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Hi! I’m Johnny Profane.
Hang on for Episode 7 of Autistic As Fuck Out Loud…
Whether you’re autistic, ya love one, work with some… or just can’t figure out if you are one…
Let’s dive into the most universal autistic experience of all… and it’s one hiding right in front of your face.
Even if no one talks about it…
this time? Joyful talk. Some of it adult.
But I think you’ll find hope here…
that you may want to share…
With your kid, your friend, your partner…
I call this one, “#AutisticJoy, Orgasmic Learning… & Ecstasy.”
What the fuck was THAT…
Okay. So I’m in 4th grade. Catholic parochial school. Never said any such thing… back then.
But it’s a precise transcription into adult-ese… of what I felt.
I get excited. Wave my arms. Start bouncing on my butt. Up and down on the sofa in front of the coffee table. I’m breathing hard… gasping… I shudder… and…
I moan. A weird, high, pleasure / pain moan. My head snaps back. My eyes close…
Ya know… Like good sex. That first time.
A flash of bright, white light. My eyes jerk open. But I can’t see anything through blinding fog. Slowly, the room fades back into focus…
That’s the day.
The exact moment.
Autistic-as-fuck-dot-me got addicted to learning. I mean a hard-core… dope-sick… sell-your-dog-to-get-well… learning junkie.
Cuz after 2 hours alone… frustrated… pulling-my-hair-out-and-staring-at-the-follicles anxious… trying to wrap my grade-school brain around binary numbers…
Snapped. Into. Place.
I’ve talked before about #AutisticJoy… what I think of as “flow.”
Like some, isolated autistic characteristics… it’s a lot like what many humans experience. Amplified… and turned just 5 degrees toward “Different.”
Today let’s talk about something similar. The unique joy many autists feel learning… Specifically, something new.
And I don’t mean school learning. I mean exploration on your own. Teaching yourself.
If you’ve ever known an autistic child… OR adult… for sure you’ve witnessed it.
A kid jumping up and down. Waving his arms. Repeating the same phrase. Over and over. Giggling in a library… knowing he must be quiet. But he just found a new book filled with detailed illustrations of Gigantoraptor… and they got the feathers right…
He’s gonna explode.
Junior High was full of names for it. “Nerdgasm.” “Spazz out.” “Geeking out.” “Being a dweeb”…
Hell, everybody’s favorite 80s dork movie… Weird Science..? A third of the dialog mocks autistic behavior.
Hollywood… Always such a keen eye for marketable offensive stereotypes…
But I digress… I gotta finish my story…
Please… bear in mind, this is my intensely detailed, personal experience. And as I go into later… different groups of autistics may experience things way differently.
But for now…
It was just after my 10th birthday… 1963. I pestered my parents for weeks… for ONE present.
A Digi-Comp I.
It was a real, functioning binary computer… made from plastic. That you cranked. I mean, by hand…
I HAD to have one…
See… I read “Boy’s Life” magazine… religiously. I was a Cub Scout… pretty bad at it… never even made Tenderfoot. But after Timmie joined up on the TV show Lassie… well, Boy’s Life became my Bible. It’s where I first read Ray Bradbury…
Anyway, they had a full-page ad on this mechanical computer. And I always found arithmetic boring. It was just stupid memorization.
Zero interest always equals zero effort. Throughout my life.
Don’t get me wrong. I tried HARD to conquer every task handed me. Always did. I was driven to be a “good boy.” To please parents & teachers.
But I have never been able to fight my nature. No matter my good intentions. I fight my nature, my nature always wins.
If it ain’t interesting… I. Can’t. Do. It.
Born that way. Lotta autists say the same…
We had just begun Base-8 arithmetic in school. All the rage for a year or two… like all the other 17 incarnations of New Math. Since then.
Cuz… Programming. “The Career of the Future!!”
And everybody knew MODERN computers thought in Base 8. Which they did. For a few years.
I was a bright kid. Targeted as “gifted” by test scores. But I could simply NOT make the switch to Base 8… except through grinding memorization. Sorta like the multiplication tables were for me at first. And I HATED them…
Mindless. Mindless. Mindless…
Until I realized one day, I could play tricks… sneak up on answers easier and faster.
Say, 9 times 7… it’s really just 10 x 7… minus one 7… so it’s not 70… it’s REALLY 63.
