The Myth Of Mental Illness: The Case Of Asperger’s Syndrome
By Shanu Athiparambath - April 16, 2018

A few years ago, a cop came to my home and asked whether I would like to get my passport on time. I said, “Yes”, and slammed the door, smiling. I didn’t know he wanted a bribe.

For much of my life, I didn’t know people don’t always mean what they say. A normal child knows this at the age of 4, but I was 26 when I came to terms with this. I take words literally, and this was at the root of most problems. It has been a tough row to hoe, because there were lies, lies everywhere. I called them on their lies. But they had no idea what I was talking about because they believed their own lies.

And, oh, there was something else I didn’t know. I didn’t know people were offended by disagreement. Even when people said they were offended, I didn’t believe it. But I was convinced they were serious when they ganged up on me.

I repeatedly violated an important social norm. Most people instinctively know that disagreement can be seen as a sign of disrespect. But they aren’t too conscious of this because we are expected to value truth over politics.

Normal human beings usually don’t air opinions that offend others. And they usually don’t violate social hierarchies by disagreeing with their social superiors. In other words, most people have a hard time separating ideas from intuitions of social rank and empathy.

Understanding truths despite their challenge to social rank and “empathy” comes easily to me. So people had a hard time reading me. When I behaved as though I didn’t mind putting them down, they decided enough was enough. I missed the initial signs of disapproval, and the soft sanctions they imposed on me. So they escalated to more serious forms of punishment, and that was when I felt something was awry. I soon learned I am an Aspie (A person with Asperger’s Syndrome, a milder autism spectrum disorder.)

One of the greatest contributions of the Hungarian-American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz was to point out the obvious: Mind is a metaphor, and because there is no mind, there can be no such thing as mental illness.

The brain, however, is an organ and can be diseased. But that falls within the realm of neurology. People with “mental illnesses” usually don’t have brain diseases. They are just different. Medicines are no cure for conflicting values, aspirations and goals. The goal of psychiatry is to stigmatize, medicalize and imprison people who challenge values closer to the hearts of the majority.

All psychiatric diagnoses are ethical judgments. For example, the assumption that a child who can’t sit still and read has ADHD is rooted in the value judgment that all children ought to sit still and read. That’s nonsense. As economist Bryan Caplan points out, no one accuses a boy diagnosed with ADHD of forgetting to play video games.

Autism is No Different.

Long ago, well-wishers asked the “depressed” to get over it. It is, now, a more common assumption that mental illness is as much an illness as a physical illness.

But this is actually not a compassionate view. Such cruel compassion stems from the desire to give up personal responsibility, and to stigmatize “weirdos”. The alternative to asking someone to “get over it” is not to label and stigmatize him. The alternative is to understand people, to listen carefully, to be genuinely curious.

It is a political act to claim that someone has bipolar disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome. People believe in mental illness because they want to abdicate responsibility and wield power over the vulnerable. Society punishes people who are different. It is true, for example, that many autistics have severe disabilities, and many of them may be different in ways that normal life is impossible. But this in no way proves they are mentally ill.

Aspies challenge society’s dominant values by violating social norms. Aspies aren’t good at reading social cues. But it’s not obvious this is a flaw.

Many social norms are based on certain assumptions about human nature such as envy is ubiquitous, people are mean-spirited, petty and cunning, and that they are offended when social hierarchies are violated. These assumptions accurately describe most normal human beings. People are, at best, dimly aware of such assumptions. Nevertheless, they are guided by these assumptions rooted in introspection.

Such norms discriminate against people who don’t feel much envy, don’t care much for social hierarchies, and aren’t particularly petty, mean-spirited or cunning. It is introspection that fails outliers. It is impossible for outliers to learn all the nuances and game the system. They get into trouble sooner or later for breaking one unspoken norm or the other.

People aren’t very good at analyzing ideas.

