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Portrait of the Autist as a Middle-Aged Man

I told my wife the other day that as I’ve aged this last few years (I’m 48), I have seen latent autistic-spectrum tendencies within myself manifest more acutely. The other day I went into a restaurant in town to pick up some take-out food, and didn’t realize till I walked out how strangely I had behaved. I kept my eyes on my smartphone as I walked in, and barely looked up the whole time I sat at the counter and waited. I didn’t want to meet anybody’s gaze, because … why? Why was I so anxious?

This is happening more and more. I used to be very social, but I find now that solitude is what I crave most of all. I don’t think I’m seeking solitude from a position of strength, but from a position of weakness. I find it increasingly exhausting to be out and about, and I’m not sure why. I know I fought depression a couple of years ago, but I don’t think that’s what this is. You know what I think it is? Living most of my life online.

I find it so very easy to connect with people through the medium of the Internet. I spend all day online, writing, reading, e-mailing. It is my normal — and I think this is what my semi-autistic brain prefers to do. I can’t tell if my latent autistic traits are manifesting because I’m getting older, and that’s what happens when you get older, or if the Internet is facilitating and exacerbating this within me. Reading Matthew Crawford’s new book The World Beyond Your Head  [1] is, I think, going to be a game-changer for me, because he’s making me realize how much I really do live within my own head, and how thoroughly mediated is my engagement with the world.

In How Dante Can Save Your Life [2], I write this about Sloth:

change_me

Sloth means laziness, but it also means apathy, or a sense of dejection that causes you to lose interest in the world beyond yourself. Before reading the Commedia, my idea of slothfulness was the sluggard who won’t get off the couch and mow the lawn, or the teenager who would rather play video games than do his homework. It’s far more complicated than that, says Dante, who approaches the subject through a discussion with Virgil about love.

A certain unhealthy indifference to the world beyond yourself is an effect of depression. That’s a medical condition that is not the same thing as sloth, which requires a moral choice. My doctor had told me that I was depressed. But that did not let me off the hook for sloth, because in my case the separation was not as clean as I thought. 

I’m realizing that you can be slothful while at the same time being extremely busy. This is how I live, because it’s my natural disposition. But it is wrong, and I have to change. This isn’t news to me, but it seems that I have to keep learning it. My impulse to live online, and not in the real world, is overwhelming, in part, I think, because it’s how my brain is constructed, but mostly because, well, it’s what I prefer to do. But my preferences are not justifiable. To put it in Crawfordesque terms, I am not free, because I don’t assert control over my deep, almost compulsive, desire to live online, avoiding the unmediated gaze of others.

OK, enough. Off to the airport. Going back home. My favorite journey!

38 Comments (Open | Close)

38 Comments To "Portrait of the Autist as a Middle-Aged Man"

#1 Comment By JCM On May 15, 2015 @ 11:50 am

Please, consider if this may be relevant or have a parallel to your situation. A bit over a year ago, I experienced a loss of an immediate family member that I have not been able to “go beyond.”

I now find social dealings painful. I took several people from work out for lunch this week and I was very anxious that morning and the night before. I got through it fine, but I hated every minute of it. I prefer to “converse” through the internet in forums such as yours.

I suspect that I have (cliche du jour, perhaps) a form of PTSD from my experience. Social avoidance can be a symptom. Have you given yourself time to mourn rather than to intellectualize the experience? I have not.

I know I crave solitude but that connot be an end in itself–particulary if you teenage kids!

#2 Comment By mwing On May 15, 2015 @ 11:56 am

I think a normal part of the aging process (I’m your age) is a steady and progressive increase in risk-aversion of all kinds. Social risk, physical/safety risk, fear of novel experiences, you name it. Things I did as a person in my 20’s – solo travel, rollerblading through downtown traffic at rush hour, long car trips when I couldn’t really even drive… all that requires a level of either daring, or residual belief in one’s own immortality becomes so much harder.
It’s for the birds, as my grandmotehr would say.
And, what really s***ks is, losing one’s innate sense of balance and physical confidence.
Oh bah humbug. I’m going to go outside and yell at the clouds now. ;-(

#3 Comment By Charles Cosimano On May 15, 2015 @ 11:57 am

I would think detachment from the affairs of the world would be a very healthy thing and of course there is no need to justify a preference. One simply has it.

