How "Imitating Normal" Makes Autism Spectrum Disorders Worse

Despite the obvious differences between kids with ADHD and Asperger's, if you sat with these kid's parents, much of what you'd see would look the same including the questions they ask. "Will my child ever be like the other kids in his class. Does she have to be on medication for the rest of her life? Will he ever learn to fit in with the rest of the world? Will she and I ever learn to talk to each other?" Underlying these questions of course lies a similarity even more disturbing; the look on their faces. These parents often look afraid. Moreover, I too have my reservations, in part, because I would so like to have all the answers and be able to tell them their child will be okay.

What really bothers me of course is that I know these parent's fears will probably play almost as great a role in their child's well being as their choosing the right course of action. This then brings up what may be my worst concern for these parents; that much of what they will likely hear from professionals will center on doing something I see as harmful to their kids; teaching these kids to imitate normal.

Human beings, especially children, need to feel loved for who they are. To feel this, they need a clear sense of self, both theirs and others. Unfortunately, these kids already lack of a clear sense of self and others. Thus asking them to imitate something which is innately unnatural for them will only cause them to worsen, disconnecting them even more from the world around them.

In a way then, asking these kids to learn to imitate normal is like asking them to wear a mask whenever they appear in public. Which is probably in large part why, whenever I sit with adults who have ADHD and Asperger's, the most common human emotion I see in them is not fear. It's anger. These folks are mad as hell, in no small part because so often they've been pressured to fake normal in order to fit in.

Some of them have even told me things like "why can't the world adapt to me a little," and they're right. We too need to adapt ourselves to these kids. This in fact is what I had in mind as I begin to write this column. I'm going to offer you an alternative to asking these kids to fake normal, starting with telling you a bit about the most basic idea in all of personality, the idea of the "self."

Know that despite the myriad of books which describe characteristics of the self, none so far has empirically described the actual source of this experience. At the heart of what I'm about to tell you then is the solution to a centuries old mystery; where does our sense of self come from, our sense of being separate from others?

Know it's not self worth I am referring to here nor the various qualities which make up a self. It's our actual sense of "me as a separate being" I am referring to here, without which helping kids with ADHD and Asperger's to be themselves is impossible. Who are these kids anyway? We're about to begin to find out.

You may have noticed that I have increasingly been positioning ADHD and Asperger's as diametrically opposed conditions over the past few columns. In truth, my research over the past twelve years clearly shows this and more; that these two conditions are actually the theoretical poles at the ends of one continuum. To see this though requires you have a background in personality theory. Fortunately, the personality theory required is the kind Nobel prize winning physicist, Ernest Rutherford referred to as "ideas you could teach the barmaid."

Let's begin with a brief recap of what we spoke about in the last column.

Basically I told you that any activity which involves complex sequences of mental activity will short circuit the brains of people with ADHD. Why? Because this type of learning literally widens their focus beyond their capacity to track, causing their minds to bog down as if their heads are filled with molasses. I also told you that the converse is true as well; that any activity which involves intensely emotional, single steps of physical activity will cause the brains of people with ADHD to speed up and focus. Hence their propensity for preferring video games over homework.

What I'd like to now add to this is that with Asperger's, people feel these same two things, only in reverse. Thus for them, any activity which involves complex sequences of mental activity will enliven and focus their brains rather than bog them down. Why? Because like the ancient Roman god, Mercury, who was said to be the only god quick enough to get into and out of hell, asking them to widen their focus and keep moving is like child's play. Literally. On the other hand, ask them to do an activity which involves single steps of intensely focused physical activity and they will bog down. Only this time it's their bodies that will bog down, not their minds.

In a way then, we could say that all these kids have both conditions. The kids with ADHD have ADHD in their minds and Asperger's in their bodies, whereas the Aspies have ADHD in their bodies and Asperger's in their minds. Or said more simply, some folks are extremely mind oriented, while others are extremely body oriented.

