Dilettantes Need Not Apply: Autistic Behaviors are Complex, but not Psychotic


One thing that struck me when I first began to grok what it means to be autistic was how very wrong were many of the “Freudian” explanations and bits of advice I had gotten over the years. I put the word in quotes to indicate I am using it in the vernacular sense of unconscious actions that spring from some repressed trauma. We all know that a Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother. 🙂

This kind of (false) thinking seems quite pervasive in our culture, to the point that everyone becomes an amateur psychoanalyst, looking for hidden meanings, instead of seeking a simpler explanation.

This is the second of a series of posts, commenting on the meaning of being autistic. My thoughts here have been inspired by reading Steve Jobs, the 2011 biography by Walter Isaacson. In the first of these posts (Autism is a Silver Car), I began to explore the idea that autism is a way of being in the world. I will continue to develop that theme here.

Chapter One: Childhood

The Adoption: Isaacson writes (on page 4)

“Abandoned. Chosen. Special. These concepts became part of who Jobs was and how he regarded himself.”

The author has an overblown idea of the impact on Jobs’s personality of knowing from a young age that he was adopted. Isaacson has done a bit of second-hand psychoanalysis, based on interviewing some of Steve’s friends. “His closest friends think that the knowledge … left some scars.” He quotes Del Yocam, “I think his desire for complete control of whatever he makes derives directly from his personality and the fact that he was abandoned at birth. He wants to control his environment, and he sees the product as an extension of himself.” And Greg Calhoun, “Steve talked to me a lot about being abandoned and the pain that caused. It made him independent. He followed the beat of a different drummer, and that came from being in a different world than he was born into.” And Andy Hertzfeld, “The key question about Steve is why he can’t control himself at times from being so reflexively cruel and harmful to some people. That goes back to being abandoned at birth. The real underlying problem was the theme of abandonment in Steve’s life.”

These, it seems to me, were people grasping at straws, seeking to understand a person whose personality was complex and perplexing. I reject these psychoanalytic speculations, and, as mentioned in Autism is a Silver Car, by invoking Occam’s razor, I see that all of these “quirks” are fully understandable if one simply posits that Steve Jobs was autistic. The deep desire for and attempt to achieve complete control, for example, is a common mode of behavior for autistics. Our need for controlling our environment springs not from any feeling of “abandonment” or even of being different; rather it is an attempt to reduce the anxiety and stress that arises from our fear of change or of the unknown. New or unpredictable situations or outcomes can be terrifying to us (likely attributable to all the extra brainpower that is required to process them). Add in our streak of perfectionism, and you get a strong desire to be able to completely control (and therefore predict) the outcome of a process that is important to us. Granted, these behaviors can, in reality, be self-defeating, as when we alienate the very people we need to enlist to control change.

Similarly, being “independent” and following the “beat of a different drummer”* as well as “being in a different world” are all rather cliché ways of describing autistic people.

As to explaining why Steve Jobs was “reflexively cruel” my guess is that his need for control and perfection was so paramount to him that he did not realize the extent of his insensitivity, and perhaps did not understand why (or that) other people did not share his vision and passion. Doing perspective-taking is hard for autistics, and doing self-perspective-taking (seeing ourselves as other see us) is the hardest of all.

* In the Conclusion to Walden, Thoreau writes,

“If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”

Henry David Thoreau was himself likely autistic.

It is telling that, according to Isaacson, “Jobs dismissed this.” He called all of the attribution of his behavior to “abandonment” to be “nonsense” and “ridiculous.” So, shall we believe the amateur psychologists, or shall we believe the person who experienced his life?

Next: Childhood in Silicon Valley

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