#4 Comment By Todd On May 15, 2015 @ 12:00 pm

I think you need a vacation. Flights to Europe are cheap and the dollar is strong – maybe VRBO a house in an Italian hill town?

[3]

#5 Comment By ElizabethAM On May 15, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

I think of sloth in terms of James 4:17 — “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” I know the good — I just don’t do it. I do any other thing, instead.

And I’m not sure it’s autism you’re experiencing, but rather the manifestation of your natural introversion. It was incredibly helpful to me (and my one introverted child) to understand that introverts aren’t really shy or anti-social (we certainly aren’t), but rather recharge by solitude, whereas extroverts are rejuvenated by company. “Quiet” by Susan Cain is a very good exploration of the difference.

#6 Comment By Alex Wainer On May 15, 2015 @ 1:01 pm

At Palm Beach Atlantic University’s School of Communication & Media, we’ve discussed the term “digital autism,” as it captures the behaviors fostered by absorption in so many screens, whether for reading, texting, or other activities that cut us off from living in the actual world around us. A generation more accustomed to digitally distant communication won’t as comfortably interact with other bodies in their social space.

#7 Comment By Mike W On May 15, 2015 @ 1:03 pm

Rod, I don’t think the behavior you write about is out of norm nowadays. I notice it all the time. I do a daily commute on a Washington State ferry and I am always struck by how attached people are to their devices. If they aren’t head down texting or reading, or playing a game, they’re plugged in with headphones listening to music or whatever. . .God forbid anyone makes eye contact.

I can’t wait to read Matt Crawford’s new book either. My youngest son is going off to college in the fall, but needs to register tomorrow. So he and I are hopping in the truck tonight and roadtripping from Kingston to Monmouth, Oregon (which was a dry town until 2002, by the way), so he can take care of business. While he’s busy registering, I’m planning to walk around campus, and read Crawford’s book.

#8 Comment By RobLL On May 15, 2015 @ 1:32 pm

Sorry you are facing all that. The brain has about as many cells as the Milky Way has stars, and perhaps as complicated as the universe.

As we get older (if it hasn’t got us earlier) it has its ways of going into various failure modes. My family has its collection, different than yours.

#9 Comment By Eric On May 15, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

Crawford’s ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work’ was a game changer for me. Read it years ago, but remains one of my most oft recommended books to others. He gets the impact of our new society on our character–and on our sense of vocation and meaning.

Thanks for the tip. I’m getting it from the library now.

#10 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On May 15, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

I think I know what you’re talking about, even though it doesn’t manifest itself in quite the same way for me. Interacting with people face-to-face takes a lot of energy. I’m one of those introverts who can’t hold a conversation naturally and who has trouble coming up with something to say.

But the thing is, a few years after getting out of college I realized that I do like being around people and hate being isolated. So it’s a problem.

Fortunately for me, my wife can talk to anybody. The ideal situation is to go somewhere with her and then she can keep the conversation going with whatever other people are there, and I can listen, and chime in when I have something to say.

Somewhere I saw that the need for human contact is so great that without it, a person will basically die. I think this is true.

#11 Comment By Jason On May 15, 2015 @ 2:05 pm

Might want to set up some rules for yourself, mr. Dreher, for example limiting smart phone use to thirty or so minutes a day (no you do not need to use it for more; if you do, then turn it off). As I think I’ve told you before , I find it quite liberating to not have a tv or Internet at home (I do of course have a smart phone).

