“You got a touch of the ‘tism, Rollins.”
It was something Don would say between lessons in skullduggery, generally over a Marlboro Red and a cup of Folger’s coffee with a slug of condensed milk in it, which Don called “crack.” The window of the apartment's cramped kitchen, where the coffeemaker and the ashtray lived, was always open so that Don could keep an eye on the parking lot and my old Bronco, which he openly coveted.
He was right, of course. Don turned out to be right about everything. He taught me to fight, and how to take care of my tools, and a lot of other lessons I didn’t know he was teaching me until much later.
I didn’t get formally diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder for another fifteen years, but the signs were always there. For many years, I was clumsy, uninterested in other people, unempathetic, and had difficulty forming friendships. I did, however, have the stereotypical saving graces of autists: “the focus” and the tendency to develop fixations in which I’d learn about every conceivable facet of a topic of interest.
I had something else, too, which a psychiatrist named Richard Cytowic once explained to me at a party. Synesthesia, whose Greek roots mean “to perceive together” comes in different forms. Probably the best-known is the one in which a synesthete always associates a particular color or sound or smell with a word, letter, or number, but neurological wires can cross in any number of combinations, and I have an unobtrusive but extraordinarily useful form of the condition called Spatial-Sequence Synesthesia.
I believe, although I cannot prove, that the combination of ASD and SSS is how autistic savants come to be. There are things I can do intuitively, effortlessly, that other people cannot do. Don was the same way; I don't know whether he had the ‘tism himself, but he was undeniably a savant. He was an legitimate scholar in the field of esoteric martial arts, and his particular genius was the application of violence; he could predict what his opponent(s) would do in a fight as if he could see five seconds into the future. (Count to five slowly in your head and reflect on what a seasoned streetfighter might be able to do in that time.)
Animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, the patron saint of autists, says there are three basic types of autism. There are autists who think mathematically, autists who think visually, and autists who think in terms of language (my own feeling is that it’s the same way of approaching information applied to three different fields of study). Assuming Grandin is correct, I certainly fall into the third category.
Where I differ from other autists is that one of my autistic obsessions is social dynamics.
Most autistic people don’t really care about social dynamics. We’re known for our bluntness, often to the point of rudeness, and our unsentimental nature. The requirement to “mask,” the process by which autistic people simulate emotional reactions they don’t really feel, is something the majority of autists resent. By contrast, I find The Dance, as I call the ways in which humans interact with one another socially, a source of endless fascination—masking isn’t a chore to me at all. To me, the various social languages we speak with one another are the most interesting thing in the world.
As an autist, it’s a bit like being Giamo Casanunda, the dwarf in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series who forsook the traditional dwarfish occupations of mining and artificing, shaved his beard, and applied the diligent, meticulous approach common to dwarfish engineers to becoming a romantic, swashbuckling highwayman (and the world’s second-greatest lover). He’s a bit foppish, he needs a stepladder to rob stagecoaches, and a powdered wig on a dwarf looks odd, but he’s outrageously good at what he does.
I bring all this up by way of introducing myself and explaining my credentials on the subjects of autism and social dynamics, because I have some hypotheses that are counterintuitive, to say the least, on how autism plays into the sociopolitical dynamics peculiar to what John Carter calls “The Hydra.” I’ll get into those in Part II.
Thanks for telling me about Spatial-Sequence Synesthesia. I had no idea that was an abnormal condition: I just thought that's the way the human brain works based on my own thought processes. Probably explains why I so easily get frustrated with people when I feel like I've explained something sufficiently, using all kinds of word pictures and metaphors, but they're still not connecting the dots and seeing the bigger picture. Now I know I'm just weird. 🙄 Anyway, I'm glad I found your substack!