I created dozens of mental tricks over the years. For doing squares like 97 x 97… 9409… in my head… 9401. Or estimating my way into precise answers to long division… lots of tricks.
If I could make a game of something… It was fun. Learning from a teacher… not so much.
Honestly, I’ve never learned well from other humans. I’d rather steal from their example. Or invent something for myself…
But I could not think my way out of the switch from counting 1 to 10… to counting 1 to 8. I could memorize a process… but not understand it. For some reason. Total block. For weeks…
So Digi-Comp was my hail-mary pass. I’d get the computer… program it… then polish off my homework. Without suffering.
Get parents and teachers off my back. More time for my paramecia growing from pond scum… OR squeezing out maximum altitude from my pump-action water rockets…
Ya know, cool stuff.
So here I am. Sitting in front of my last hope. My own real computer… that I put together on the coffee table.
BUT it actually… takes work… to understand and program it. Even if it did come in a game box…
More work than Base 8 was in the first place.
Throbbing headache. Tight nausea. I start beating my temples with my fist.
I can’t believe this. I’m way smarter than this. The other kids are getting it. And I’m way smarter than them.
I’m alone in the house. I let out this guttural scream… aimed right at the instruction book.
But it felt personal. Like someone was doing this to me… on purpose.
I’m looking at four sets of 1’s and zeros — 001, 010, 100, and 111.
The 1 means 1. Okay. Got that.
But add 1 + 1 and you get 10… which “really” means 2?
The 100 means 4?
Hundred-and-eleven means… 7?
And somehow this relates to Base 8?
And is going to do my homework for me????
Then a curious thing. I sneak up on the 10… and remember the old memorization routine of “carry the one.”
So I take 1, if I add another 1… it won’t fit in the first column so I carry the one into the second column… and the second column 10 is really a 2 on Bizarro Binary World… so 11 would really be the secret identity of 3…
The light bulb. Goes. Off.
Like a firecracker in the top-back of my head.
Next day? I ate arithmetic class alive.
Never had trouble with bases again… binary, octal, hex… Went on to briefly program basic assembler code on 360s as a summer intern for IBM.
Which I also taught myself.
This was my first overwhelming experience with learning new categories of knowledge. In other words, something I’d never seen before.
I’ve talked with other autists… sometimes similar stories. Less intense, mebbe.
But that internal craving for learning something new?? Pretty much every autist I’ve ever met. So far.
And in many ways as exotic as it may sound… it’s what every human experiences. Just amplified. And twisted about 5 degrees into the weird…
The basic idea?
You are hard-wired for joy.
Autistic or not. Every “good” thing you do… Eating, sleeping, shitting, making babies, helping an old lady cross the street, solving problems… and… *learning something that’s useful to you…*
Comes with a little shot of joy juice. Nature’s reward for a job well done.
I won’t go deep into the neuroscience. Don’t got the chops. Plus… old as I am… I’ve watched every new scientific model for mental processes go through its fad… then fade.
So I’ll mumble about the interrelationship of neurotransmitters like dopamine and neuroplasticity… the growth and change of adult brain paths…
But a few real-world examples? They’ll remain in fashion long after some whizkid co-authors a paper titled, “It’s More Complicated than That.”
You know that rush when the RIGHT jigsaw puzzle piece jumps out at you… after you search an hour? That time you finally won a contest? Eliminated the last false suspect in Clue? Solved those cool logic problems on the SATs…?
Hell… For me, any multiple-choice test… IQs, the WAIS, GEDs. Every question… one bingo after another. HIGH on dopamine. Orgasmic.
Maybe I never experienced that moment of learning with such clarity and ecstasy again.
But each and every time…
There’s that faint echo. Like chasing the ghosts of your first drug high, monster rollercoaster ride, falling in love…
The excited squeaks. Flapping hands. Jumping up and down…
Like sitting at the breakfast table. Talking about the news. Repeatedly interrupting my wife. Because each thought that swims by in that state is so intensely interesting… so beautiful…
I MUST share it… I KNOW she wants to hear it… She will be AMAZED… just like me…
And I’m totally oblivious that I’m hogging the conversation. Because these aren’t even my thoughts… I don’t make em. They just pop up. And I MUST share the joy of them… like a gift to her…
And then I swing 5 degrees into the bizarre… at least for people not used to, ya know, autists…
And I am so lucky. To have met another human who can put up with me.