#12 Comment By Calmer On May 15, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

I am the same way. I have found much relief in using niacinamide, 1,500 a day in timed release, and lithium orotate, a natural supplement which can be ordered online. Niacinamide works much like a benzodiazepine, but has many other health benefits. Dr. Abram Hoffer pioneered early research into the brain and mental health benefits of vitamin B3 and his research can be read online. I hpoe this is useful.

#13 Comment By Bill Hoffman On May 15, 2015 @ 2:20 pm

“A certain unhealthy indifference to the world beyond yourself is an effect of depression.”

These words leapt out at me. One of the most frustrating and dispiriting aspects of depression (I speak from experience) is how self-centered and narcissistic (not in the sense of thinking highly of yourself, but in the sense of thinking only about yourself) one can become. David Foster Wallace’s essay “The Depressed Person” is a ver insightful and accurate presentation of this tendency taken to the extreme. Rod, you should really read it if you haven’t Rod (and though I hate to reveal it ahead of time because it may bias your reading of it, it was apparently based on Elizabeth Wurtzel; one gets the sense of reading it that she is trapped in a hellish realm worthy of Dante). The eponymous depressed person in his essay inspires both sympathy and contempt.

Hearing that Dante discusses sloth from this kind of perspective makes me want to read the Commedia and your book even more! Throughout my experience with depression, one of the aspects that has been the most mind bending is what aspects of my depression I am responsible for, blameworthy for, or have the power to change. I’m sure you can relate. I sometimes think that in pursuing the noble goal of helping the depressed to overcome their guilt and shame we make them feel like they are powerless to change. As you say, it can be very hard to separate the illness from the behavior. Am I correct to say that the point of Dante’s explorations of sin is not self-flagellation, but self-improvement (which may require a bit of flagellation, I suppose).

#14 Comment By Thehova On May 15, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

Rod, you sound like you have the mind of a writer :). In a weird sort of way, your blog posts often remind me of Norwegion writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Both of you struggle to find purity and solitude as modern day writers.

#15 Comment By JB On May 15, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

I think living on line via the internets & blog has the same effect as the ring did on Smeagol who became Gollum.
Look at how happy and healthy Sullivan looks according to what you said.

#16 Comment By Frankie T. On May 15, 2015 @ 3:32 pm

Rod, have you ever read a description of the traits of introverted personalities? The desire for solitude is a big one.

I consider myself a relatively social person, and my job requires a lot of intensive daily interactions with people. I do get exhausted by dealing with people, however (even if the interactions are pleasant), and I sometimes need large parts of the weekend by myself to recharge. From what I’ve read, this is characteristic of introverts. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a hermit; it’s just that you get personally, emotionally, etc. drained by interacting with people. Extroverts are the opposite: they get energized by interacting with people. (shudder)

For what it’s worth, I’m 56 and my tendencies toward introversion have become more manifest and obvious to me over the past 10 years or so.

#17 Comment By Mark On May 15, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

Kudos for your bravery in opening up in such a personal way. It explains a lot—since I started reading your blog, I have marveled at (1) how much you obviously read every day, and (2) how much youactually write every day. So much more than any other blogger that I know of; and now it makes more sense. But I have to ask this, perhaps as the devil’s advocate. Is it possible that this aspect of your inner life is also partially behind your advocacy of the Benedict Option? I personally have always been attracted to the notion of a life of study and contemplation with like-minded fellows, cut off from the larger outer world which is going to hell in a handbasket, much as I imagine the monasteries of Europe functioned as the Dark Ages came crashing down upon the carcass of the Roman Empire. As appealing as I find this—I would love to spend time boning up on Latin and Greek—I always run up against the wall of the Gospels. As far as I can tell, Jesus called upon his followers to go forth and engage with the world, not withdraw from it, even in times of persecution—turning the other cheek and all that. We are supposed to be busy loving our neighbors, who are essentially defined as those as far removed from us as possible in society. How does something so fundamental become reconciled with the Benedict Option? And perhaps your personal inclination to live “not in the real world”?

