She’s Such a Scream (Is there a transitive property to autistic characteristics?)

Coffeehouse musicians sometimes employ a bit of stage banter that plays on everyone’s rudimentary knowledge of music theory; following a well-received song, they will with tongue-in-cheek earnestness inform the audience that “If you liked that one, you’ll probably like this next one as well.  They have a lot of the same notes.”  Groans, laughter, or silence may follow, but no one need actually know that there are in fact only twelve notes in all of Western music in order to “get” the absurdity of the statement.  Much as we may be able to identify individual notes we love in particular songs, these have to do with all sorts of contextual matters – the combination of associated notes, rhythms, and sometimes lyrics being what makes a short string of discrete tones into a memorable “hook” or a goosebumps-inducing passage.

So it goes of course – at least in some ways – with autism diagnoses both old and new.  One swallow does not a summer make; one autistic characteristic does not a diagnosis make.  And it might be argued that diagnostic criteria are nearly as changeable across the decades as are musical trends and styles.  Music at least offers the consistency of offering up the same twelve notes over and over, while the DSM has seen fit to add or delete a few over the years – yet we remain convinced, just as we do in our responses to music, that there is a there there in what we call autism.  I’m posing the question “Is there a transitive property to autistic characteristics?” in order to get at the whereabouts of that “there,” or at least to get at one consequences of answering in the negative.

Me, I see autism everywhere I look – or more precisely, I see autistic characteristics everywhere I look; by transitive I mean that if this is an autistic behavior in this person, then it is also an autistic behavior in another person.  This perspective, I propose, is far more important than the question of whether these characteristics satisfy this decade’s Chinese-menu offerings for diagnosis.  As Augustine saw fit to “take every thought prisoner for Christ,”  I’m content somewhat more modestly to take every behavioral characteristic prisoner for autism — in part by affirming that there are transitive properties to autistic behaviors, even in the face of competing claims, even and especially when they are observed in those who seem the very antithesis of “autistic.”  These behaviors, too, are autism.

If you can approach this notion only as a conceptual game, fine.  Try it in the spirit of the pranksters behind the early Whole Earth Catalog, who in one issue advocated writing letters to corporate leaders informing them that hippie revolutionaries were henceforth taking possession of these leaders’ every third walking or running step – but not to worry, that no further action or reaction would be required of them.  Try it, in other words, in a spirit of zaniness.  Imagine, as William Stillman has recommended, that everyone has autism to one extent or another, that the display of even one autistic characteristic, however brief, can be claimed in the name of autism.

Here’s another conceptual game, one I had considerable experience with in my previous life as a musician.  I like to say I was a utility saxophone player, á la baseball’s utility infielders, but what I knew and studied and loved was jazz harmony and improvisation.  One central tenet of jazz improvisation since at least the 1960’s is that there are no wrong notes – so long as they are resolved in a way that makes sense.  This makes for a fascinating game that requires both a trained ear and a sophisticated grasp of harmony, but it opens up a whole world of harmonic sideslipping and “outside” playing that provided me with ready-made templates years later for imagining a play and resolution between autism and society that does not have pathology or disability as a primary focus.

And all this without consideration of the notes in between the piano keys, the bent notes, the blue notes, the slurred and growled notes; micro-tonal sitars, quarter-tone trumpets, slide trombones and slide guitars; nor the ongoing lies and distortion wrought by the well-tempering of the clavier – and the underlying fact that even “notes” as we know them are social constructs, or contrived agreements.

As are our definitions of autism.

One path though, I suggest, to “a trained ear and sophisticated harmonic grasp” in the social realm is to make that conceptual flip to where all autistic behavior, however short of diagnostic validity, can be claimed in the name of autism.  This would be autism imagined as a style of consciousness rather than a literal, reified object of study, or a bounded and discrete set of codified behaviors with etiologies lined up and sorted all in neat rows.  I’ll even go so far as to predict that the more science tightens its grasp on autism, the more it manages to nail down specific causes,  the more autism is going to slip between its fingers, like a handful of steam.  Or since we’re talking music, more than a handful, as in Tom Wait’s celebratory lyrica cheetah coat fills up with steam … she’s such a scream.

To capture that poetic, anima-like steam as condensation and drop it at arm’s length into the centrifuge …

To trust in science (Has it really redeemed itself for the Refrigerator Mother? Really?) that holds autism at arm’s length …

To trust in science that celebrates geeks and nerds while focusing on autism as pathology and disability

Or in short, to answer in the negative to the question, “Is there a transitive property to autistic characteristics?” can only result, it seems to me – plentiful good intentions notwithstanding – in an autism with pathology and disability at its core.  To answer in the negative is to accept a framing of autism in which it can only ever be a deficit.  Deny the connection to the parts that add up to what we have agreed to call autism, deny the claim — as the societal taboo and the tribal instinct certainly still demand — deny the claim that the word autism has on those behaviors as they exhibit themselves in “healthy,” “normal,” “neurotypicals,” and all the rest is reduced — at least from where I’m standing —  to little more than lip service.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 04/22/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Barb says:

    You might like the book This is Your Brain on Music:the Science of an Obsession, by Daniel Levitin.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Thanks, Barb. Listening to him here now:

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