Autistic Grit

First, obsessions.  Dr. Michael Burry, according to the profile of him woven into Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, is a man of serial obsessions. His Aspergers diagnosis was arrived at during the course of events described in Lewis’ book (about the roots and beneficiaries of the subprime mortgage crisis) and it came after his first obsession, neuroscience, had run its course.  Dr. Burry was a successful brain surgeon who quit medicine in order to pursue his second obsession, investments management.  Following a stellar payoff, this obsession waned as well, giving way to a third which to all indications was pursued with every bit as much grit, determination and perseverance as the first two.  This third obsession was or is guitars.  No, not playing guitars.  Just owning them, and understanding everything about them.

We can suppose that Dr. Burry’s heirs are thankful for the order of his obsessions; a man who spends the first decade or more of his adult life obsessed with understanding guitars rather than medicine or markets would likely not leave such a substantial inheritance as Burry has so famously provided.  As things stand, he is a wealthy eccentric with all kinds of guitars he doesn’t know how to play.  In an adjacent universe he’s maybe a guy who invests the modest profits from his music store, where he “operates” on ailing guitars while bent over a repair bench.

If you are at all unclear on the nature of autistic obsessions, they can come serially as with Burry’s or they can be lifelong, and are not unlike sexual fetishes in that they are visited upon one rather than chosen.  You might grow up to find that you’re a “leg man” who ogles like a champ … or you might, with equal enthusiasm, wind up pouring over endless financial prospectus statements like Michael Burry did—a feat which allowed him, and him alone, to create the goose that laid the golden eggs.

When obsessions lack utility we tend to view them as symptomatic of pathology, disorder, or at best eccentricity.  When they are successfully monetized, we tend to say that so-and-so “has found his or her calling,” that they “really appreciate the value of hard work and perseverance,” and/or that they are a “genius.”  This is, I suggest, a distinction without a difference.  Oh, the products of different obsessions can be starkly and profoundly different, absolutely.  But to contend that this divergence means there are equally divergent types of autism, or that an autistic obsession which leads to a broadly influential or effective product was never autistic to begin with?  This reveals far more about one’s own prejudices and preconceptions than about the actual nature of autistic obsessions.

Common to all obsessions however profitable is a long-familiar quality which has caught the attention of psychologists who’ve begun to look at its importance as compared to talent, aptitude, and intelligence; that quality would be grit.  Reading through even one prospectus is such an immensely tedious task that virtually no investor ever even tries.  Reading through dozens of them, as Burry did, takes grit—uncommon tenacity, persistence, dedication.  For argument’s sake then—and because I believe there is significant truth to be glimpsed by following this line of thought—I’d like to suggest that when we observe anyone who displays sustained determination and perseverance in the pursuit of mastery over a subject, a field, or a skill set, our default assumption should be that this grit is autistic in origin.  I’m not asserting that all grit comes of autism, only that our first assumption ought to be that it does, that far more of it than we suspect does, and also that there is nothing so terribly or insultingly “wrong” with identifying exceptional perseverance as an autistic character trait—yes, right up there alongside “perseveration”—even in those we do not know to be autistic.

Granted, my example Dr. Burry, no mudblood he, has his autism pedigree, his official diagnosis.  We do know him to be autistic—but there was never anything inevitable about his being diagnosed.  It happened only because his child came to be diagnosed, and once familiar with autism’s characteristics, Burry made the initial connection for himself.  For every Michael Burry then, there are how many men and women like him who go to their graves undiagnosed?  Burry, remember, spent years rubbing shoulders with doctors—specialists in fact in the workings of the brain—and yet not a one of them, apparently, ever saw fit to see him recognized as autistic.  How much less likely then that autistic people in other situations are being accurately identified.

Then there is the issue of the “mudbloods,” a term I’m stealing from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, where it refers to those who while not full-blooded wizards, are wizards nonetheless, even if they are not always willingly recognized as such by their full-blooded peers.  For every undiagnosed Michael Burry, I suggest, there are countless more people who display some, most, or all of the characteristics of autism, but fall short in the intensity or consistency of that display, enough so that they miss being diagnosable only, as it were, by various technicalities.  I ask you to consider that these “mudbloods” make up a larger group in fact than do diagnosable autistics, even if all such “officially” autistic people were to be identified and counted.

