The Beguiling Allure of Labels

I’m  generally not a fan of labels when applied to people.

At the same time that we have made strides in excising labels for people of different races, religions or sexual orientations,  labels for people with a myriad of other psychological conditions have proliferated beyond all reason. People who might once have been thought to have OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder} because they wash their hands 500 times/day or keep getting up in the night to see if the stove is turned off, are now called OCD because they like to keep their closet organized. From Tourettes to Dyslexia to Borderline Personality Disorder, everyone seems to have some label to pin to their lapel.  There is now a term, and books written, about “alphabet” kids who are characterized by the acronym they fit under such as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). If the child is too annoying (bored?) they may even be given a drug regime to make them more normal (manageable?), as if being normal should be the goal.  There is one disorder whose acronym is AAADD (Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder) where a person goes around all day so distracted by stimuli in their environment that they leave a trail of unfinished projects. I was jumping in my chair thinking “Hey! I have that!”, until I realized it was a joke.

The problem here is the label itself, and more specifically, when this label is assigned and one then stops all efforts at trying to understand the person (or one’s self) on a deeper level or in a more complex way. In this way, labeling becomes the home of the intellectually lazy. It takes effort to really understand all the facets of a person’s character and personality, more effort than many people, and too often parents, care to take. This is no different than racism really. Judging someone by the color of their skin is just a whole lot easier than judging them by the content of their character! Clearly such a person is suffering from LRLD (Lazy Racist Labeling Disorder).

This is not necessarily the fault of the psychologists who are investigating the intricate workings of the human mind and all the ways things can go right and go wrong or go simply differently. With all the tasks that we must do psychologically, it is not surprising that some people accomplish certain tasks more easily than others. There is certainly some truth undermining many, if not most, of the psychological labels that have so quickly grown in abundance; it’s just that most of them occur in various degrees of disability or ability, like a spectrum, in all of us, and that seeing these traits  is only the beginning of understanding, not the end. Suffice it to say that, usually, what one finds are not specific talents or crippling syndromes but something far more interesting and beautiful: a personality.

This is Where my Memoir Starts

I was on a flight from Chicago to Seattle in the year 2000 when I happened to sit next to a woman with two identical twin boys about ten. One had a pile of drawings perfectly outlining the fifty States, and the other was looking at the map in the back of the American Way magazine, and then out the window, in what appeared to be an attempt to trace our passage across the US. I asked the boy with the maps if he had traced them, and he did not answer. I told him how much I liked maps. Nothing. Then their mother turned to me nicely and replied, “They are autistic. They have photographic memories, he can draw them by himself.”  Willing to believe, but a tad skeptical, I turned back to the boy and asked him if he would draw me a picture of Michigan. I picked a particularly difficult State, not to be sadistic or because it is where I am from, but to give him a good test. “Yes, I can do that, ” he said robotic monotone utterly devoid of inflection. He took out a clean sheet of paper, a pencil, and within one minute had perfectly delineated the outline Michigan, everything in perfect proportion, not one bay or inlet excluded. I was amazed. He gave it to me without my asking. I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said “A mapmaker.” I told him how much I loved maps, how once I had them on all the walls of my apartment, and how I had all the countries of the world memorized by the time I was his age. No response. I asked his brother what he would like to be when he grew up and he replied, “A meteorologist.” A small light went on in my brain. I was currently studying for my masters degree in atmospheric science at the University of Washington. I spent the rest of the flight talking to the Mother about their family life.

Autism, and it’s smaller twin Asperger’s Syndrome, has been something of a popular epidemic in the last few years. No one is quite sure if there is just a growing consciousness of it’s existence, if the edges of the spectrum are being broadened to include more people, or if it is indeed becoming more prevalent. Waves of hysteria over the possibility that vaccines are causing two year olds to withdraw into their own private autistic world come and go, often with parents carrying on indefatigable battles with school boards over vaccination requirements. After the above flight I got online and started to research. I read “Thinking in Pictures” by Temple Grandin (an autistic woman who has designed most of the animal handling facilities because of her ability to see the world as animals would). I took tests. Clearly I was not autistic, but I did come awfully close to Aspergers, enough to dance on the edge of its “spectrum,” which is a far more reasonable way to view it in my opinion.