#18 Comment By S On May 15, 2015 @ 3:56 pm

I agree with all the other stuff, but…get your testosterone level checked.

[NFR: I did; it’s fine. — RD]

#19 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On May 15, 2015 @ 4:03 pm

Mike W, I used to work at Western Oregon University (now I’m at Oregon State U) and I can tell you that it’s a great campus and great school. The staff was very close-knit. I’m sure your son will enjoy his time there.

#20 Comment By Sordello On May 15, 2015 @ 4:11 pm

“I think you need a vacation. Flights to Europe are cheap and the dollar is strong – maybe VRBO a house in an Italian hill town?”

Yes, perhaps with a hairy gentleman of Italian descent. Which sounds worse than it is.

[NFR: Readers, I am going to Siena and Lyon with Sordello in July. — RD]

#21 Comment By Coleman On May 15, 2015 @ 4:31 pm

I honestly don’t know how you do it, Rod – I have the same tendencies you do to prefer online interaction, but my job forces me to interact with people face to face (in deeply personal ways, as a pastor), and I’m immensely grateful for that. If my job was to interact with people online, I don’t know if I’d be able to break free from the grip of that.
That said – I’m glad to hear you’re going to Italy in July, but have you ever thought about taking a vacation from the internet – spending a week completely offline? I know, your job requires you to be online, and I’m grateful for what you do here. But couldn’t you write a few auto-publishing posts, find a few guest bloggers, ask someone else to moderate for a week, and get away? Maybe “fasting” is a better word for that than “vacation,” but I wonder if it would help you break some of those habits. And now that I write that, I’m starting to wonder if maybe I don’t need the internet for work quite as much as I tell myself I do…

#22 Comment By Rev. Brian Carpenter On May 15, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

I’m 46 and semi-autistic too. I find that I’m getting better at social intereaction as I age, though some other weird behaviors like inappropriately talking to myself out loud are getting a bit worse.

#23 Comment By Alan On May 15, 2015 @ 5:02 pm

It’s what everyone does today. Whether it’s walking around the office, the street, or driving, we are obsessed with our phones. Heads down and no eye contact with the world around us, too self absorbed with ourselves.

I’m halfway through Crawford’s book and it’s fantastic. Not at all what I was expecting.

Looking forward to future posts as you read through it.

#24 Comment By Anne On May 15, 2015 @ 5:14 pm

If having your attention focused almost entirely on the internet via some hand-held device is autistic or slothful or whatever, MANY people, including the vast majority of Millenials and their teenage counterparts, suffer from the very same malady. I think it’s really just the latest form of human interaction. People will always be sociable or not, depending on their personality, but humans all need some way to connect socially, and texting, blogging and emailing are just the latest form that process takes.

If you went around with your nose in a book instead, people would consider you either very cool or very weird. Do the same with a digital device, and you’ll eventually hear somebody complain. This too is normal. The latest technology is always a convenient object of suspicion and blame. No matter, I really don’t think Christians need another source of guilt. Sloth in the sense of acting like a good-for-nothing layabout is a sin worth considering; feeling guilty about tending to a blog and actually enjoying it sounds more like the result of what “Joe Vs. the Volcano” called a “brain cloud”: much ado about nothing. Nothing at all.

#25 Comment By Elijah On May 15, 2015 @ 5:19 pm

I hope you will forgive me for a sort of armchair diagnosis, but I know these symptoms well both personally and professionally.

First off, I do not think that there is any question that depression and stress both can create and/or exacerbate the feeling of being run down. This in turn tends to make us somewhat withdrawn and sullen, especially if we have those personality tendencies to begin with.

The autism spectrum symptoms (there’s a lot more to autism than Asperger’s!) is also quite understandable. I have some symptoms myself. And yes, I think some of them cause us to be off in our own little worlds at times, but this isn’t necessarily anti-social or slothful: we’re just interested in something else.

