The Autistic Process: Research through the Overwhelming

One of the most popular up-and-coming “unifying theories of autism” is called the Intense World Theory, which posits that autism is founded on heightened intensity of feeling and sensory experience.[1] While I reject any unifying theory of my autistic lifeway, I think it still carries a certain force. Whatever its explanatory powers, or lack thereof, describing the autistic umwelt or life-world as intense carries an important truth about the advantages and disadvantages of working in academia with autism.[2]

They’re redoing the roofing on the building again. Acrid, sulphurous smells permeate the classroom. As if the nagging omnipresent fluorescence of the lighting weren’t enough, this room, overheated for winter and occupied by empty chairs dusted with chalk, is covered in scrawls that look like formal logic. Erasing throws up more dust. I’ve forgotten my notes in the rush, and the morning tutorial is one and a half hours of anxious blackboard scribbling and erratic pacing. At least the windows are covered with blinds––it’s hard to notice, but sunlight commingles with flat radiating electrical light in a way that makes me vaguely ill. All the chalk on my hands––I need another shower, even though I just took one two hours ago. I wish formal logic didn’t leave so much dust in the air when you erased it.

Wait, wait. Research, yes. Research. What about this intense sensory world changes how I conduct research and the habits of mind that shape how I create writing? First, let’s talk about moods and attention. Historical research as a gesture, as a mode of purposeful motion in the world, implies a certain emotional state. From observations I’ve made in the graduate lounge––which also has this too-bright and tactile dusty feeling, but I digress––research requires at least a posture of moderation, restraint, and observational curiosity. For historians, research is normally solitary, contemplative, and emotionally suspended.

My favourite books to touch are Palgrave MacMillan’s silky soft covers that have an almost alien texture to them, reminding me of fake leather or cloud-smooth vinyl upholstery. Now, though, I’m setting to searching through some digital archives, leaving paper behind for a moment. My heart is beating very fast, the words I’m reading float and bob on the screen, and my eyes never go in one direction but instead scurry hither and yon, up, down, looking for items of interest. It can be surprisingly tricky deciding just when I’m done with a page. I’m behind on another deadline, nary a stroke of a word written yet, and the anxiety tightens around my bones, locking my shoulders into a sloppy arch I’ll be needing more massage therapy to correct.

Uh? Oh, in any case. While there are moments where research is typically permitted some emotional content––especially when it concerns distressing or personal subject matter––I have no poker face. I’m impulsive, dismissive, feel every insignificant problem with a book as a personal slight, frazzled and dispirited by confusion, unable to take notes because focusing is simply impossible in the traditional sense.

Nothing in academia work is built with my brain in mind. And, though I think I’m quite excellent as a researcher, I cannot maintain much of an even or dispassionate mood while performing it. I flap my hands in excitement, have to crow about it to people, sometimes exclaim very loudly even in the library. Or cry and sob just as loudly. I have no moderation, no dial. On, off. Worse for productivey, I often get hyperfixated on certain tiny details or totally unrelated topics and lose all interest in what I already started. Currently my obsession is the way that people mystify and attach magical meaning to dolphins.[3] And yes, if I’m being honest I care a lot more about that than doing dissertation prep right now.

Unknown artist, “Delphini Cranium” (Dolphin Skull, collected by Felix Platter for his Historiae animalium (between 1546 and 1588).

All these hair-trigger switches, moreover, also interact with the delicate balance I play between the demands of producing writing and my susceptibility to overstimulation, mood swings, long periods of inactivity or executive failure, decision paralysis, lethargy, fury, suicidal ideation, and, most numbingly, the sense of the world collapsing around me and the futility of doing anything at all. I feel the deaths of insects, my own financial insecurity, rising waters, sickening bodies, Brett Walker’s narration of despondent whale mothers and calves, my own probable future life of poverty and present of social alienation like so many needles I’m constantly walking on.[4] It’s more than just the sun being too harsh, fluorescent lights being nauseating, or persistent nightmares keeping me awake. It’s the knowledge that this world I feel as myself is slipping away.

But there is a silver lining or twelve. Academia is hostile to autism, but what I’ve tried to gain from this is to use my specific neurology, my way of being in the world, as a weapon against all that is rotten here. I’m pretty much neurologically incapable of being hyper-productive or fulfilling even basic requirements for my program, but that also means that I can cast a clear eye on world of petty cruelties that is academia and its ridiculous standards of production. Compassion comes easily to me, and I feel love as strongly as I do the pain and wrongness that often attends thinking about academia. I wouldn’t have shared this if I didn’t believe in some kind of potential that emerges in the presence of kind and graceful words.

El Greco, An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool (1580). Honestly, I’m not even sure who I am in this painting.

Intense World. Yes. Insecurity. Yes. But in response: a scholarly ethic that pursues fascination, curiosity, and creativity beyond discipline or the common sense about what’s possible. I’m betting that, whether academia tolerates my whole, autistic, unruly self or not, I’m going to move and feel in extraordinary ways. If I can pass on even a small portion of the intense love of world that I feel right now, it’ll be enough. For awhile, anyway.

[1] Kamila Markram and Henry Markram, “The Intense World Theory – A Unifying Theory of the Neurobiology of Autism,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 4 (December, 2010): 1-29.

[2] Umwelt refers to the idea that every sentient thing has a specific and unique experience of their world. See: Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: With A Theory of Meaning (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[3] For example, I really love this article on the ethics of swimming with dolphins: Traci Warkentin, “Interspecies Etiquette in Place: Ethical Affordances in Swim-With-Dolphins Programs,” Ethics and the Environment 16 (2011): 99-122.

[4] Brett L. Walker, Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2011). Warning: this book is very disturbing and gave me nightmares for days after reading it. Still worth it.

*Citation featured image: Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799). Also an accurate description of where my brain goes when I’m trying to do research.