Where am I going with all this, you ask? It turns out that the best way to understand the personalities of these kids is to set aside all the medical symptoms and simply contrast and compare them at their core. If you do, what you'll find is, these two conditions literally fall at opposite ends of the same continuum. On one end, we have the folks who do best when asked to do single steps of rapid physical activity; the folks we say have ADHD, and on the other end we have the folks who do best when asked to do complex sequences of rapid mental activity; the folks we say have Asperger's.

Of course there is much more to what underlies these two conditions. This said, to be able to find a point at which to begin to unravel the mysteries underlying these two conditions is to me, worth the effort.

The question of course at this point is, on what do I base these claims? My answer begins with something most folks I ask have never heard of; the idea that we humans have two physiological brains. The brain you already know about, of course, is the brain in the head. The other is what medical researchers call, the enteric brain. Or as it's more commonly referred to, the "brain in the gut."

What the heck is the enteric brain? It turns out there is a significant amount of brain tissue sandwiched into the layers of the diaphragm, the same kind of tissue found in the brain in the head. Moreover, it turns out 95% of the neurotransmitter which carries our moods is not found in the brain in our head. The majority of our serotonin is found in the brain in our gut. Which begs the question, when you take an SSRI like Prozac, where is it working? To me, the answer is obvious; it's working in the gut. And since serotonin is the main chemical messenger for emotion, this implies the ubiquitous "gut feelings" of ADHD folks are really there.

As to how this aspect of our physiology plays out in kids with ADHD and Asperger's, to show you, I'll need to use a simple analogy; the idea that our two brains function like two radio stations, each receiving and broadcasting on a separate frequency. Moreover, like real radio stations which are intelligible only when we tune in to one at a time, we humans can normally tune in to only one brain.

In real life, what this amounts to is that we can make sense of only one perspective at a time. Either we experience life mainly as thoughts which we receive and broadcast from our minds, or we experience life mainly as emotion and intuition, the gut feelings I just mentioned. I call the former, being "mind first," and the later, "body first."

Of course, the difference between us and radio stations is that with radio stations, we can can chose which station we tune in to, whereas with our two brains we default to one or the other. In fact, my research shows that this preference develops very much like handedness, in that we seem to begin to develop this preference somewhere around age three or four, and clearly have it in place by about age seven.

Please note, I am not saying these preferences are the cause of AS or ADHD. I'm merely saying they are like the fertile ground from which these conditions grow. More important, before you can know if any of this feels true to you, you'll need to first do a little experiment.

  • Try sitting across from someone with whom you normally talk well, someone to whom you can easily tune in to. Now ask this person to tell you something that happened to them recently while noting how well you understand this person.
  • Now ask this same person to tell you something else, only this time, ask him or her to speak to you very quickly. Again, note how clearly you can understand, as well as how their speeding up affects your ability to think, feel, and follow.
  • Finally ask this same person say these same things to you, only this time, ask them to speak exceedingly slow. Here again, note how this change in speed affects your ability to think clearly.
  • Now stop and contrast and compare your experiences.

If you are a mind first person, words spoken quickly will feel fine to you, whereas slowly spoken words will bog down your mind. And make you physically uncomfortable. Conversely, if you are a body first person, the reverse will happen. The slower the words, the better you will tune in and understand, especially with regard to how this feels.

Know that over the past year or so, I've done this experiment with well over two hundred people. In every case, the result is the same. People either tune in better to quickly spoken, complex sequences of mental activity, or they tune in better to slowly spoken, singularly focused, physical activity.

Remember too that what underlies what I've been telling you is a physiological fact; we have two brains. Google the enteric brain and specifically, Dr. Ron Gershon, and I'm sure you'll be as amazed by his work as I was. What makes Dr. Gershon's work even more credible though is his refusal to infer outside of his specialty.

