Monday, March 07, 2005

Not Even Wrong

In a previous post I mentioned Paul Collins's terrific book Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism, with a promise to expand on it later. Here is the expansion.

Not Even Wrong is part-memoir and part-historical reference guide. Collins intersperses a retrospective look at autists and autism research from 1725 to the present with his own thoughts and emotions as his young son is diagnosed with autism. His perspective is at once intellectually objective and lovingly subjective. It is a fascinating read, and has easily become one of my favorite autism-related books.

I especially appreciate that through his title - Not Even Wrong - Collins has given me a framework to explain one of the most fascinating aspects of Bud. Collins writes:

"Wolfgang Pauli used to deride colleagues in theoretical physics who disagreed with him as "not even wrong." He meant this as a put-down - that the questions they were asking were so off-base that their answers were irrelevant. Yet Pauli's notion could also be applied to those who are autistic. They do not respond in expected ways to questions or to social cues... but then, only a person working from the same shared set of expectations could give a wrong answer. The autist is working on a different problem with a different set of parameters; they are not even wrong."

Collins was writing specifically about the autist's lack of a "theory of mind," or the understanding that other people may have a different perspective from one's own. But I find that the "not even wrong" idea goes beyond that. Often - very often - Bud says things that are seemingly meaningless - complete nonsequitors that are easily overlooked. But if I take the time, if I reconstruct his world, if I use my theory of mind to try climb inside his brain, I am astonished at the connections I can make.

One of my favorite of those moments of enlightenment went something like this:

We were at the supermarket and Bud got a superball out of the quarter machine at the door. It was a swirly, translucent, unremarkable superball. I hoisted him up into the shopping cart, and he held up the superball and said "Mama, what's this?" (This is one of Bud's favorite activities. He will make a proclamation: "I following the footprints!" and then test me on it, "Mama, what I'm doing?," either for his own edification or so that he can be sure that I get it. Regardless of my answer, I am quizzed for the next 15, 30, 60 minutes - "Mama, what I'm doing?" - I guess, to make sure I don't forget.)

So, I replied "It's a ball."

He said, "It's a hamster." (A hamster?) "Mama, what's this?"

"It's a ball," I said, slightly less sure of myself but feeling the need to hold my ground.

"No," he said. "It's a hamster." I started panicking. Was it a hamster? I held it up to the light to see if there was a hologram inside that I was missing, but it was just a regular old superball.

"I don't understand, honey. Can you tell me more words?"

"It's a hamster. Just like church." Then, like when all of a sudden the dots in a magic eye picture become the face of Dwight D. Eisenhower, it all fell into sharp focus for me and I got it.

We go to a tiny little church, where Bud is usually the only child in their even tinier "Sunday school" program. His favorite toy in the playroom there is a marble-run building set. But he keeps forgetting the word "marbles," and instead he calls them "gerbils."

The superball - round and translucent and swirly - is a lot like a marble/gerbil, only it's different.

And what else is like a gerbil, only different?

A hamster, of course.

Not even wrong. Remarkable, insightful, completely outside-the-box, but not even wrong.


Gwuinifer said...

that is so awesome. i know exactly how you feel. i often wish i knew exactly how ethan feels, though... maybe someday he'll find a way to tell me. "like church."

Moi ;) said...

ROFL!!! That's a good one!

Bug used to do stuff like that, too, more before he had Fast ForWord than after.

What a scream!

Anonymous said...

thank you for posting this... I learn more about myself when I figure out that this is how I think, too, from reading about someone else doing it. it never occurred to me to be metacognitive enough to notice otherwise.