WHY I LIKEN YOUR AUTISTIC CHILD TO A ZOO ANIMAL
(that is just to get your attention and hopefully get you to read this, whether your life has been a breeze or a struggle)
I’ll preface this by saying, I’m on the Autistic Spectrum and I don’t really think your child is like a zoo animal, God Forbid. He or she will grow up and they may face the same challenges I have and so this is worth sharing with people as part of an awareness campaign because it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder.
There comes a time when you have to pry open people’s mouths and force feed them information because it is not getting to their brain. That is what advocacy in this “genre” has been like for me.
People aren’t listening or are not interested.
So I’m hoping that if I extend myself begrudgingly that perhaps it will reach their cognitive faculties through their mouths and their stomachs.
Who knows, stranger things have happened. I had a recent discussion with a prominent and distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry and an MD/PhD at UCLA.
He said I should share this construct I described with him because clinicians much less the general public have trouble wrapping their heads around a relatively simple notion, which I write about in a blog here.
Since several people in my family have been affected by autism and they don’t even understand it, this may be a futile exercise but here it goes.
People have asked me why I was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age 40? What they really meant is that you seem really “normal”, so why did you bother? Well obviously there was a problem. I somehow managed to get into graduate and professional school and contrary to what people think it was a huge struggle for me because I have executive function problems. The PhD was a cake walk, but doing it at the same time as veterinary school was a challenge.
Difficulties with executive functioning are common with ADHD and high-functioning autism, which I have both of. This does not mean that I drool all over my shirt or otherwise bang my head against a wall incessantly. In fact, I’m told I have an abundance of sex appeal!! What it does means is that I process certain information faster and slower and differently than other people.
There are a lot of highly educated people on the Autism Spectrum holding Masters’ degrees and PhD’s and professional degrees. Some of them are aware they are on the Spectrum and some aren’t.
Regardless, nearly 90 percent of people with high-functioning autism are unemployed or underemployed. In this economy the number can only be increasing.
Working as a zoo keeper was not particularly challenging because you don’t really exchange words extensively with zoo animals even when training them. So you don’t have to flawlessly navigate any conversation or read their minds as they react fairly well to routinized structure. In other words, their lives for better or worse are extremely predictable.
This is not to say that anyone with reduced emotional intelligence can work as a zoo keeper, but you certainly don’t have to be close to a skilled social butterfly to clean up after the animals and tend to other zoo keeping duties.
Even zoo managers, and not all of them, are not known for their social acumen and people skills. Hence, the column in one well -known trade magazine to industry people was entitled “People Skills for Animal People”.
Go to a zoo conference and you will see what I mean. The people who move up in the zoo world are neither the most credentialed nor those with greatest animal sense (for the most part). The one’s who move up the ranks from zoo keeper to curator to director are usually those with the best people skills. Although some could probably handle any social environment, the ones in zoos are just the best of their industry and zoos are not reservoirs for those harboring etiquette and social graces compared to the general population. I may offend my colleagues, but I’m telling it like it is.
I certainly wouldn’t excel as a corporate executive, but some how I managed to move my way up to some degree in zoo settings.
As much as they aren’t working venues for the socially gifted, they also are not particularly sensitive to the neurodiverse. As we know, they are focused on animal care and not people care. So for better or worse, I had great difficulty managing people in a zoo, which is not my best skill set by any stretch of the imagination.
Example: I had left my position in Alaska to take another curatorial role at a facility in California. I politely asked my staff to come out and help me on one rainy day to rake leaves as I had done at other facilities where I had also shoveled snow and to my dismay they responded saying they don’t work outside in the rain via a radio correspondence/transmission. To say that I almost had a mini-stroke and lost my shit, or at least my patience, would be putting it mildly. Someone neurotypical may have been able to regain their composure, but I was so angry, they are very lucky no one on my staff perished that day. So without further ado….
I have seen in the psychiatric/psychological and popular literature, discussion of autistics and sociopaths and the presumed commonalities they share. The reason I mention this is because contrasting both conditions, which are both spectrum disorders helps me explain to people unfamiliar with Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functioning autism, what it is exactly. If one day I write a book about this, I hope to be credited with introducing the subject matter having coined the term “Spectrumnomics” because I consider my construct to be a give and take of two emotional currencies (i.e. compassion and empathy) across two spectra.
Fundamentally, and remember I’m a zoologist and neither a comparative or cognitive psychologist, but the sociopath is someone who can turn on and off empathy, but really has no compassion (no feeling). This discussion is largely about semantics and the use of the terms “empathy” and “compassion”.
Sociopaths perceive how others may feel but have no feelings themselves. That is why they make great con-artists and professional felons. The autistic on the other hand is someone with plausibly a lot of compassion and no empathy. This can lead to a heightened sensitivity with an inability to seemingly modify extreme behavior or react in a way that is commensurate with the inciting stimulus. That is why these people can be highly emotional even though they can’t read the intentions of others. -Jordan Schaul, PhD
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