What this all means, if true, is that autism is far more deeply woven into the fabric of society than we have yet recognized.  Instead it goes unnamed, or presents as geekiness, nerdiness, introversion, or eccentricity—also obsessiveness, perseverance, stick-to-it-ness … in a word, grit.  All this and more, I suggest, is autism.  If you wish to focus your life and energies only on ameliorating the disabling aspects of autism, blessings be upon you—such energy and dedication, appropriately applied, are in far too short supply.  But it is simply dishonest and misleading to insist that autism as a whole does not extend beyond, and by comparison even dwarf the traditional notion of autism as a disability.  That this is received as threatening news to many peoples’ worldview and self-image is perhaps understandable, but that makes it no less true.  What we have been observing since the discovery and naming of autism, it has always seemed to me, is the diminutive “tail” of autism-as-disability wagging the astonishingly able “dog” that is autism in the whole.

How astonishingly able, you ask?

Given that 1969’s True Grit is the Western shoot-‘em-up that defined that word for American audiences, I’ve been running over the characters in my mind.  Each of the three protagonists displayed a particular brand of grit.  Mattie’s was fueled by her need for justice and loyalty to her murdered father; La Boeuf’s by his sense of duty and pride of office.  I’m willing to argue however that the grit exemplified by John Wayne’s hard-drinking, hygiene-agnostic, socially abrasive Rooster Cogburn is an autistic grit.  He may have been a lawman like La Boeuf, but he alone seemed motivated by obsession, driven by forces that were beyond circumstance.  “Going after bad guys” was simply what he did.  Drunk or sober, it was his special interest.  That’s autism, that’s where it gets its traction on the world, all dramatized right there on your Silver Screen in the unlikely anti-hero Cogburn, a conspicuously impaired “one-eyed fat man.”

I submit that the least-recognized and least celebrated yet most common and widespread type of grit, the kind that has kept mankind lurching forward for these past several hundred years of scientific, social, and artistic progress, is autistic grit.  This is the grit of obsession, of enthusiasm, of enthusiasmos—of “being possessed by the god,” as the Greeks had it.  Watch that scene in True Grit’s trailer where Wayne’s Cogburn charges at four armed, mounted men all by himself, a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other.  That’s not heroism, nor is it foolhardiness.  What that scene portrays is a man deeply, enthusiastically in love with his obsession, enough so that he will risk his life in its service.  This is the sort of commitment and dedication (or alternatively, “possession” by forces which originate beyond one’s personal circumstances) that when applied across the spectrum and history of human experience, moves mountains, fuels the engine of cultural evolution, and ultimately steers the course of humanity.  And its name, I am suggesting, is autism.

Speaking of Classical deities, to take all this in and accept it is to upset a bigger apple cart than the one so jealously guarded by those who would limit autism’s boundaries to impairment and disability.  To entertain the notion of autistic grit as foundational to cultural evolution is also to discount the heroic myth of that grit which is summoned solely by sheer willpower, the heroic grit called forth by those who haven’t an autistic bone in their body.  This would be the much-celebrated myth of Hercules, the archetypal Great Man, the original Army of One.

It is this Herculean mindset—unlike Cogburn’s, always a resolutely sober one—which seeks to slay autism and banish it from the earth, marching as to war, to the imagined cheers of parents everywhere.  It is this mindset which sees autism as nothing but an impediment to the One True Way forward for families and for humankind—as opposed to the multitude of crooked paths which has gotten us all this far.  Autistic grit, on the other hand, is a reminder of the mostly-forgotten reality familiar enough to the Greeks—that the heroic is only one way, and that there are other and in most cases better ways of being a family and of being human.

on 07/16/10 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 5 Comments | Read More

Comments (5)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Two more quick thoughts that had no place in an already overstuffed essay.