A person with full fledged Asperger’s Syndrome has many of the following characteristics to varying degrees: excellent thinking skills regarding the natural world, but poor interpersonal skills, especially regarding personal boundaries; a preoccupation with certain topics such as dinosaurs, trains or boats, memorizing lists of facts like Presidents or Capitals, or meteorology (I didn’t make that up);  they enjoy routine and get anxious if it is upset. The list goes on with regard to social skills, with most of these difficulties resulting from an inability to get out of their own mind in order to appreciate the other person’s point of view. Asperger’s is often found together with Sensory Processing Disorder (that’s SPD folks!) where a person, again to varying degrees, has difficulty processing incoming sensory information. It is not uncommon for a person on the autism scale to be uncomfortable being touched or to intensely dislike loud noises or scratchy clothing. A debate rages in psychological circles on just how close the connection is and if a sensory problem lies at the root of people in the autism spectrum. I recall once seeing an young autistic woman rocking rythmically back and forth in the gym, and I had an epiphany as to why she was doing this. The changing center of gravity pulling on different parts of her body were helping to focus on the fact that they she had a body at all, and its whereabouts, as opposed to being a disembodied consciousness, which is disconcerting to say the least. When I am sitting quietly, it is almost impossible for me not to tap my fingers on the table (there’s my hand!) or bounce my foot (my body goes that far).

Not Your Average Boy

I have been bonkers for the weather my whole life. As a seven year old I was indignant when my parents did not waken me for a midnight windstorm that actually knocked down trees! The nerve. I kept a weather diary for years, keeping especially close track of averages and any deviations from them. I drew pictures of specific events because it helped me a lot if I could imagine it in my head. As an early teen I wrote to the National Weather Bureau to request all information possible on climate data for Michigan. When I received an entire book with a map of Michigan’s annual average snowfall isolines on the cover, I was as excited as most teenage boys are when they discover a Playboy magazine in their father’s underwear drawer. I looked longingly at the areas of northwest Michigan that received over 100 inches in annual snowfall, which is where I happen to live now. Be careful what you wish for.

When I was ten, my parents decided to breed our dog, Holly, a thoroughbred whippet. This, of course, would excite any kid, though I handled it with my own special pizzaz. I researched dog breeding through what little material I could get my hands on. When my Dad found a local stud, and we drove over to their home, I unselfconsciously asked if I would be permitted to observe the “coitus”. I was ten, remember. The other people looked at me strangely, and my father said “yes”.  Nothing too much seemed to happen, except for the stud jumping on the back of Holly (he was appropriately named “Rider”!) and his penis taking on a sort of disturbing quality. The adults were pretty certain that nothing significant had happened, so we left our dog there a couple days, but afterward, Rider’s owners were still quite sure that we should not expect puppies. I was not ready to give up hope, however. At two weeks I began to take measurements of Holly’s nipples so I could see if they were growing (a dog’s gestation period is nine weeks). At three weeks they were definitely larger and I was proud to announce to my parents that Holly was pregnant. No, she is NOT, they insisted, and they didn’t seem to like that I was measuring her nipples. But by four weeks the evidence was growing and they were starting to relent that I was indeed correct. Soon, I abandoned nipple growing as an object of measurement, that was obvious, and took on something else. Apparently, a dog’s temperature, which is normally between 101 and 102.5°F falls below 100°F twenty four hours before labor. For those who would like to know more about this, and I’m sure you all are, you can find that information here. Anyway, one evening around the ninth week Holly lay on the floor next to the chair where my father was reading the newspaper. I took my rectal thermometer, slippery with margarine, and proceeded to place it in Holly’s rectum. Holly was used to this by now. I was just finishing the mearsurement when a scream arose from my Dad. “What do you think you are doing?!” After calming down a second from being shouted at, I explained precisely what I was doing…and in fact, the temperature was 99°F…and Holly would soon have her puppies, I announced. My father then told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was never to do that again, and no, that was no way to determine when a dog would give birth. He ordered me to bed, I protested vehemently, and then only consented once he promised to wake me when it all started happening, which I knew it would. Oh! I never forgot that windstorm! I went to bed secretly planning a middle of the night reconnaisance to make sure I wasn’t missing out. This did not prove necessary, however. Just one half an hour after I had gone to bed I heard my father calling up from the bottom of the stairs: “Oh, Craaaaiiigg…” Ha! Right again.

