Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Active But Odd: Imagination in AS Girls

Throughout my life, and especially in childhood, I've been an almost exact match for the typical Aspie. I was a "little professor," given to collecting huge amounts of information on obscure subjects, more comfortable conversing with adults than with other children, learning to speak earlier and more formally than other kids, even if I also reversed pronouns and made up words. But there was also one area in which I was emphatically not the typical autistic child, which I begin to suspect is shared by a lot of women and girls: I had a wildly overactive imagination.

I loved to pretend. I kept dozens of stuffed animals and Barbie dolls, naming them, imbuing them with unique personalities and making up convoluted life histories for each of them. I wrote and illustrated stories with recurring characters, making little booklets out of construction paper. I hand-sewed dresses for all my dolls, and also cut their hair. My bedroom had a monster for every shadowy place, but I never feared them because the biggest and baddest monster (a blue allosaurus named Alomar, who lived under the bed) was my friend. Over the course of my childhood, I believed myself to be, among other things, a horse, a triceratops, Woody from "Toy Story," and Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh."

This kind of imaginative richness is also evident in this New York Times Magazine piece on autistic girls, and in Women from Another Planet?. From the Times piece, quotes from autism researchers Catherine Lord, David Skuse and Simon Baron-Cohen on how autistic girls' interests differ from boys':

Contrary to the Asperger’s stereotype, Caitlyn struggles in math but tests in the highly gifted range in reading and writing. This is another sex difference that Lord sees among her patients. "I don’t have any real data, but a lot of high-functioning girls are real readers ... they like fantasies and the 'Baby-Sitters' series," she says.
"Girls with autism are rarely fascinated with numbers and rarely have stores of arcane knowledge, and this is reflected in the interests of females in the general population," Skuse explains.
A psychology professor and director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, Baron-Cohen has characterized autism as a condition of the "extreme male brain." His research shows that in the general population men are more likely than women to score low on a test of empathy and high on a test of recognizing rules and patterns, or "systemizing." ... Baron-Cohen says that he believes that autistic girls are strong systemizers. That quality may manifest itself in letters rather than numbers.

The girls profiled in that piece show the same kind of intricate fantasy life and artistic creativity that I have: Caitlyn writes Harry Potter fan fiction and is planning an eight-part series about a werewolf, and Ash makes dolls and scupltures out of whatever materials she can find. Similarly, the authors of Women from Another Planet? tell of childhoods largely spent in vivid inner worlds, which they often brought into adulthood as intensely felt spirituality or a passion for art or writing. Indeed, many of them chose to write poetry for their contribution. That was probably the biggest thing that surprised me about the book: the wide range of styles and genres represented. There were poems (of which some rhymed and some were free verse), essays on a topic, personal recollections, dialogues and even an explication of a poem the author had written years earlier.

A theme that keeps coming up in Women from Another Planet? is the more diffuse notion of "aliveness" that the autistic women have. Because they never learned to zero in on human voices and faces, they hypothesize, they never learned to confine their attention to humans and thus, they experience the whole world as joyously, busily alive where most people see an inanimate backdrop for human lives. I have strong memories of doing this myself: when I was little I had no conception of "man-made" things. I thought roads grew along the ground like the runners of crabgrass or strawberry plants, and I thought houses grew up from the ground like trees, sending down roots in the form of basements.

Daina Krumins's essay "Coming Alive in a World of Texture" touches on a lot of this:
It seems that when most people think of something being alive they really mean, kind of human. Almost as if the thing would express human thoughts if it could. This is a mistake scientists seem to be making when studying dolphins. They show the dolphin an object --- a box, for example --- and the dolphin makes a sound, and they assume that the sound means box. But maybe not. Maybe it means the way the water swirls around the box, or how the box changes the color of the light, or ... anything.

There's also a snippet of dialogue from the chapter "Differences" that deals with this heightened sense of aliveness:
MM: I think that some of us not only have our five senses on high, but also our sixth sense: that we do not draw a line between animate and inanimate beings, that they all have soul to us.
Daina: As a child, everything was somewhat alive to me. Perhaps the face-processing tendency that most NTs have enables them early on to distinguish what is alive and what isn't, and what is human and what isn't.
Ava: Or maybe what is and isn't alive, is just another assumption that NTs make. So for the NT child, either because of the strength of those attachments to faces and the accompanying social world, or through some coincidental developmental process, the aliveness of the sensory world fades.
This has expanded somewhat beyond what I'd intended to talk about, but given the prominence of imaginative play and experience in my life, in the lives of the girls in the Times article (and all of Catherine Lord's young female patients, apparently) and in the lives and beliefs of the women in Women from Another Planet?, it would seem advisable to qualify the "impaired imaginative play" diagnostic criterion as one that may only be applicable to boys.


Anonymous said...

I have been tentativelydiagnosed with Aspergers/PDD NOS. Your insights on the deep inner life of Aspie females are very apt. The DSM criteria "failure of imagination" has always irked me. My inner, imaginary world IS my life. I feel this is true for many on the spectrum, male and female alike. Perhaps the DSM wording should be modified to read: "atypical imagination"

Silverwhistle said...

Interesting! For me, it was always historical and literary characters that captured my imagination, that I 'fall in love with'. I think 'atypical imagination' is a good way of looking at it. I'm a mine of obscure historical/literary information, too. Re: dolls, though, I was always clear that they weren't real. When I was a child, a neighbour once thought she was indulging me by saying "What a beautiful baby!" about my doll. I replied, "It's not a baby, it's a thing."