I just finished listening to House Rules by Jodi Picoult, about a boy with Asperger’s who is accused of murder. It was a compelling story that I couldn’t turn off, not just because of the plot, but because of the details about autism. My wife and I have a niece with autism, and I’ve met people with Asperger’s, so the topic is not new to me, but this book went deeper into the subject than any I’ve read before. Since this book was written, Asperger syndrome has been removed from the new edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to be replace by the general term autism using a severity scale.
This is interesting in and of itself, to think that a classification of behavior belongs on a scale. From reading the book I’d say personality is composed of many scales, and low settings on a number of scales would add up in combination to the general diagnosis of autism. Let’s say our personalities could be composed of 100 different traits, my theory would be the autism scale would start with low scoring on 20 or more of them. I’m not a scientist though, just a reader. But it seems to me there are some traits always attributed to people with autism that if singled out are sometimes seen in normal people.
The cover of House Rules is very deceptive, since the main focus of the story is Jacob Hunt, and he’s 18, weighs 180 pounds and is over six feet tall. Jacob is normal in many respects, except his obsessions. He’s obsessed with crime scene investigation (CSI), but cannot fathom other people. He won’t look other people in the eye, can’t understand their body language, takes everything people say to him absolutely literally, lives his daily life compulsively around patterns – such wearing yellow and only eating yellow foods on Tuesdays, and will have full blown tantrums and disassociates from reality if he can’t get his way.
Like I said, I’m not trained as a psychologist, but I find it hard to believe that autism is one spectrum. I know perfectly normal people who won’t look you in the eye. I know perfectly normal people that always takes things literally. I know perfectly normal people who are obsessed with single subjects. I know perfectly normal people who dominate conversations and won’t let others talk. I know people who can’t make friends. The lists goes on and on. Jacob unfortunately has all of these traits and more, so that the cumulative effect is he’s different from normal.
This book begs the reader to ask: What is normal? I can’t believe autism is a binary – black and white – diagnostic. It’s why they use the phrase autism spectrum, but that’s psychologists just saying all the various forms of autism fit on a spectrum, as if you could catch that spectrum, or have a gene that gives you the autism spectrum. My guess is personality is a spectrum of spectrum – like a rainbow, and very wide, and autism is just one piece of the whole personality spectrum. I also think we all could have individual traits that function low that could fall within the autism spectrum.
While reading House Rules I noticed a lot of my own quirks that if taken to extreme would make me weirder, but still not autistic. But if I had enough of these low functioning traits I would be labeled autistic. So, I’m wondering if it takes X number of traits to create the autistic spectrum. That if autism was a readout on a spectrum, that autism number would be a composite number generated by settings on many other spectrums. Picture a mixing board with 100 sliders with settings from 0 to 100. My guess, and this is analogy, not science, that autism would be 20 of those sliders falling to the low side of things – say under 25. So a profoundly autistic person, one who is very low functioning, might register 10 or lower on 60 of those scales. Whereas a high functioning autistic might just register 20 or lower on 30 of those scales.
But by this theory, it might might be possible for normal people to register a 20 on one or two scales and still be considered normal. In other words, when you read a book like House Rules, you might see something in yourself that helps you empathize with Jacob. I know I did. I’m a guy who loves his rut. I’m nowhere near as compulsive as Jacob, but if my routines get sidetrack I feel annoyed – just not as much as Jacob. I can handle it, but I can also sense if my slider was slid down a few numbers I’d be a lot more like him.
My point is autism might not be as far away as some people think. In House Rules most of Jacob’s peers at school shut him out, but some of them act so badly, so lacking in empathy, that they reveal personality traits with low slider settings too. It’s that whole cast the first stone thing. Or maybe those little bullies belong on another scale, the psychopathic spectrum. Right now we divide people into just a very few groups: normal, autistic, schizophrenic, psychopathic, bi-polar, etc., but what if personality is far more complex than those simple labels. What if autism was settings on 35 of our sliders, and each of the other general personality types were similar combinations. Wouldn’t it be possible that normal or bi-polar people might have a few settings that relate to autism? And maybe we all might share a trait with a psychopath?
What if personality was even more complex than 100 traits? Imagine a 1,000. Have we even begun to understand ourselves? I wonder if general labels are good at all? The concept of spectrums is a step forward. But is that even good enough? What if personality is an array of spectrums? Or even arrays of personality trait constellations? Imagine personality as the main() loop in a computer program that contains thousands of subprograms. Each with a power scale from 0-100. Something as unique as sarcasm could be personality trait. Imagine being a guy with a 10 on the sarcasm scale going out to lunch with four catty women who have 95 or higher on their sarcasm scales.
Reading House Rules makes me think autism is not one spectrum but many. I have no idea if that’s true scientifically, but the book gave me a lot to think about.
JWH – 3/21/14