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Monday, August 01, 2005

ELIZABETH MOON On "Autism & Science Fiction"

As Guest of Honor during Intercon 2005 in Oslo, Norway (July 28-July 31), Elizabeth Moon held a lecture about her experience with an autistic family member... and how there is a connection between autism, Science Fiction, and aliens in Science Fiction.
The experience clearly inspired her writing of the Nebula Award-winning novel THE SPEED OF DARK (2002).

This is a compressed account of Elizabeth Moon's lecture - and the conversation which followed in the cafeteria afterward.
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Elizabeth Moon's autistic son was unable to speak at age 2 1/2, but he could read and write.
Psychologists told her that her son's condition was incurable.

But Moon, who had worked as a computer programmer for the U.S. Marine Corps, decided to approach her son the way a computer programmer does: "Don't blame the CPU if the program can't process all the input!"

She studied the then-available knowledge about the human brain (which she found lacking), compared it with the studies of animal behavior... and arrived at the insight that "behavior is communication." While the psychologists at the time did not adequately try to analyze the behavior of autistic children, Moon mantained that "all behavior has meaning" and studied it as if it were animal behavior.

Moon mentions as an example, how a horse grazes in a field - it takes one bite, walks around, takes a bite at another spot, and so on. Instead of dismissing the horse's behavior as "random," we understand it is "sampling" the grass - just as humans "sample" tidbits of the different foods on a plate. So why condemn autistic behavior as "random" or "pointless"?

She studied her son's behavior to see what it communicated, and found that he couldn't perceive patterns in motion - but he was interested in patterns that stood still.

He also showed a delayed reaction to speech. Instead of simply assuming he was "retarded," Moon analyzed the way he processed information (i.e. speech).

The son could read words well - but if you spoke the same word, he couldn't hear it. And like other autistics, he didn't understand the meaning of pointing.

Many autistics can't perceive brief sounds - i.e. consonants (b, c, d, f, g, h, etc...), but vowels are long enough for them to perceive (aaa, ooo, eee, etc.). Naturally, this impedes their learning of language.

So Moon started to train her son to recognize consonants, for instance in the facial expression of the speaker. She made great progress, taught him to process and use speech, worked with other autistic children... and realized that her son was normal.

Moon asks: "What do autistic children want out of life?" The same things as any other person: They want friends, they want to be comfortable... they want a good life.

They are very sensitive. (As an example, Moon mentions how a neck collar tag can irritate an autistic child much more than a non-autistic child.)

But they meet much rejection and prejudice - especially from "experts" - or from frustrated parents/relatives who don't understand their behavior - and so many autistics, who are treated as "aliens," come to believe they aren't human.

We make autism worse by treating autistic behavior as "pathological" (i.e. "sick").

It is our choice to either accept or alienate people whose perception-patterns are different from ours... which leads us to fandom and science fiction.

In (science-fiction) fandom, Moon says, she finds people who are comfortable and relaxed among each other.

There is a high quota of science-fiction fans with Asperger's Syndrome - a form of "mild autism."
Typical of Asperger's Syndrome is to be
1. socially awkward,
2. very verbal
(can talk obsessively about one particular subject for a long while),
3. intensely interested in certain "pet" subjects (fly-fishing, fountains...)
4. showing other autistic-like symptoms.


Autism symptoms may vary, but are all in the area of perception difficulties. More research is needed - and better research.

It's not all bad to be in the "borderlands" of autism. It is possible to understand and communicate with autistic people.

Moon says she herself had Asperger's symptoms as a kid ("I was pigheaded, bossy, insensitive"). But she reminds the audience: whatever your behavior is, you're not "bad in your own mind." The same goes for different cultures.
How many of us, Moon asks, are ambassadors for cultural understanding? She likes to write about how different people perceive the world.

Having said that fandom is an environment where people with Asperger's can feel at home, Moon also warns: "Any group can become a comfortable hiding-hole." You should give people a little nudge - without being judgmental - to "try other things" too. Then you can help people out of their hiding-holes.

Is autism increasing? Rather, it's NOT going up - but people who once would have been classified as "retarded," now get diagnosed as autistic or Asperger's.

There are social environments where people with autistic/Asperger's behavior fit right in - such as nuns in a convent! But in an army platoon, the members need to "bond" well, so Asperger's doesn't really work there... except possibly as a single "mascot" member with highly specialized skills.

There seems to be a connection between Asperger's Syndrome and synesthesia. Moon herself has mild synesthesia: she associates certain numbers with specific colors.

We compared Moon's mental "color chart" for numbers with those of some audience members, and came up with interesting variation patterns.

At this point in the conversation, sitting in the cafeteria after the lecture, Moon had to declare herself "wiped" and retired for the evening. (Seeing as she was surrounded by eager people with Asperger's symptoms, we could have continued talking until she collapsed... )

-A.R.Yngve
August 1, 2005
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