This post is more personal than normal, and very long. The current medical consensus is that autism is caused, in part, by a malfunction of the mirror neuron system. My personal experience growing up tends to support this theory.
I was born with an over-active empathy system. I would look at a person’s face and feel exactly what that person was feeling. I couldn’t inhibit it, so I was at the mercy of wherever my eyes landed. This was very stressful, and I spent a great deal of effort learning to avoid these involuntary empathies. I have many distinct memories of this learning process. For a young person, the easiest way to control my feelings was to control my eyes. I only looked at faces I could trust, and avoided the rest. Looking at faces was dangerous.
We grew up without a television. It was only when I was 16 that my mother explained why. When I was two years old, my parents had a TV. Apparently, some of the people on the TV would set me off, causing me to freak out inconsolably. My parents solved the problem by getting rid of the TV.
Written words were safe. My mother taught me to read before I started Kindergarten. There were two different reading styles. In one style, I would read a book aloud to my mother and keep an auditory rhythm — I had to read ahead several words before speaking, so that I could get the inflection right. That required attention and focus. The other style was when I was silently reading a book like the encyclopedia, enthralled by the world of experiences it opened up.
I did well enough on the aptitude test to start Kindergarten at age 4. This was a serious problem, since I was taken away from all the faces I trusted. I bonded with the first kid I met on the bus, because he was wearing the same shirt as me. His name was David, and the shirt was a purple “Grover” shirt. He was the first and last person I would bond with that year. The teacher’s face was stern. The class “work” was boring, and the patterns on the walls and ceiling were interesting, so I completely ignored the teacher. Classmates were a new quantity, but there were far too many kids to keep track. I attempted some social experiments that ended in disaster. After the first couple of weeks, I was made to sit at the desk with my head down during much of every class. I was rarely allowed to go to recess. I internalized Kindergarten as the “dark head down place”.
A few weeks into the Kindergarten year, the teacher called me to the front of the room. She had been told that I knew how to read, but she didn’t believe it. She gave me a book and asked me to read it aloud, so I did. Her face was confused, and she asked me to sit down. I was happy, but it was only for the day. After that, Kindergarten remained a “dark head down place”.
One day, we were all taken to a room where we sat on the floor to watch a movie. I watched as the teacher rolled out the movie projector. I had learned not to look at the faces of the other kids, so I didn’t notice that they were all looking at the wall instead of the movie projector. I watched the beams of light gleam forth from the movie projector, and listened to the sounds. When the movie finished, all of the other children broke into applause. It was only then that I realized they were all looking at the wall opposite the movie projector. I had missed the entire movie.
First grade was somewhat easier, since we were allowed to read. I made a friend based purely upon us sharing the same last name. After my humiliating movie experience, I was more venturesome in looking at other children. On the playground, I could watch other kids and experience exactly what they were experiencing. I could watch the fastest kid chasing the soccer ball, and I was there. It was as if I were projected into the other person’s body. I could feel the wind blowing through my hair, feel every muscle twitch, and see what he saw. I could feel the thump each time my foot hit the ball. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never experienced this — I literally experienced as if I were the other person. It was exhilarating!
Unfortunately, this dramatic empathy was dangerous. In those days, the boys loved to play “marbles”. One day, I was projecting into another boy’s body and enjoying a race toward the soccer ball. My consciousness was 50 yards away, completely unaware that another boy had placed his coffee can full of marbles on the ground near where my body was standing. As the soccer player ran with arms swinging, my arms swung simultaneously. When he reached the ball and kicked, my leg kicked simultaneously. His foot hit the ball, while my body’s foot hit the coffee can full of marbles. The marbles scattered everywhere. I vaguely became aware of a boy screaming, “HEY! WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”. Then I saw someone running toward me with murder in his face. I ran away and hid, barely escaping violence. I had learned my lesson. Mirroring was danger, and I shut it off.
When we saw our first movie that year, I remembered my Kindergarten experience, and proudly looked at the wall instead of the projector. I was finally like the other kids! It was a movie about some cartoon vegetables. At some point in the movie, one of the cartoon vegetables started strangling another. As the dying cartoon vegetable’s eyes started to water, my eyes started to water. As his face turned red and then purple, my face flushed. As he choked, I was unable to breathe. I thought for sure I was going to die. It was one of the most horrible experiences of my young life. At some point, I noticed that all of my classmates were laughing and pointing at the screen. They were laughing at the violence! It was a shocking and formative experience for me. I instantly decided that they were defective and dangerous. I couldn’t believe that anyone would voluntarily watch a movie like that, let alone get enjoyment from it. Whatever those kids were, they were not like me. I decided to shut off my empathy when watching movies, and learned not to expect anything of other children.
Second grade was bad. Mrs. Rogers smelled bad and was full of hate. Every morning, she made all of us sit in a circle on the floor, holding hands, while she played Kenny Roger’s “She Believes in Me” on the record player. She would make us sing along while she sat in the middle of the circle with her bad smell. She forced us to gaze at her while we sung. Afterwards, she would spend the day explaining why she didn’t believe in us. It was an excruciating fraud.