Look… Not every autist experiences this pleasure the same way.
I am gradually learning how being autistic… with strong, but undiagnosed ADHD tendencies… differs from other autists without those tendencies. We all share differences from most humans. Social interactions. Communication style. And then there’s the strong focus on personal interests.
BUT… in many other areas, we may be way different.
This is a rich topic covering executive functioning, physical awkwardness… many others. And may explain a great deal that confuses nonautistics & autistics alike.
Like… why so many autists are drawn to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (ya know, STEM) and tend to be concise and literal…
At the same time, so many others become poets, artists, musicians… thriving on nuance and ambiguity.
I experience thinking as a language of images, sensations, feelings, and metaphors… more than words, sentences, logic, symbols.
And I process thoughts almost like manipulating physical objects.
Numbers are like blocks that snap together… fitting like Legos. Music, in my mind, vines & intertwines on itself in space. I remember language more clearly when I handwrite… or make notes in book margins.
Things I can touch… or imagine I can touch… are most real to me.
To some autistics, some of this will sound familiar. Like doesn’t everybody…?
To others, it may sound like mental illness.
Juggling symbols may be their thing. And maybe they don’t trust feelings as much as Reason.
Artists vs. scientists.
Director Tim Burton might be autistic. He made Edward Scissorhands and the Nightmare before Christmas.
Physicist Albert Einstein might be too. He made Relativity. And shows up on the Brainyquotes website. A lot.
It’s possible… they BOTH might understand when I say…
I learn differently than other folks. I need to understand. I need to co-invent. If I don’t understand something from the inside… it doesn’t exist for me.
I learn new “categories” of knowledge slowly. Like my problems with Base 8.
Learning to read a clock was a struggle. Somehow this round toy… that moved when you weren’t watching… had something to do with time… Which I measured by how much fun I was having. Not numbers.
And then there was switching to digital clocks… still seeing the moving hands in my head. A tough switch in cognitive models for me.
A little later… switching from the cute first-grader who was always the first to raise his hand to earn the teacher’s pat on the head… to becoming the adult who finally got that nobody likes a know-it-all…
That switch kicked my ass. For nearly 50 years.
Once a new area opens up to me… I seem to associate the skills and concepts with other knowledge more rapidly than most folks. What they call, “thinking outside the box.” So once understood, I may apply skills and related concepts across allied fields quickly.
Take Music, Art, Literature. Rhythm, texture, line, shading, repetition, variation, direction, structure… really it’s all pretty similar.
For some, it’s the same with math.
The joy of learning could be the same for autistic astrophysicists… as for autistic guitarists.
How we explain that ecstasy to ourselves and others…?
I thought I’d end on an important side point…
I write about childhood experiences a lot. With purpose.
First, it’s a great meeting ground for parents of autistic kids and adult autistics. When we share notes… childhood memories, experiences, and our thoughts on them… you get a peek into that mysterious world your autistic child inhabits.
The joys. The wonders. The fears. The challenges. The victories…
AND… I’ve come to believe childhood was the last time I was happy… at least as a natural autist.
So as I struggle to unlearn all the cultural norms that made my young life miserable… because they required behavior I’m simply not capable of…
As I fight to throw off all the masks, become comfortable with the darkly secret quirks I once felt forced to hide…
I turn again and again to my earliest memories.
To recover my natural joy.
That I was hardwired for.
Maybe… you were too.
Shoutouts & Outro!
A quick shoutout AND personal revelation…
Thanks to my Twitter friends Slick Vic & SmallBob for their generosity of spirit.
See… when I have time to compose my thoughts… I can sound pretty smooth.
But in real time, I’m nothing like a podcast. Specifically, I’m terribly socially awkward. Say the darndest things.
During an in-depth Tweet-storm about the Catalan language… Slick Vic’s native tongue… I said some ignorant things.
Great souled-autistics that they are… they taught me a lot. Gently. Thanks, you two.
Wanna know more? Check out my posts, paintings, poems, music, and politics at www.autisticaf.me…
And… If you enjoyed this episode… please share it on social media? Better yet, send it directly to a friend.