2nd April is a date with an incredible mandate. It is World Autism Awareness Day, a day expected to deliver almost the impossible.
Autism is, probably second only to depression in terms of confused understanding that prevails about an alternate state of human mind, as few realise that it is not a disease, but a naturally occurring phenomenon.
To start with, autism comes with a broad range, a spectrum, where very diverse types of traits exist under one umbrella, making it very difficult to define in a limited sense.
At the lower end of the spectrum, we can find some severe cognitive deficits that reduce the beholder to a very limited and constrained life; while at the upper hand we have Aspergers with extremely high IQ who often change the world. The entire autism spectrum is host to higher percentages of extreme talents, ranging from “idiot” savants to highly creative geniuses.
The fact that we need World Autism Awareness Day is because the phenomenon of autism is mistakenly linked with mental retardation, while the real theme that runs across entire autism spectrum is completely different. Autism is best described as a brain-state with impaired Theory of Mind (TOM).
So, to really understand autism and find ways of dealing with, we need to understand what is TOM, and then see if understanding it can help in reducing often debilitating effects of autism.
TOM, in most simple terms, is the innate human ability to understand other human beings. Describing lack of TOM to a non-autist is almost akin to make a person with sight grasp what is blindness for a blind person. TOM is natural and innate in humans and is the core around which our social-ness has evolved.
Armed with a natural TOM, a human being is able to mentally put one’s self in someone else’s shoe. It is a great superpower of the human brain that allows humans to interact, engage, cooperate and form societies.
As TOM is innate and prewired in the human brain, there is a strong possibility that it has genetic origin. The unfortunate part of a genetic phenomenon is that we really don’t have a way to intervene in it through a treatment. As TOM is innate, it comes with its own structural provisions in the brain that are hard to compensate for through alternate means, autism is considered an “incurable problem”.
But, is autism truly incurable?
To find the answer to this problem faced by millions of people, more so parents of kids diagnosed with autism, we need to understand what does impaired TOM do to a person.
To start with, impaired TOM doesn’t mean that the person is dumb or stupid or retarded. It just means lack of a faculty that human beings relate to the most. As autists are people-challenged, their deficit is more pronounced for normal people.
Unlike other impaired-ness, lack of ability to deal with fellow humans is found to be uncomfortable for normal people, so autists face far greater resistance from the society. But, the reality is that every autist is a complete human being, with his/her own understanding of reality and self. The real problem for an autist is human beings around him/her that have a different people-centric idea of the reality.
Going by the TOM based understanding of autism, the obvious cure of autism is providing autists with a Theory of Mind, if not innate, then through external education. As autists are not naturally “educated” about people, they need to be taught “people”.
The idea of compensating autists with an artificial TOM is not as easy as it sounds because humans are tricky beasts. Humans are highly illogical, unpredictable and thus difficult to “learn”. People are such a hard subject to crack that some high-function autists, especially because they are more prone to machine-like logical intellect, find it simpler to focus on simpler subjects like higher mathematics or physics, and excel in them!
But, it is possible to make a working model of humans for an autist depending on his/her intellect that can allow him/her to function within a society. Artificial TOM is possible as a self-learning, especially in those with Asperger’s syndrome where IQ levels are really high, but the real problem is with those at the lower end of the spectrum where high intellect is not available for conscious compensation of the deficit.
So, what is the way to provide artificial TOM to those with substantial cognitive deficit?
The possible answer is assistance and affection.
However limited an autistic person may be, he/she would require to become aware of humans to function meaningfully, so help him/her develop an artificial TOM is not an option but necessity. So, the cure for autism is finding the most suitable way for assisting an autist in learning people or rather removing obstacles from the endeavour each autist must make to do so.
Unfortunately, the most fundamental requirement for training a mind to learn is positive feedback. As autists need to learn people, they need to get a positive response from people for encouraging them to do so. And here is where people normally fail them.
Autists can get hang of people and adjust with humans provided they are assisted by people around them. If they receive love and affection from people, they develop abilities that can help them bridge the limitations brought by lack of innate TOM. But, if they are insulted and criticised, they become hopelessly lost.
If an autist child is not provided positive support and love from the very start, he/she would find it really hard to make the massive and extremely tiring effort of learning TOM. So, however thankless it may appear to love an autist who may not show any signs of responding, there is nothing more crucial than making that effort for a parent nurturing such a child.
On Autism Awareness Day, we need to spread the realisation in non-autist people that autism is a limited deficit of certain brains that need not be considered retarded or dumb.
Autists need positive feedback from fellow human beings so they can adjust within the society and live their lives to the fullest of their other abilities.
Let us also understand that all human beings have their own TOM and no one has a perfect TOM. In reality, every human being is an autist, it is just so that some are more autist than others.
No human being is perfect, but it is our great ability to love and live with our imperfections that make us humans.
Autism is not a disease and hence it needs no cure. It is just another state of mind, unique and special that just needs a wee bit more love than the rest.