I hadn’t done any classwork or homework in the previous two years, and I wasn’t about to start. I couldn’t. The patterns outside the window were mesmerizing, and it was impossible to pay attention to Mrs. Rogers. There were too many patterns within the classroom, too, and I couldn’t focus on the classwork. Mrs. Rogers took it personally, certain that I was out to defy her. In her mind, it was all about her; teachers can be narcissistic like that. It never occurred to her that my mind was elsewhere. The less I responded to her, the more she tried to force me. I was never allowed to go to recess. She would stand next to me and scream in my ear. In frustration, she would sometimes grab my arm and use it like a lifeless stump to write out problems on the classwork. I hated being touched, but I could project my consciousness outside and escape the unpleasantness. I never did any classwork.
Mrs. Rogers convinced my mother that I needed to be punished. Every day, when I arrived at home, I was made to stand in the corner for an hour or two. Then I was made to stare at my homework. I never did homework, either. I have no idea why they graduated me to third grade. I suspect that Mrs. Rogers didn’t want to have to deal with me again.
Third and fourth grade were relatively easy, since there was no classwork or homework to speak of. I mastered the small amount of material effortlessly, and only had to deliver on tests, which I enjoyed immensely. I was able to pass as normal, although there were plenty of embarrassing incidents caused by my cauterization of my mirroring instincts. More than once, I forgot that the other kids existed and withdrew into my imaginary world, only to be yanked out of it by the sound of the whole class laughing and pointing at me while I did something strange.
Fifth grade was interesting. The tests were easy, but the teacher placed great importance on classwork and homework. She also insisted that we maintain a puzzling organization scheme for our desks. The other students easily met these requirements, but I was incapable. She took my incapacity personally, convinced that I was out to get her. Teachers can be narcissistic like that. One day, she had a meltdown and started screaming at me in front of the class. She physically picked up my desk, shook it upside-down over the floor, and threw away most of my stuff. She told me that I was no longer allowed to have a desk, and that I would have to sit on the floor at the front of the room, facing the other students. She said that she wanted me to see all of the other students looking at me, so I could be embarrassed. That is where she kept me for the rest of the year.
The teacher insisted that I would never graduate without finishing all of my classwork and homework. That was inconceivable, so I got used to the idea of sitting on the floor forever. I was shocked when they graduated me to sixth grade anyway.
In sixth grade, my friend was a kid named Marc. Like me, he was only semi-present, but for different reasons. His home life was terrible. His mother went through a sequence of boyfriends who would punch holes in the walls and doors of his home, and essentially left him to raise himself. His idea of fun was to cut himself and put salt in the wounds, or put salt in his eyes. He was obsessed with the depraved porn that he found in his mother’s nightstand, and loved pro wrestling. We both had a talent for electronics, and our sixth grade teacher usually let us leave class for hours at a time to build circuits in the lab. The times in the lab without a teacher nagging me were some of my favorite school experiences up to that point. I lost touch with Marc after sixth grade, and later learned that he was sucked into a machine and killed at his factory job shortly after graduating high school.
Sixth grade is when I was forced to stop hiding from the mirroring. A handful of the boys started going through puberty, and grew large and aggressive. They would torment and bully the other kids mercilessly. There was a distinct inflection point early in the year when I realized that I could no longer hide or run from them, so I would have to cope with them. I made the effort to mirror them, talk to them, and build a rapport. It was exhausting at first, requiring attention and focus. But later it became surprisingly easy. In a few short weeks, the bullies began to think of me as a friend, and became my protectors. I was one of the only non-bully kids who was liked and protected by the bullies; a pattern that would continue throughout the remaining years of school. I didn’t exactly think of them as friends, of course. They were more like dangerous wild animals that I was forced to train, lest I be mauled by them. But it was nice to have other kids to go talk to when I got sick of Marc trying to turn everything into a conversation about anal sex.
My empathy system was overpowering, and too exhausting to regulate. I would’ve preferred to leave it shut off, but I needed it for survival. From sixth grade forward, I built up the skills I needed to regulate effectively — opportunistically at first, and methodically as I got older. By about age 16, the skills had become effortless enough that interaction with groups of strangers became more enjoyable than stressful. By age 19, social situations were even more fun than math. By age 20, I pitied the masses who didn’t share my neuronal aptitude for mirror immersion.
There are many other anecdotes I could use to illustrate the point, but you get the idea. Those days are far behind me, but my regulation of my mirroring system is still conscious and deliberate. For most people, it’s a natural capability, but it’s prosthetic for me. And I still need to shut down the mirroring completely from time to time; most often when I’m stressed or focused on a difficult intellectual challenge. Those are the times I go into “robot mode”, seeing other people as robots.
In one sense, I’m the exact opposite of autistic. Many high-functioning autistics don’t have a problem with the regulation; it’s the ability to mirror that they need to build prosthetically. But I suspect that the mechanism in early childhood is often the same — the kid’s mirror system gets overwhelmed, and the traumatized kid starts to instinctively shut things down. We know that autistic people have fewer mirror neurons in some important areas, but I suspect that this is as much a result of cauterization as it is a cause. It’s probably analogous to the way that the hippocampus shrinks in depressed people, and a smaller hippocampus then contributes to depression. In autistic kids, the process may just be triggered very early, and quickly becomes irreversible.