When I entered junior high school, I thought I was quite popular at first. Where other kids were wary of how they were being perceived, I was utterly unselfconscious. I talked about anything and everything to anyone. One day, perhaps one of the more important days of my life, I walked into homeroom and was given a letter by the girl who sat behind me. It was a letter from another girl that I considered a friend; a truly popular friend. This letter was a ruthless litany of all the inappropriate things I had done and said, only as far as she knew even, since the beginning of the school year, escoriating in its judgment of me, and how I was no longer to consider her or any of her friends as my friend. I was just within seconds of running up to my homeroom teacher Mrs. Johnston, when I read the following words: “…and now I know what you are going to do next. You will run up to Mrs. Johnston and show her this letter.” And because she was so precisely correct, she drove an icepick straight through the shell of my unselfconsciousness, and I realized that there really was something different about me, and that other people understood things about relating to each other that I did not. I was Adam in the Garden of Eden, seeing myself for the first time, I was naked, I was ashamed, and I cared.

The early Seventies were a kind of renaissance of interpersonal psychology. Fortuitously,  my mother happened to have purchased, for her own reasons, some books on Transactional Analysis (TA), and finding these books was a godsend. I still relate to its concepts today. TA was not just a lightbulb going on for me; it was a supernova. There was the concept of “strokes,” one stroke being one acknowledgement of another person. For example, if your neighbor has been in China for a month and you see him in his driveway and simply say “Hi, Steve,” (one stroke) he will think you are not being friendly at all. If, on the other hand, you saw him yesterday, he asks you how you are and you go on for ten minutes about the trouble you are having with your lawnmower, you are stroking way too much! The proper balance between these two extremes has never been easy for me. It was especially challenging when confronting a new culture where the generally accepted amount of stroking was different than what I had grown used to.  The basic concept behind transactional analysis was of course analyzing conversations where one starts by knowing the “ego state” from which one was speaking, and from there, to predict whether the conversation would be fruitful or lead to conflict.  There were other useful concepts in TA too, some of them being your “lifescript,” “rituals,” “pastimes,” “stamp collecting,” and “game playing.” Stamp collecting is interesting because instead of telling the truth about a situation that is hurtful, a person just gathers stamps in their stamp book. When the book is filled, the person blows up and acts inappropriately. Being the blunt person I was as a child, didn’t tend to collect stamps and never suspected others did. This explained a lot to me. But by far the greatest concept in transactional analysis for me was “game playing:” a series of interactions with rules, players, strategies and goals with payoffs (usually to reinforce your lifescript). This literally brought me into a world which is intuitive to most people, but often left me blindsided. I recommend the wiki article on transactional analysis.

Now, you may be thinking, and you’d be correct, that none of the anecdotes above clearly point to a diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder. I have left many tales out naturally, especially those of ritualizing habits, but if I am a bit Aspergerish, it is certainly on the far normal side of the spectrum (is that good?). With regards to the Sensory Processing Disorder (the ole SPD), however, there is little doubt that my mind has this difficulty. I retreat into my own little world far more than most people (my close friends and family with attest to this) because focusing on the world outside my brain, especially people, takes just too much effort at times. I have learned that when most people are asked to pass the hammer on the workbench, they see the hammer and grab it. This is not what I am able to do. I begin evaluating all the objects on the table. Is that a hammer? No. Is that a hammer? No…etc. Until I happen upon the correct object. I do this exceedingly fast, yet my reaction looks a tad slow, and more mental energy is used. Grocery stores, and shopping in general are a nightmare for me, the cereal aisle being especially mind boggling. I try to use the same stores where I have memorized the placement of the items I usually need. Store reorganizations and renovations annoy the heck out of me. Going to a nightclub? Yikes! Flashing lights, loud music, people shouting at me – my functionality plummets. It is not an auspicious place for me to meet someone, and absolutely not a place to have a good time! I like sitting here in front of the computer, thinking; no multitasking required, just a single minded goal.

Many of you who know me less well surely must be thinking…is he kidding? Craig, the social networker extraordinaire? The great communicator? He who voluntarily entombs himself in an aluminum tube with three hundred people who all want something from him? Well, I have a few things to say about that. First, my career has given me a fantastic opportunity to practice sensory input management on a regular basis. When I first began working as a flight attendant I withrew into my own little world enough that I was reported three times for suspected drug abuse. Now I can manage the situation fine, just like a person born without musical talent, but who has practiced the violin for twenty years. I am a natural social networker because I really do like to hear other people’s stories and this is especially so since I’ve learned, and again practiced, the proper way to socially interact; I no longer suffer from feeling blind to what is happening in the other person’s mind and whether or not I am doing something socially unseemly or inappropriate. But blunt honesty and a guileless inability for interpersonal game playing are Aspergerish characteristics I like about myself, and they are also qualities that actually aid good communication. If your aim is the share the truth, that is.