    One: Michael Burry lost an eye to a tumor when he was an infant, though he wears a glass eye rather than a patch like Cogburn. I attach no significance to this; it’s just trivia.

    Two: Cogburn’s lost eye on the other hand makes him seem more like a mythic character to me. You can write this off as Hollywood’s artistic license if you want, but the man is portrayed as a crack shot with a rifle and pistol, left-handed and right—all without stereoscopic vision. His impairment makes better poetic sense than literal, as if it were a metaphor for … yeah, see?

    Hat tip here too to Laurentius Rex, the One-Eyed Autistic King and proprietor of the blog In Regione Caecorum Rex Est Luscus (In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king).

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    By email, I received the comment,

    So… I wouldn’t go as far as to say that everyone who displays obsessive “grit” is necessarily autistic, but there does seem to be a high degree of overlap as to the genes involved.

    And replied,

    I’ve changed some of the language a little (to now read, “there is nothing so terribly or insultingly ‘wrong’ with identifying exceptional perseverance as an autistic character trait”) to better reflect what I meant. A person will sometimes say another is “being schizophrenic” when that other person is simply “of two minds” about something (this is actually closer to the original meaning, “split-mind,” of the word schizophrenia). When we do this though, even if we’re being critical or judgmental, we’re not literally diagnosing schizophrenia — and everyone understands that. Obviously there are still issues of stigma with schizophrenia, which is one reason I didn’t use that analogy, but it’s something like that I was trying to imply — that in vernacular usage, it should be “okay” to associate grit with autism, that autistic grit is perhaps the gold standard of grit (more so than heroic grit), and that it should actually be a straight-up compliment to have one’s grit and dedication characterized as autistic — regardless of what other autistic features one may or may not have.

  3. Lili Marlene says:

    I’m still waiting, waiting, waiting for my local library to get the book The Big Short for me to read, but I’ve had a look at the bits about Dr Burry in another book The Greatest Trade Ever by Gergory Zuckerman, and it’s worth a look. I’ve added a couple of quotes from Dr Michael Burry to my collection of favourite quotes at my blog.

    Quote from Mark Stairwalt’s article above:
    “Burry, remember, spent years rubbing shoulders with doctors—specialists in fact in the workings of the brain—and yet not a one of them, apparently, ever saw fit to see him recognized as autistic. How much less likely then that autistic people in other situations are being accurately identified.”

    When Dr Burry was a resident doc in a hospital his superiors thought he was weird and sent him off to see a psychiatrist and the result was a formal psychiatric misdiagnosis of bipolar. This is what can happen to an autist when given the best that the US health system has to offer. It’s frightening.

    “If you are at all unclear on the nature of autistic obsessions, they can come serially as with Burry’s or they can be lifelong, and are not unlike sexual fetishes in that they are visited upon one rather than chosen.”

    I would agree, but I’d also add that I think there is in some cases at least a big element of ego in the more complex and developed autistic obsessions. I also wonder if longing plays a role.

    There is nothing more exciting to me than believing that I am the first person in the world to notice a connection between two scientific ideas. I find it exciting to study an area of science in which more types of phenomena are being scientifically described and explored all the time. My real name can be found in an interesting paper in a real science journal (but I’m not going to tell you which one). I believe Sir Isaac Newton was an example of a great autistic scientist who had a huge ego and a strong drive to be the first. A drive for scientific priority is a motivation, and Dr Burry also had a strong desire to be recognized as “the first” in the area that he worked in, and I also think a drive for power is behind the breathtaking ambitions of some autistic politicians. I’ve recently been reading The End of the Party by Andrew Rawnsley about UK politics, and other political writing from Australia.

  4. I’ve felt the same way as Dr. Burry, especially about the home market, but only with limited capital so I prevented loss… talked about it since 2003, but what I am more interested in, is his obsession with guitars. That’s a first for me, but have grown a healthy enjoyment of bass guitars as well… I’d be curious to learn of his interest in guitars..

  5. thanks for this great article! what are your thoughts on the best music store in the area?

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