Here then is where my work in and around personality comes into play, in how these two brains affect our ability to be conscious. It appears then that our ability to be conscious centers in and around these two styles of interpersonal broadcasting and receiving; the styles I call mind first and body first. Or what I sometimes call, our "mind body orientation".

Where then does the idea of the self come from? It's simple really. From the way we experience these two brains. You see, it turns out which ever of our brains goes first is the self we call our "self." Then the other is the self we watch. To a kid with ADHD this means being him or herself is doing something where the body comes first. Video games. Martial arts. After school sports. Whereas to a kid with Asperger's, doing those things is like being punished.

In future columns, we'll dig deeper into the implications of being mind first vs body first, including how these two orientations play out in the four most fundamental states of personality; mind first, body first, mind body sync, and mind body shock. We'll also look at several other factors which correlate to ADHD and Asperger's. These include the four distractions; comfort, neatness, understanding, and freedom, as well as the four decision tree processes; bluntness, correction, precision, and digression.

The point of all this, of course, is to be able to grasp people's personality; their nature, rather than their symptomatology. These kids are not broken. Rather, their personalities fall outside of the bell shaped curve, the base of which, in case you've never noticed, is a single continuum.

What I'm saying then is that this continuum; from ADHD to Asperger's, is the baseline of personality. Moreover, rather than being based on conjecture or mere statistics, these ideas have been paying dividends for years now, in the form of helping people with both conditions to become themselves.

This leads us to some answers to the questions I began this column with:

  • "Will my child ever be like the other kids in his class." Yes, in fact he's more like the other kids than anyone has ever known.
  • "Does she have to be on medication for the rest of her life?" No. However, this depends largely on how she can come to know her true self.
  • "Will he ever learn to fit in with the rest of the world?" Yes, but only if he learns to see how his self and the selves of others contrast and compare. Not medically, nor psychologically, but rather, as different but still amazing human beings.
  • "Will she and I ever learn to talk to each other?" Absolutely, given you learn to build the necessary bridge. This depends entirely on how well you learn to see past your fears and trust your gut as far as allowing these kids to become themselves.

As for my personal experience, my whole practice has been incredibly different since I began to adapt the speed of my words to each person, including several people who ADHD is so severe, they long ago gave up hope.

Now let's review what I've introduced you to in this column.

  • All human beings have two physiological brains, one in the head, the other in the gut. The one in the head receives and broadcasts on a higher frequency, and we call these broadcasts, thoughts and reasons. The brain in the gut then receives and broadcasts on a lower frequency, and we call these broadcasts, emotions and intuition.
  • All human beings have a default broadcast frequency, either one based in the head or based in the gut. Moreover, because we each have a first choice as far as what we tune in to, we can say we are all either mind first or body first.
  • Folks with ADHD are always very body first. Folks with Asperger's are always very mind first. Moreover, while these preferences are not the causes of these conditions, they are, in fact, the two basic personality trait differences underlying them.
  • In essence then, the most basic differences between the personalities of folks with ADHD and those of folks with Asperger's lie in three basic areas; [1] whether the nature of what they do best is mind oriented (AS) or body oriented (ADHD), [2] whether they do best with either sequences of tasks (AS) or single step tasks (ADHD), and [3] where they get their best sense of time; either from the speed of what they're thinking (AS) or from the speed of what they're physically doing (ADHD).

In a future column, we're going to dig a bit more into this mind body thing. And at the risk of sounding like a new age weirdo, let me point out that what we've been discussing has been the nature of the mind body connection. How can knowing the nature of this connection help us to better help our kids? The answer to this question lies almost entirely in knowing how to use this connection to teach these kids to tune in to the world, and us to them.

Steven Paglierani is a writer, teacher, personality theorist, and therapist whose work on human consciousness is read weekly by thousands all over the world. He is the author of the first fractal personality theory; Emergence Personality Theory, and his mission is to make the world better for children by restoring and deepening their love of learning.