As Bill Hoffman wisely noted above, the tendency towards self-absorption is another matter entirely. This, I think, needs to be resisted very actively. I have students who cannot – literally cannot – empathize at all with anyone. Not their feelings, emotions, thoughts, desires, etc. We spend an ENORMOUS amount of time trying to help them understand that this kind of behavior only adds to their isolation and even alienation. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But it’s a process.

By all means discuss it with your counselor.

#26 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 15, 2015 @ 6:29 pm

Not to be snide, but perhaps you should compare what you wrote about the fate of Christianity in light of SSM etc. 2-3 years ago with what you are writing now. Its not that you’ve done a 180 flip, but there is a stridency, a fixation, in the last several months, that isn’t quite like the Rod Dreher we knew and loved. I’ve been wondering why that is. Perhaps there is an organic reason. A subtle one, that makes just a few degrees of difference, and tips from legitimate concern to obsession?

#27 Comment By Charlieford On May 15, 2015 @ 7:47 pm

Even before this, I’ve been wondering if you aren’t sort of burning the candle at both ends? You don’t even have a team, and you’re an almost-Sullivan.

Perhaps you should take up fishing?

#28 Comment By k On May 15, 2015 @ 8:30 pm

In one way, as much more as you live and interact in the online world, I think you also have shared so much of your personal self in your recent books, and in your blog writing each day. It makes total sense for me that you would crave then, in some of your daily in-person time, to just not be seen, or to grasp some of those moments for solitude that you can. Even though it’s online, you really practice very much the opposite of solitude or withdrawal.

#29 Comment By MMCCANN On May 16, 2015 @ 12:25 am

As a fellow member of the Autistic spectrum, you should be careful not to be too hard on yourself.

All of what you said may also be true, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also found I have increasing awareness of myself.

Ask yourself, is it that unusual for you to do something like that while waiting for your take out?

You might have done it dozens or hundreds of times in your life, if you’re like me, and just now have the awareness of how this behavior appears to other people.

It’s a thing to struggle with, but I find the worst times with autism are when you don’t know you’re entering a difficult time.

#30 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On May 16, 2015 @ 7:00 am

I’ll second what Siarlys Jenkins said. While I enjoy stridency, and would buy you a sandwich board with “the end is near” on it. It’s probably not the best for your health. Hopefully you’ll get to relax in July.

#31 Comment By heartright On May 16, 2015 @ 7:16 am

Mike W says:
May 15, 2015 at 1:03 pm

Rod, I don’t think the behavior you write about is out of norm nowadays. I notice it all the time. I do a daily commute on a Washington State ferry and I am always struck by how attached people are to their devices. If they aren’t head down texting or reading, or playing a game, they’re plugged in with headphones listening to music or whatever. . .God forbid anyone makes eye contact.

I notice that too. But one cannot pretend that this normal is somehow normal or acceptable: none conform to this norm as strongly as young mothers with little children who take pains to be Not Available (Shush! be quiet! ) to their toddlers?
( And don’t they realise that some day, they wonder where it all went? That this is most wonderful age of a human being – and they are missing out on it? That their children this way will learn early that mummy is completely unneccessary to them,and of no use either? )

Rod! Rod! Rod!

You do not need to be free inside or outside of Crawfordesque terms – since we are all marionettes anyway. But first and foremost, you must exist for your family.

And for reasons of your health, and not for reasons of content, I must offer for the second time ( the first being as soon as Dante was finished ) a firma cautela against the notion of writing another book for a couple of years.

#32 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On May 16, 2015 @ 7:48 am

Dear Rod,

I think this is a common tendency of deep thinkers like you. Few of the greatest thinkers of history were socialites.

Also, the Internet is a great temptation for our slothfulness. Reading your blog puts me in touch with intellectually above average people, within a framework of ideas I fondly share. What greater pleasure?

Apart from the reactions of my wife, which everytime she sees the transhumanist device from California open at your blog, she rightfully yells at me “American Conservative again?”, I’m starting to get annoyed by the kind of debate you have to have with people.