The political and economic beliefs of the man on the street are idiotic. But we shouldn’t hastily assume we are better judges of social norms and other human beings. If anything, we judge flesh-and-blood human beings more unfairly than we judge, say, capitalism or post-modernism. Abstract, impersonal ideas do not evoke strong emotions as much as people and their ways do.

Aspies are usually not aware of the judgments others pass on them. Even when they are aware, it is impossible for them to defend themselves against implicit accusations without pointing out that normal human beings judge them harshly because, well, they are mean-spirited. The best minds of our times have largely ignored this because they do not have enough insight into themselves.

Autistics are misfits everywhere, because they violate social norms. The most popular explanation is that this is because autistics don’t have a “theory of mind”—that they lack the ability to understand that others have values, aspirations, emotions and intentions different from one’s own.

This could be because they are terrible at self-deception. Subtle social norms are usually about crimes of intent. When a neurotypical (people who are neurologically typical) man is attracted to somebody else’s wife, he may act friendly, hoping she would “reciprocate”. He is aware of these two parallel, but different versions of reality in his mind, and tailors his behavior to the context. An autistic man, on the other hand, may be less cautious because he truly doesn’t have romantic intentions. But the society judges him by the same standards. He invites trouble because he isn’t acutely conscious of the ubiquity of hidden motives and self-deception.

Philosopher Emrys Westacott thinks he would be less upset if someone stole his camera than if a colleague walks into his classroom and walks out without acknowledging his presence. Why is this a crime of intent? A colleague’s rudeness is more likely to threaten our survival than petty robbery. At the workplace, we compete intensely for power, status, resources and sex, using self-deception as our primary weapon.

We now know from our understanding of human evolution that men compete for access to women, and women compete for high-status mates in all spheres of life. Men acquire power, status and resources, for example, to get better mates. The workplace is no exception to this rule.

We judge others’ behavior based on a theory of human nature, relying on introspection. Intensely political human beings are more likely to read malice into ambiguous, but benign behavior. A rude colleague who subtly marginalizes you may be deluded enough to think you are “imagining things”. An Aspie may ignore a colleague without such intentions, for example.

I don’t lack the ability to read people, but I am definitely not neurologically typical. Deception doesn’t evoke the desired response from me, because I interpret human behavior differently. I took the cop’s words literally because I don’t have an intuitive understanding of deceptive behavior. A man who takes deceptive behavior for granted would have interpreted it more accurately. Similarly, normal human beings find Aspies hard to read because they interpret our behavior differently.

Cryptic Communication

I think this is why I have always had a hard time with cryptic communication. I don’t read body language very well either, because body language is also used to get away with something, leveraging self-deception. For the same reason, I don’t know much slang, and I am uncomfortable with informal speech.

Formal, pedantic speech is a feature of high-functioning autism. The more formal your speech, the more it is quotable. The common thread: people use body language, informal speech, indirect speech, slang and subtlety more when we are trying to get away with something. These are very useful tools in deceiving ourselves to deceive others, because our real intentions are off the record. Human beings use such tactics to conspire to bend the rules, and this could be why Aspies are bad at these.

Similarly, I have always wondered why bosses don’t prefer to give direct instructions. Let’s suppose your boss envies and hates her pretty subordinate Alice, and wants her to be fired. But your boss likes Jane, another subordinate, who documents evidence against Alice.

When your boss tells you that Jane is efficient, that probably means you should treat her with kid gloves. So maybe she slacks off and doesn’t come to work four days in a week. But Jane is a good ally. Your boss wants you to be just as good an ally as Jane and help her fire Alice. Saying Jane is “efficient” is a deceptive method of saying, “I don’t care if Jane is a bad worker, she helps me achieve my political goals. Be like Jane.”

Aspies read such instructions literally, and run into trouble. It doesn’t occur to them that people can have such intentions and values.

Normal human beings are better at interpreting cryptic instructions, because they are good at keeping two conflicting versions of reality in their minds. This is not a virtue, but the source of human cruelty. The boss and subordinate later remember only what is “on the record”, and refuse to acknowledge their bad intentions, even to themselves.

