quite emotionless when describing this experience, when it should have felt as a very traumatic and abrupt departure. This indicates there was no sense of emotional connection with her family. Dawn was homeless for five years — a long time to not put down roots, form a relationship or return home, indicative of extreme levels of avoidant attachment and difficulty forming relationships because she did not learn how to do so from her mother.]
I went all over the country that way. I really can’t believe I’m still alive to be honest. I ended up in Seattle. I stayed on the streets…. Being homeless was really terrible, hot, cold, loud, hard. I used to go to the clubs, talk my way in. Just because there was something about that level, maybe it was the beat of the music that was persistent, and almost familiar, maybe like a heart beat or something really primal about it. It was comforting to me.
[All people, but especially those who lack an emotional feeling of belonging to others, will seek out primal, comforting experiences when they lack that.]
I like to move to the music, someone said you are a good dancer and you should make some money with that. No, not if it’s what I’m thinking. They said, you can’t really be snobbish about this, you are homeless. I said, that’s true. I ended up as an erotic dancer for awhile. Interesting, once again, looking through the glass at people. It was more more less a stage surrounded by windows. People put quarters in, the little shade lifts up, and you have so many seconds per quarter. Anything like a open wall or window would serve as an artificial barrier or means of containment.
[When I work in therapy with those with avoidant attachment styles they frequently set up their lives to keep others at bay, either physically or emotionally. They may work a lot or work by themselves. They may move far out into the country or may avoid developing friendships. They may just be guarded or not emotionally present with their family and friends.]
I didn’t feel like being homeless was a good life for me but I didn’t feel there a good life for me.
[This statement indicates low self-worth, a predominant accompaniment to attachment insecurity. Those who do not feel closely loved in childhood grow up to feel unworthy of love, and conclude that they are unworthy as people. Feelings of worthiness arise out of parents who respond to us with expressions of pure joy, concern, and admiration. This is why, in Self-Acceptance Psychology, I connect shame and low self-worth to their roots in a person’s attachment and trauma history. People with low self-worth may work overtime to manage these feelings through blame-shifting patterns of Self-Blaming, Other-Blaming or Blame Avoidance.]
I was starving for nature.
[She sought out nature as a primal source of solace and comfort to calm the anxiety she felt from her lack of trust in human relationships.]
So with one of my first paychecks I decided to brave the bus system and go to the zoo. It was a really major undertaking, because when I get really overwhelmed my senses start shutting down one at a time. First I’ll lose my hearing. I’ll lose my sense of touch. My sight gets down to the size of a dime. So here I am on the city streets trying to look around through this dime sized hole of vision…
[Those with high anxiety often report that during panic attacks their senses shut down in this way and they dissociate. So is autism a mysterious disorder or an expected response to lack of attachment and the resulting high anxiety?]
Luckily I get off on the right stop, then I have to go figure out how to get in the zoo. But then when I turned the corner and saw the gorillas I just sat there. I just sat there that day. I sat there for hours that day and just watched them. There was just this epiphany, this flood of identification. I thought these are people, more importantly these are people that understand me. And they are people I am going to understand for the first time in my life. I’m guessing that’s what most people feel like with each other, but I hadn’t felt that before.
[How terribly sad, that in her 20s she had never felt that anyone understood her. These feeling of being misunderstood, different than or apart from are a clear indictor of attachment insecurity. Those who feel different, unworthy and unlovable will naturally pull away from relationships — aka autism.]
It was just amazing. They didn’t look me in the eye for about an hour and a half. They very tenderly waited and kind of felt where I was. Eventually glancing over at me really quickly and then putting their heads down. It was a very slow moving, tender social interaction, it was just so much different.
[Animals can sense the fear and uncertainty in another creature and will often avoid approaching aggressively. Sidling up, rather than confronting head on, is a classic way for humans to manage an early relationship with a dog or a young, fearful child. I use this in first therapy sessions with children. Humans in modern society are much more confrontational. Most parenting is also done in a very harsh, behavioral focus — “Make your bed!” Most parents do not slow down to attune to a child’s much more sensitive emotional needs. I also like to say that verbal language is not a child’s first language. Nonverbal emotional attunement and response is the first language we all speak. As a result, children are much more intuitive, much more sensitive to emotional inputs. So if a parent charges up to a child and is loud and belittling, this feels extremely threatening to a child, whereas to a parent it may feel it is normal.]
