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Sunday, August 19, 2007

if you were blind, you would have no sin, part 1: on autism, atheism, and mind-blindness

At his Evangelical Outpost blog, Joe Carter this week asked the question, "Are atheists autistic?" (hat tip: Henry Neufeld)

In the ensuing discussion, more than one commenter noted how demeaning the post was toward people with autism. Rather than giving an intelligent description of the characteristics associated with autism, Carter offered stereotypes and distortions.

Carter began his post by quoting one Vox Day, who said this about the condition known as Asperger Syndrome (AS):

Those with the disorder tend to be intelligent, socially awkward and difficult to converse with. They are also likely to be male.

The key phrase here, for Vox Day, is "difficult to converse with." He goes on to note:

Based on Wired Magazine's observation that atheists tend to be quarrelsome, socially challenged men, to say nothing of the unpleasant personalities of leading public atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Michel Onfray, one could reasonably hypothesize that there is likely to be a strong correlation between Asperger's and atheism.

The comparison struck a nerve in me, because, although I haven't sought a formal diagnosis, I almost certainly have Asperger Syndrome. And while the description of AS is correct to an extent, the comparison is very misleading.

Key to the alleged correlation is the phrase "difficult to converse with." Vox Day reinterprets this to mean "quarrelsome." Now it should be clear to most people that if you are saying that there is a correlation between AS and autism, and you are alleging that atheists are quarrelsome, you are also saying that autistic people are quarrelsome.

But let's consider that phrase, "difficult to converse with." The word difficult could mean quarrelsome, but in the context of Asperger Syndrome, can only refer to the difficulty the person with AS has in carrying on a two-way conversation.

Personally, I am unable to start an informal conversation. At work I can talk about work-related issues, at home I can talk about family issues. But when it comes to talking about my hobbies and interests, I am at a loss for words unless someone asks me a direct question.

Some people with AS are at opposite extreme. They can talk about their hobbies and interests for hours -- literally -- even when the listener has no interest in the subject.

A second difficulty I have in informal conversation is that I think in pictures, and have trouble translating them into words quick enough to uphold my end of a conversation. If you met me in real life, and started a conversation with me, it would probably go something like this:

You: (says something intelligent)
Me: Yeah.
You: (another brilliant remark)
Me: Uh huh.
You: (something very witty)
Me: (smiles and nods)
You: Well, talk to you later.

The only thing I've found that can partially overcome this is to anticipate what the conversation might be about, and prepare my replies ahead of time. When I am able to do this with people over an extended time, I reach a point where I begin to know them well enough to start anticipating conversations on the fly, and can communicate almost in real time, although I still stutter some.

Am I difficult to talk with? Certainly. Does this mean I am quarrelsome? Absolutely not. And therein lies the stake in the heart of Day's comparison. His alleged correlation between atheism and autism is grounded in a play on the word difficult.

Of course, as many people noted, both in the comments to Carter's post and elsewhere, the assertion that atheists are "quarrelsome, socially challenged men," has its own problems, but that is another issue for another time and place.

Despite the inadequecies of Day's alleged correlation, Carter plunges ahead:

There is a theory that individuals with autism or Asperger’s syndrome are unable to theorize about other minds. Some researchers claim that the majority of individuals with autism are "mind-blind", that they (especially as children) are unable to "attribute mental states, such as dreaming, hoping, thinking, believing and wanting in others or in oneself."

Again, this is true as far as it goes. Children with autism develop a theory of mind at a later age than neurotypical children. But virtually all people with AS have a theory of mind before reaching adulthood.

Additionally, many people with AS do have a level of "mind-blindness" -- which has little or nothing to do with a theory of mind. To draw the obvious analogy, a blind person could have an idea of, say, what an elephant might look like (even if is an erroneous idea) but would still not be able to physically see one. The relationship between physical blindness and the ability to imagine objects is the same relationship between mind-blindness and theory of mind.

Mind-blindness refers to the inability to discern what another person is thinking. Most people with autism have trouble reading others' body language and facial expressions. This makes it harder to guess what other people are thinking.

But -- and this is critical to understanding the phenomenon -- everybody experiences mind-blindness to an extent. In some cases this is good. Most of us could never imagine what goes on in the mind of a sociopath, and we wouldn't want to. More generally, to the extent that any person is enough different from us that we don't understand what makes them tick, we experience mind-blindness.

Joe Carter fails to recognize the universal pervasiveness of mind-blindness, and instead attributes it solely to people with autism:

If the belief in other minds is analogous to belief in God, then individuals who have a propensity to "mind-blindness" would likely be "God-blind" as well. With effort, high functioning autistics may be able to overcome their inability to attribute mental states to other physical beings. But while they may be able to learn to accept the rationality of other minds, they may find it more difficult to develop a belief in a Being who is both non-physical.

Carter coins the term "God-blind," and suggests that autistic people may have a propensity to it. It is important to note that Carter specifically states that the people likely to be "God-blind" are "high functioning autistics".

Now I don't know Carter's theology, but to me this sounds an awful lot like the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, in which some people are created as "objects of wrath" beyond Christ's ability to forgive. I could be wrong in drawing this inference, but I would be surprised if I'm the only one who made that connection.

(continued in part 2)

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At 9/06/2007 10:48 AM, Blogger truevyne said...

Grrrrrrr! to Carter's God blindness. I have a 14 year old friend, my son's buddy, whom I believe experiences AS. Yes, he has trouble reading social clues, but he loves Jesus with his whole heart. Grrrr! Generalizations get to me.

And I LOVED your description of an early conversation with you. It knocked my socks off, because I saw the truth and humor mixed perfectly.


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