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What it’s like to be Functionally “Autistic”

I’ve never been explicitly diagnosed with autism or aspergers, but these labels have proven to be a useful short-hand to discuss many mental tendencies that I have noticed in myself and others over the last few years. Reasons why I do believe that I am “on the spectrum” somewhere is because it has been explicitly diagnosed in other family members, and because friends who I have met who have also been diagnosed have said with confidence that they notice similar attributes in me (and sometimes they notice this within about 5 minutes of our meeting).

In any case, here are just a few “tendencies” or patterns that we tend to see… people with mild “autism” tend to be more explicit, literal and systematic with their thinking. This is by no means a negative in-itself because it can help with clear, organised and logical thinking. Really, the negative aspects seem to result from an over-literalism, or over-systematisation which the autist/aspie can be much more prone to, which becomes part-and-parcel of what I would call the “mechanisation” of the mind (something that I will have a lot more to say about in time).

The thing that’s on my mind at the moment is to do with one particular aspect of how the functional autist seems to have a different thought-process or thought-development compared to other “normal” individuals.

Now, a few months back I did an interview with The Kurgan – another self-recognised “autist” who has a high IQ, and who has made many of his own public statements about this topic.

That particular interview was about personality and the malleability of our character, including attitudes, behaviours and habits. The Kurgan claimed that there is undeniably a core self that makes each person distinctly and uniquely themselves. We could link this to the soul and say that it is pretty much set in stone. However, there are large swathes of what we might otherwise designate as “personality” which are not set in stone and can be very, very adaptable to change. For example, underneath all of your behaviours you might be aware of some kind of distinct “selfness” which makes you who you are, but there may be many behaviours or mental attitudes that can or do change, which are not really markers of your “true self” at all. Perhaps you are a smoker and think “I am a smoker” and conclude that this is definite and will never change. Perhaps you think “I am bad at socialising and can never make friends” and likewise conclude that you are definitively anti-social and that this will never change. But The Kurgan insisted that no… given that our brains are plastic, many of these features can be far more adaptable than we might think.

Indeed, at a personal level I know how my own attitudes and habits have changed a lot over the course of my life. I’m also reminded of one friend with her own “autistic” tendencies… we shared the interesting discovery one day that we are both, deep down, quite natural introverts. Yet, when people generally encounter us, they conclude that we are confident extroverts. She explained from her own view that she recognised the need to socialise in life and consciously learned all of the skills of being a bright, happy, approachable and social person. For her, socialising was simply a skill that she had developed, so convincingly that people now think that she’s a “natural”, despite the fact that for her the most “natural” thing would be to sit alone in a corner.

It’s an interesting thing to discover, and it got me thinking about what it’s like to be a functioning autist in terms of learning and shaping behaviours. Because, like I mentioned, the brain (all brains) are plastic enough to be adaptable, but the “autists” tend to be born with a mind that tends towards explicitly and systematisation, whilst distinctly lacking particular “normal” attitudes, especially as applied to the social sphere.

And so, this is the model that I’ve come up with to explain it:

It’s like Mr. Potato-Head. Mr. Potato-Head can have 100 different faces depending on how you place his features: do you set the eyes slightly higher, or slightly further apart? Does he have a big mouth or small? Does he wear a bright, shiny red had to make him seem striking and daring, or something more tame to make him more subdued? Or no hat at all? By analogy, I think of all of the features of Mr. Potato-Head as the attitudes, habits and patterns or thinking/behaviour of each personality. Following The Kurgan’s model, each person is a distinct and unique potato, but whether one potato adorns a big-grin with a red hat or a frown with a blue hat is subject to change.

Now, if this model applies to everyone, here is what I think it is like for the functioning autists…

Most “normal” people come with many faces with features that feel natural and that most people take for granted. These tend to be things that most people take for granted. For example, if you ask a “normal” person: “how do you socialise so easily with people?” they might shrug and just say “that’s just what I do… socialising is easy.” Whereas for an autist, the question seems to be severely lacking. The “normal” person is simply born with that hat – they are already wearing it and may not feel any need to know why, whereas the autist isn’t wearing the hat at all and doesn’t necessarily know why anyone would even choose to. It’s as if the “normal” person is born with a full face with all of the appropriate features, and naturally feels that all of the features are in the right place, whereas the autist is a potato born without a fully-featured face, and is surrounded by ears, hats, and smiles that he is not at all sure yet what to do with…

However, this bit is key…

Given the autist’s proclivity for explicit thinking, they have a pronounced ability to discern and choose each feature that they wish to build upon, in a way that helps them to understand it more clearly. For the “normal” person, perhaps the fact that they wear a particular “hat” is taken for granted. For the autist, the “hat” isn’t taken for granted at all – they feel the need to understand the hat, to discern its function, to weigh it against other hats and consider how it fits in with the rest of what they are building upon.

It’s for this reason that I see the pattern in which functioning autists start off by feeling utterly confused by things that most other people regard as self-evident. Yet, when the autist finally digests this idea, or attitude, or behaviour, they tend to understand it more completely and thoroughly than those around them. I have seen this in a number of spheres:

  • Autists who go from being anti-social to being thoroughly pro-social by understanding...

  • Autists who go from being utterly confused by women and romantic relationships to being so popular with women that they feel spoiled for choice…

  • Autists who have to understand the complete sub-structure and operations of a computer system before they feel like they can undertake any programming…

  • My own primary experience of this effected my understanding of philosophy or logical reasoning. I didn’t feel like I understood why the principles of logic themselves were of self-evident value, and so felt the need to get “underneath” these (very) basic principles in order to feel confidence in them. This culminated in my book Life and Truth, and is one reason why I now have a thorough understanding of things like the Law of Non-Contradiction.

  • People have also commented that I have shown similar results in matters of religion, in which my own need to do detailed study of religion meant that I gained a more complete understanding of Christianity as a convert than many who were born into the religion.

The pattern is always the same: it starts off with what feels like bewilderment at things that most people seem to understand naturally and take for granted, then there is a process of trying to thoroughly understand the issue, and finally it produces an understanding that goes beyond the “norm” which then allows the autist to become extra-competent with the idea. This is, I think, why The Kurgan ultimately refers to functional autism as a kind of “superpower” if it is used correctly. There are many pitfalls during this process and a mechanical mind creates many dangers, but I will write more on this in due course.

For now, I suppose the conclusion is: if like me and others I’ve met, you feel like you’re a bit “autistic” in your thinking and that most things that most people seem to understand organically seem bewildering to you, the response is not that you cannot understand them, or even that you cannot be a particular kind of person, with particular kinds of habits, attitudes and successful relationships. Instead, you may well tell yourself that you are not these things yet and that the extra effort, experimentation and mental discipline you need to put into these things are the price you must pay to gain a deeper appreciation for, and perhaps even a greater mastery over, things which are beautiful, worthwhile and true.

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