7 min read
I Am Not A Monster -- A quadruple fugue

by Steve Owens

Exposition: subject and countersubject in the form of a chorale fantasy

I have very low cognitive empathy[1].  Put crudely, it doesn’t occur to me to give a shit what you think. That doesn't make me some sort of a monster, but rather I have a behavioral default, a neurological headwind that I am constantly pushing against.  If I get tired, or I drop my guard, I screw up, and its embarrassment city.  And that's a good thing because it means my affective empathy is entirely normal.  In short, when I cause you distress, it causes me distress.  I may not fully understand why in the moment, which only intensifies the experience.  But if I was the opposite, high cognitive empathy and low affective empathy, I would be a psychopath.  I'll pass on that, thank you. 

I also lack what I call a "social gyroscope."  Neurotypical people navigate the social world with intuition, meaning they deploy effective responses in social situations using few or no cognitive resources.  Not so with me - I use intellect to do those things that others do with intuition, which can be exhausting - the very definition of a "neurological headwind."  As you will see, I have come to love metaphors. So over 63 years I have developed a toolkit for navigating both my cognitive empathy problem, and my lack of a social gyroscope.  I call the components of this toolkit "behavioral algorithms."  In this metaphor, an algorithm is an input-output machine: given certain inputs, the machine reliably creates certain outputs, or results.  More accurately, I have clusters of closely related algorithms that I use to regulate my behavior with respect to various relationships, and roles. 

Luckily, I've discovered some of these can be migrated from one situation to another. Oddly, I have found that adopting leadership roles for me is a form of what Thomas Armstrong calls "positive niche construction". Likewise teaching. My analysis is, that as a person with low cognitive empathy, roles like leadership and teaching mask my deficiencies, because these roles naturally emphasize the thinking of the person plying them.  

It is expected that a leader or a teacher will have some definite ideas about direction, and people take comfort in knowing that there is a direction. It is also a role that entails embracing "otherness", which is something I've experienced my whole life. May as well leverage it for something. It doesn't mean that I can just run people over. Rather, I have developed a repertoire of strategies to ensure that people experience that their participation matters, and that their thinking is accounted for.  

These strategies are formal and research-based, and include Critical Friends Group protocols, Meeting-Wise agendas and interest-based bargaining techniques.  Sometimes it is as simple as disciplining myself to keep my mouth shut when a subordinate is in private conversation.  Of course, the problem here is identifying in real time that that is what is called for in the situation.  My failures tend to come from either not realizing the situation I'm in, and therefore not calling down the appropriate algorithm, or from just being tired and not executing the algorithm with appropriate rigor.  Let me give you some examples. 

Contrapunctus I: the subject and countersubject

Some years ago, I was elected to the board of directors at Vermont-NEA.  In a role like this, I could be an extremely disruptive individual given my fertile and active mind, my lack of a social gyroscope, and my low cognitive empathy, meaning my default tendency to way overvalue my own thinking. I'd lived long enough that I didn't really like the role of asshole, and I kind of stumbled into a solution: I ran for and was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the organization.  This put me on all the money committees, which is where the action is (a decision with no money attached is a waste of time.) So, it gave me a socially appropriate outlet where my cognitive empathy challenges were masked.  It matters what the #3 officer in the state's largest union thinks - that worked for me. But more importantly, I had a defined role in meetings that kept me very busy, and at the same time forced me to shut up and listen to others.  As Secretary, I kept the minutes.  I developed a very structured way of doing this based on training I received at the national level.  I executed these algorithms with as much discipline as I could muster.  Again, my failures were generally the result of departing from the algorithm. 

Contrapunctus II: the subject in inversion

 A second simpler example: when I was principal at the Albany Community School, I too often succumbed to my behavioral default of getting lost in my own thoughts to the extent that I could walk right by people as if they were invisible. One of the teachers took umbrage to this and yelled at me on a couple of occasions for failing to say good morning when I passed her in the hall. She was right, of course, and I was embarrassed. I knew that playing whack-a-mole with my behavioral default would be a formula for failure, so I developed a very successful algorithm that solved the problem. Upon arriving in the morning, I would set down my things in my office and venture out into the school to systematically greet every single person I could find, whether I wanted to or not.  I would start in the elementary wing because those folks tended to arrive earlier and work my way towards the middle school wing.  Sometimes I spiced it up by giving people donuts, which I told them to think of as an Aspie hug (I had “come out” to my staff as an Aspie.)  Worked like a charm. Notice that this involved expenditure of considerable cognitive resources until I had established it as a habit.  Then once it was established as a habit, I just had to discipline myself to provide the necessary time. 

Contrapunctus III: the subject in retrograde

My full recognition of my neuro-differences hit me hard at a high-level leadership training for principals, including several diagnostics, such as a 360 evaluation. The data showed that I had a bad communications deficit with my staff. Believe it or not there's an algorithm for that!  My self-analysis showed me that I was spending plenty of time on the task of communicating, but I was doing that almost exclusively with respect to families and community. So, I reversed the polarity. I crowd sourced the family and community engagement to the staff, and I focused my communication energy on staff. This principally took the form of an extensive Friday memo that contained predictable features that people found useful for understanding the direction of the school, as well as my expectations. The anecdotal evidence indicated to me that people appreciated the shift.  Like at Vermont-NEA with the minutes, I developed a definite manner and cadence for the work.  I always assembled the document after school on Friday.  My wife complained of how late I got home. But I was obstinate and produced that memo before going home.  Partly, I wanted my weekends to be for self and family to the extent possible, but more important (and strange) I discovered I could not complete the memo at any but the designated time.  I had to be very rigid about this because I discovered that if I failed to follow this aspect of the algorithm, I would get total writer's block and be unable to produce a memo later for that week. 

