Self-Discovery, Part 2

(In part 1, I talked about discovering a few weeks ago that there’s a name for the differences between myself and others, High-Functioning Autism, referred to as HFA from here on. This part focuses on my reactions to that discovery.)

I’m still trying to make sense of my life in light of this new information. I’ve always thought, for instance, that I’m bad at verbal communication because I’ve chosen to spend more time on things that are more important to me, like studying computers and mechanical devices… now I find that’s not true, that I had no choice in the matter. I’ve always prided myself on being honest and loyal, but now I find that those are traits of people with this condition… they’re not choices, they’re dictated by the HFA.

In fact, every major choice that I’ve made, and everything that makes me unique, seems to stem directly from HFA. If I have any control over my life at all, I can find no evidence of it. I thought I’d made my choices consciously, only to find that every single one of them was dictated by genetics. What is the point of having self-awareness if you still have absolutely no control over your fate?

My wife and I have been watching the show Criminal Minds on A&E in the last six months or so. It’s about a group of behavioral analysts who profile serial killers to help police catch them, and the science seems very close to reality. One thing that struck me about it from the beginning was how they can, from the evidence the person leaves behind, accurately predict what drives the person and what he’s likely to do next. The science is self-consistent, and entirely consistent with what I’ve observed of human nature over the years, which leads me to a depressing conclusion: that we’re all just acting out our genetics. In the words of humorist Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame), we’re nothing but moist robots, acting out our programming. Since there’s nothing I can do about that, I’ve simply filed it away for future reference, and will ignore it from here on.

(Another interesting note: the Criminal Minds character of Dr. Spencer Reid is written as having HFA autistic traits. No mention of The Big Bang Theory, please — I’ve been compared to characters on that show all too often.)

I was initially shocked to find that HFA is considered a “disability.” I’ve never had reason to think of myself as disabled, just different. It might count as a social disability, but I’ve decided to reject the label entirely, because HFA has given me few insurmountable problems and several large advantages over non-HFA people (known as NTs, or “neuro-typicals,” in groups of people with HFA or Asperger’s Syndrome):

  • I’m totally uninterested in most things, but the few things I’m interested in, I’m intensely, obsessively interested in. I’ve turned that trait to good advantage as a software developer and business owner.

  • I cannot concentrate on anything else when someone is talking, but by the same token, I can’t fall asleep while someone is talking either — a useful trait when I’m driving, because playing any talk radio or audiobook will ensure that I remain awake and alert. I can drive for an entire sixteen-hour day with a good audiobook and rarely notice the time.

  • I had to consciously learn to interpret body language and facial expressions, and figure out what drives people, but I believe I’ve gotten a much better understanding of the process than someone who knows it instinctively. It’s very difficult for most people to understand why they do the things they do; it’s easier for me, because I’ve been working on the problem for literally my entire life.

  • I’m socially awkward, but I’m very good with electronic and mechanical devices, to the point that just looking at them sometimes fixes them. And if I wanted to devote the time and attention to it, my study of the human mind and a few small-scale experiments have shown me how to overcome the awkwardness, all I need is practice. (I probably will at some point, I just haven’t been motivated to do so yet. There are so many other, more interesting things to devote my attention to.)

  • I don’t generally advertise it, but I have a genius-level IQ (measured at 152 when I was in my teens). There’s apparently a body of evidence suggesting that HFA might be directly responsible for this. (For the record, I’m one of the “music, math and memory thinkers” mentioned in Dr. Grandin’s article, not the “picture” type that she describes herself as.)

Other than the social disadvantages, the only thing I really notice (and which may not be related to HFA at all) is that I can’t seem to remember absolute sizes, only relative ones. When my wife asks me if she’s gained or lost weight, I can’t answer without having her stand directly in front of me and measuring her waist with my arms. She says all three of our cats are huge compared to most, but I can’t see it and we’ve never put one directly alongside another cat, which is the only way I’d be able to. Not a major problem, in my opinion.

The only big question left in my mind is, if there had been a way to “cure” it when I was younger, to completely eliminate the HFA and all its symptoms, would I have taken it if given the opportunity? That’s not as academic a question as it might seem; as more people with HFA and Asperger’s Syndrome get together in places like Silicon Valley, more children are being born with the debilitating versions of autism, so there’s a lot of research by very smart people on ways to combat it. And I don’t have an answer. I would very much like to have been accepted by my peers as a child, and avoid the concomitant depression that plagued me throughout my school years (and still does to a point even now), but giving up the intelligence and the skill with electronics and machines? Having overcome the worst that it could throw at me, I prefer the way I am now to any theoretical normality that eliminating it would have offered. But if I’d been given the choice early in life, there are certainly times I would have jumped at it.

I guess I’ll never know.


  1. I’m not at all surprised at the high IQ. As for your question, “What is the point of having self-awareness if you still have absolutely no control over your fate?”, I can see two different answers to it based on what you believe.

    1) Our genetics don’t control us, they just highly influence us. In this case, self-awareness helps us understand why our instincts are what they are, and why we tend towards certain ways of doing things. With that understanding in mind, we can decide to go against our instincts and tenancies, and slowly change who we are. Our neural pathways may have been genetically set at birth, but how they develop is shaped by our experiences. By choosing to change our thought processes and experiences, we can mold ourselves into someone other than who were initially.

    2) We truly don’t have any control. (Philosophically, I fall into this camp). Even if you believe that control and freedom of choice are an illusion, and that our entire lives are predetermined by genetics and physics, that does not mean that self-awareness is pointless. There will be some in this world who are destined to become self-aware, and then use that knowledge to further themselves. There are others who are destined to become self-aware and then give up. The question is, which one are you? Having no control is only limiting if you’re one of the ones who is fated to be limited by it.

  2. Scientists seem to have reached agreement that genetics accounts for about half of who we are, and experience the other half. I’m not sure how I would be different with different experiences, but a cursory look at the evidence suggests somewhere between “not very” and “not at all,” and I find that very discouraging. But as I said, there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m planning to ignore it.

    As for the IQ, I strongly suspect that a good portion of it is directly caused by the social awkwardness and obsessions. Both would drive HFA people to learn, the one to avoid loneliness and the physical pain of being beaten up, the other to try to satisfy the obsession.

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