The way that it was set up at the Seattle Zoo they had really big windows. That was the one time I felt glass was an unfortunate body, because I wanted to be with them. It’s as if you were going home after years and years of being in the war and you get home and your entire house is glassed in. You can’t find the door, you can’t find the window and you just press your face against home.
[Dawn had found a creature who spoke her more empathic, sensitive emotional language. So many adults over-rely on their intellectual or cognitive abilities and have lost their primal or instinctual ability to read and respond emotionally to others, including children.]
I went every day that I could possibly go, just to sit there. And stare at the gorillas, not to stare rudely, but to diffusely stare and watch what they were doing. The public would just sort of vanish. Everything just slowed down.
Watching the gorillas interact with each other was really heartwarming because even though they had squabbles, they were so much a part of each other. I believe they experience reality a lot more like I did, or a lot like other “autistic” people, where they don’t get the sense they are just one individual person, sort of floating out there, some kind of discrete consciousness in a body. So their behavior was really inspiring to me.
[One of the concepts of Buddhism is that we should experience ourselves as part of a common humanity. This concept speaks to the collective nature of some societies, and of our history as communal social beings. Sadly, current Western culture is centered around the single family home and a more independent, disconnected experience.]
I was delighted to see the gorillas made nests every day. When I was a kid I would remember making just those kind of nests, would weave branches together, put in leaves, make it really comfortable. I think the reasons both of us did that because we find smaller and smaller places to try to avoid feeling intensity of any kind.
[Again evidence that she was both seeking comfort that she likely was not getting from her parents. The nest also helped her manage the over-stimulation of her sensory experience.]
I was so obsessed I would grab zoo workers who were walking by and pepper them with questions. They were really patient with me, to their credit. There were people who saw how devoted I was to the gorillas and their wellbeing and eventually I got to work with them. It led to me going back to school, which I never thought I would do. I found a masters and PhD program.
After being there for about 10 years at that point, watching the gorillas, and directly applying what I had learned from them in my human interactions, I had a really bad week. There were always those times when I felt I took many steps backward. So that was one of those weeks and I always just wanted to go see the gorillas when that happened.
[Dawn was expressing her natural human need to seek comfort and connection when distressed. But she still did not feel safe going to people for that need.]
The gorilla I was closest to, Congo, was about 33 at that time, who had had a terrible, terrible life. He saw me that day that I’d had this terrible week. Immediately he knew something was wrong. He furrowed his brows, and came rushing over to the window and searched my face. He could tell I was just crushed. So he pushed his shoulder against the glass and motioned with his hand to put my head down and I put my head down on his shoulder and cried and cried. He just made gorilla contentment noises while I cried and cried. I probably stayed with him like that with my head on his shoulder for like 30 minutes or so. I think it was probably the first time I was genuinely comforted by another person.
[She describes the gorillas here and previously as people. Is this indicative of an experience of being completely disconnected from feeling human, a feeling she should have gotten from a loving mother?]
Congo really set the standard for what social interaction should be like between me and another living being.
[In this epiphany Dawn felt attachment and bonding for the first time.]
You just can’t worry about looking like a fool. You can’t worry about getting hurt, you can’t worry about whether you are right or not. It just boiled down to being connected at all costs, all risks. I no longer wanted the permeability of my spirit to seek smaller and smaller shelters. It requires a completely open heart. It felt like I found a way to go home through the glass.
[How wonderful that she had experienced closeness and contentment, but it is sad that it was in this very disconnected way with a gorilla, not a person. But she is exactly right that bonding requires vulnerability and no fear of being rejected.]
I find it difficult to hear such a poignant story and not believe that her experience in childhood informed her behaviors of withdrawing from her family, of wandering and feeling unwanted, of struggling to interact with others in loving ways.
Just hearing the loneliness and hurt in Dawn’s voice should be telling enough that she felt so very apart from other people. Given that social ties are an essential part of our human existence, why would we continue to ignore the importance of this experience when defining autism/ASD or really any other “mental disorder”?
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and remember to…
…. be kind to yourself