As an example, next week our parish will hold a debate about pope Francis’ recent blasting of Gender Theory. (“An error of the mind”). Well, I’m sure if I go there I’ll find people parroting the mainstream media adopted mantra here and in France, that there is no Gender Theory, but only Gender Studies.
The fatigue of explaining people without any epistemological background that there is no discipline without a theory tires me in advance.

I know is the right thing to do. But I rather won’t. Also, I’m afraid I’d sit in a corner silently bemoaning human stupidity, or – even worst – I’d come out as arrogant and offensive. The right thing to do would be to go there and making my point patiently and humbly. I know, but man, it’s hard…

[NFR: Where in Italy do you live? I would love to meet you this summer when I come over, though I will only be in Siena briefly. Write me at rod — at — amconmag.com — RD]

#33 Comment By BlairBurton On May 16, 2015 @ 1:21 pm

Siarlys Jenkins is right. Rod is beginning to remind me of the “Get-Ready Man” in James Thurber’s “My Life and Hard Times”.

#34 Comment By Lisa On May 16, 2015 @ 2:20 pm

I feel your pain. I’m 53, and if I can spend an entire weekend at home, not leaving the house and not talking to anyone other than family, I’m a happy camper. For me it is in part the double mutation of the MTHFR gene. But I also enjoy my own company. I love to read, think, and sleep. The fact that I’m an elementary special ed teacher and get entirely too much stimulation during the week also contributes to my desire to be alone.

#35 Comment By JonF311 On May 16, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

The older I get the less tolerant I get of crowds. Congested traffic, packed stores, long lines, and venues so jammed that I am jostled constantly* set me right on edge.

* I have always had a strong dislike of being randomly touched. Purposeful touches— a handshake, an embrace, the attentions of a doctor or dentist– are perfectly OK. But being bumped into is almost like small electric shock. Too much of that and I flee in irritation.

#36 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On May 17, 2015 @ 7:02 pm

I work with my hands all day with a bunch of cocky construction-worker a-holes and I can’t wait to get home and tune out the world and be mediated by the internet and socialize with internet folk.

#37 Comment By tpodonnell On May 17, 2015 @ 9:13 pm

Rod,
Have you read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr? Don’t assume that your brain has always functioned like this. Carr’s argument is that technology actively changes the shape of our brains and the way that we think, even in the latest years of our lives. It’s both very scary–because even an 80-year old who picks up a smartphone then has his brain shape changed–but also very hopeful, because it’s possible to change it back.

#38 Comment By Ed Furlong On May 18, 2015 @ 8:34 pm

Rod,

I recently finished “The World Beyond Your Head” and as an environmental scientist who spends far too much time in front of digital devices in office, lab, home, and on the road, it really hit home. In fact it reinforced my efforts to work and learn more through my physical actions, especially hand tool use, something I have done for a number of years.

Given my own predilections of digital overinvolvement and hand-tool use, I found it very interesting that the book designers for “The World Beyond Your Head” referenced an icon of hand-tool ability and accomplishment by using a blow up of a photo of the H.O. Studley tool chest as the cover of the book. This tool chest is regarded as one of the great touchstones of hand tool construction amongst woodworkers. Thus for me, and I suspect for many others, removing the flyleaf to see the image beneath is a form of apocalypse (at least in the original form you have mentioned recently) of what unmediated interaction with the material world can produce.

As it happens, the Studley tool chest was made available for a limited showing at a Hand Tool conference in Iowa this last weekend. I drove two days to attend the conference (handworks.co) and more specifically, to see the chest. It did not disappoint. You can learn more about this marvelous testament to the principles Matthew Crawford illuminates so insightfully at:

studleytoolchest.com

and a book that explores the details of this magnificent work in detail is at:

[4]

Pursuing facility and expertise with tools goes a long way in schooling you in the joy and frustrations of being truly skilled in a physical knowledge and expertise–don’t ask how I know this.