Contrapunctus IV: the subject in retrograde inversion

As a teacher (I was a music teacher), I developed clusters of algorithms for the conduct of developmentally appropriate classes.  You might think given my lack of cognitive empathy, I would gravitate towards a "sage on the stage" role. But this is the default for people who lack skill and confidence.  In my last ten years of teaching, I developed the capacity to deploy my intellect on the structure of the lesson, creating a framework within which the children could grow. My goal was to stand around doing nothing (but monitoring) while the kids did 100% of the work.  Given that all my life I've puzzled about the behavior and intentions of others, it was a type of positive niche construction, because in education we start from the premise that children’s' minds are fundamentally different than adult minds. I could do that analysis. It worked for me. And given that my affective empathy is fine, it gave me an avenue to express my affection for the children. But I got there through intellect, not intuition. 

Stretto: all four iterations of the subject piled upon each other

 I recently discovered I could very intentionally mix and match behavioral algorithms to produce a favorable result in a novel situation. It’s sort of like the using the chemistry set I had when I was a kid.  To illustrate, I am going to quote from an interaction I had on the Mensa Aspergers Special Interest Group forum.  One of the members prompted me: "I can interact with one other person, two at the most, or I can speak to a group where there is the psychological barrier of a dais, or something like that. My favorite kind of audience is trapped in a box with rigid rules in place so there can be no interruptions — to-wit, a jury. But the kind of small group that convenes at parties or around a table is impossible." And I responded in part: You bet - that's how I could make being an administrator work.  

My behavioral algorithms also provide those "rigid rules" which make life doable.   Right now, I am conducting a community choir in preparation for a Christmas eve event, which is bizarre, because I don't sing, and I don't really conduct.  But I am a monster at music theory, and was a National Board Certified Teacher, so I leverage those strengths.  Tuesday, I blog to the group with my reflections of the previous rehearsal.  Wednesday, I prepare any necessary practice tracks for individual parts (we are NOT making the pianist plunk notes so you can avoid practice!), Thursday or Friday I prepare the rehearsal plan, with Learning Targets for each piece, as well as time for each task.  All goes on the blog. I also do my score prep, and practice conducting from my imagination in my workshop - I joke that I conduct my drill press, which never talks back and never sings a wrong note (it is boring however). Sunday comes and I am ON from 4:00-5:30, I'm the boss, I stick to the plan, run a tight rehearsal which generally meets the targets, and go home exhausted.  Rinse and repeat.   The odd thing is that people seem to like it and keep coming back.  Maybe because I am well prepared and don't waste their time. 

I also keep things moving and don't tolerate side conversations.  I think this is an example of what Thomas Armstrong calls "positive niche construction."  Let's break this down.  First, conducting is not something I've ever had all that much interest in.  I've taken a few courses, but generally have done the minimum to get by as a music teacher.  I didn't understand the point. So now I took this job, and I must figure out how to conduct a group (and there were some tricky pieces.) 

 Now the fact that I pulled this off by mixing chemicals from my behavioral chemistry set does not make me a monster; I do it because I really care about people, but I have only concrete ways to express it.  I use intellect, which has a high cognitive cost, to do many things others do with intuition. 

Coda: future directions

 I'm at a point in my life where I'm reflecting where I've come, how I've gotten there, and what I might need to do have a couple more good decades.  One thing I'm grappling with is how to finish my life as a good autistic person, rather than as a mediocre neurotypical. The things I am speaking of here are largely things I developed in my fifties. When I was younger, I really struggled.  I hated myself, I hated my incapacity to connect successfully with others to where I was suicidal on multiple occasions, once to the point where my psychiatrist called my wife and was on the verge of hospitalizing me. I do not own firearms for my own safety - if I did, I would be a statistic.

These moments when I peered into the abyss were the most frightening moments of my life; I spent years blocking the memories. At the end of my Friday memos, I always placed the following sentence: "Later does not mean never." A developmental delay is just that - a delay.  Einstein attributed the delay he experienced in giving up his child-like thinking to his capacity to see the universe through new eyes, so delays are not always bad.  For my part, I just needed to survive long enough without killing myself to start figuring a few things out. I've figured out how to do teacher, boss, subordinate, colleague, facilitator, state officer, administrator, conductor, and trainer. I've even been a mentee a couple of times, which is sort of astonishing to consider. I hope I have done a tolerable job of husband, father, grandfather, neighbor... never really did son too well.  It's too late for that. There are two roles that I have never mastered and for which I need algorithms: student and friend. I am the world's worst student, which is strange given that I am an educator. But with my low cognitive empathy, I was arrogant, and incapable of making space for even very well-intentioned teachers.  In many situations, my inability to recognize this, and create compensating behavioral algorithms (because I wasn't ready) created a kind of neurological glass ceiling, especially with respect to my musical endeavors.

I've also given up on politics and public policy, because while I have a pathological fascination with the details of policy, I lack a similar fascination with people, and you need both pieces to make it work.  That ship may have sailed too. But friend - I'm curious about that one and wondering what algorithms I might discover to make that work. It's not that I lack friends, meaning people that seem to like me and that I socialize with from time to time.  But objectively, I think there is evidence that there is some qualitatively different type of friendship, perhaps described by the Greek word agape, that entails some sort of intimacy that I have not had the tools to develop or sustain. As Stephen Crane wrote: There was set before me a mighty hill And long days I climbed through regions of snow When I had before me the summit view It seemed that my labor had been to see Gardens... Lying at impossible distances. 

[1] http://mysocialbrain.org/iri_info.org.html My scores show 58% on the personal distress sub score, but 9% on empathy overall, including fantasy – I’ve never been able to visualize characters in fiction.  I remember struggling with this when I was kid – I knew it but didn’t understand the significance.