I have a friend who is currently working at Google in Australia who has a giant heart and a genius mind (well utilized by your favorite search engine!). We have had open discussions about the possibility that he has Asperger’s Syndrome. He is certainly a few more steps towards the center of the spectrum than I am. He is an inveterate calculator. We might be walking to a friend’s house when he will announce that we are 47% of the way, and that we should arrive between 21 and 23 minutes depending on the traffic lights. I find this charming, and often interesting, since my own geek is not far behind. But my friend does not think that he falls under the rubric of “Aspergers” and he does not accept the label. You won’t be surprised to find that this is just fine by me! He knows who he is.

Another friend of mine has told me that he has the inability to form mental images. Interestingly, when I researched this phenomenon on the internet, two things stood out to me. First, unsurprisingly, this inability occurs in varying degrees, with about 1% of the population possessing absolutely no “mind’s eye.” Second, not being a huge disability, it has only recently begun to be studied and many people online are desperately seeking a “name” for it! Really, why is a name so paramount? To pin a label on your forehead and forget it? How much more interesting to consider how this might affect the way a person processes information and deals with other people. In my friend’s case it is not surprising that there are both negatives and positives. At times, some friends of his may feel a bit like they are “out of sight, out of mind”. On the other hand, I know of few people as this friend so possessed with the ability to live in the moment. He likes to act out roleplaying games with friends in reality and is drawn to costumes and performance art.  Since I rely so heavily on mental imagery to process information , I wonder what it would be like to think in this different way.

What it all comes down to is the very simple concept I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. When new psyhological manner of functioning is discovered it might be good to call it by a name so that everyone has a basis for discussing it. However, I am unable to think of any cognitive style that does not occur to varying degrees or on a spectrum. Additionally, we are combinations of these spectra. This is what makes us unique and interesting to individually unwrap like a present. God forbid I should be normal in every way!

What combination of alphabetical acronyms make you who you are?

Posted on July 9, 2012, in Memoirs and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Oh, Craig. Once again you hit the perfect balance of logical facts, humor and heart grabbing sensitivity. The only label I would ever attach to you is “FLHB&F”. Fantastic lovable human being and friend. I am so happy we will never be able to fit into a neat little hole in a peg board. We need to celebrate the things which make us who we are, whether other people can see it or not. How boring life would be if we were all ” normal”.
    I’m still smiling over the margarine slicked thermometer.
    Wish I was there to give you a hug, one for which you had ample warning.<3
    Peace,
    Crys

  2. Glad you “unwrapped” your mind to let us ponder on the unique personality that is Craig. Looking forward to more chapters of your “Memoir” as your life continues to amuse, inspire and fascinate those of us who are lucky enough to have the time to read your story.
    Love, Beth

  3. I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m the friend without a mind’s eye, and I agree with the central point of this post. I would be horribly simplified if someone mistook my little handicap for my defining trait. It is not. It is one of my traits, no more.

    PS. ‘Valiant’ is an undeservedly positive word to describe the battles people fight against vaccinations. ‘Ignorant’ and ‘selfish’ are more appropriate words.

  4. G~ You may not have a mind’s eye but you definitely have a mind’s I. I don’t think of not having a movie screen in your mind as a handicap. You didn’t even know you lacked this ability until you found out others had it. It was one small part of the recipe to make a “Gustav,” an anything but normal, and very interesting, person.

    What is really amazing to me is how you learned the nuances of the huge English vocabulary in ten years, especially considering your complaints at communicating in Spanish (this I understand better). I agree that “valiant” is too positive a word where I used it. I may change it to something like “indefatigible” which is closer in meaning to my intent. Part of the idea behind this blog was to – eventually(!) – communicate science to non-scientists. The hypothesis that vaccines cause autism, entirely reasonable to propose at first, has been utterly disproved by the facts, and continuing to support this hypothesis is precisely ignorant. The ramifications of not self correcting this idea is injurious to the rest of society. In my small way I would like dissuade people from being complacent about their perceived inability to do science. Everyone should understand the difference between causality and correlation; failure to get this leaves one unable to evaluate the media’s lame attempts at communicating the results of new studies. On a lesser scale, I’m amazed at how few people understand the difference between a bacteria and a virus. This ignorance is rendering our antibiotics ineffectual.

    Thanks to Crys and Beth for your kind words. You are both too sweet to me.

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