This doesn’t mean Aspies are bad at reading all social cues. Aspies are bad at reading social cues that help people coordinate unethical activities. They hold values that conflict with that of normal human beings. So, introspection fails them. This is not a disability. This is an ethical conflict, and we shouldn’t delude ourselves.

How to Reach Them

It is a common observation among autism researchers that parents and partners often feel that autistics cannot be “reached”. I have no introspective knowledge of the workings of the minds of severely autistic people. But this not true of me or the Aspies I personally know. And this is not the impression I get from the writings of autistics.

If anything, they get this backward. Normal human beings are more interested in testing whether others are potential allies and partners than in building honest relationships or having deep conversations. When they are in doubt, they guess instead of asking.

It’s a guess culture, and not an ask culture. Much of human misery follows from that. It is harder to reach Aspies that way. If we want to be understood, we explain. If we want to understand others, we ask them to explain themselves. If we want something from others, we ask for it, instead of expecting them to read our minds. Why is this hard?

Many autistics talk mostly to find out what they need, or share factual information. They don’t engage in much small talk. When others ask questions, many Aspies give out just the relevant facts. But they enjoy conversations in which both participants argue with great fervor to prove their point.

Neurotypicals find such debates tiring just as autistics find small talk tiring. Normal human beings talk mostly to show off their value as potential coworkers, lovers or leaders. Small talk helps people to judge potential allies better, because the ability to do small talk signals spontaneity. Human beings value spontaneity because it allows them to move from one coalition to another, and change their coalition partners without coming across as calculating hypocrites. The differences in conversational styles, I suspect, is because people differ in their propensity for self-deception.

Autistics also differ in their attitudes toward religion and philanthropy. Autistics seem less interested in philanthropy that benefits other people. But this is misleading. People donate to charity mostly to show off. People don’t care much about the effectiveness of their charitable contributions.

Autistics donate the same to charity, regardless of whether their contributions are public or not. But they are insensitive to reputation only when they donate to charity. They revel in the attention when they display their special talents. For autistics, charity seems to be really about giving. They perhaps don’t think they deserve credit for their charitable contributions.

Religion, as evolutionary psychologists point out, is not about belief, but about building cohesive and cooperative social groups. It’s hard to get selfish people to cooperate, but religion leverages self-deception to accomplish that. Autistics are less religious. This could be because they hate hypocrisy and not because they lack a “theory of mind”.

The most popular theory of autism is that of Simon Baron-Cohen, who thinks autistics have an extreme male brain. Men are better at understanding systems (systemizing) and women are better at understanding other people’s mind (empathizing).

Autistics are better at systematizing, and bad at empathizing, and this has led to the extreme male brain theory. But this leaves much to be desired. Men seem to be as social as women, though in different ways. People with autism are very unlikely to break the law. Most criminals are young men. Men tend to over-infer women’s sexual interest, while women tend to under-infer. Autistics tend to under-infer sexual interest. Boys use slang more than girls, but autistics tend to have a poor understanding of slang and sarcasm.

If you look at autism as an extremely conscious mind, things fall into place. People who engage in conscious ethical reasoning are less likely to commit crimes, less likely to over-infer sexual interest, and less likely to be comfortable with slang which is often used to refer to questionable behavior.

The rights of autistics is an important moral issue, but there are broader issues at stake here. I believe the biggest problem confronting us is not world poverty, crime, or war. Self-deception is at the root of most social and political problems. Politics at work, in families and in other human groups are as bad as congressional politics. Even political irrationality is just one of the many manifestations of self-deception. It is quite unlikely we would come anywhere close to treating people with kindness without coming to grips with this.

There is something terribly wrong with the way human beings treat each other, and we are better off not being blind about this. There is so much to be done, and a good place to begin is by understanding strange minds.

You don’t have to play by the rules of the corrupt politicians, manipulative media, and brainwashed peers.

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  • northernraven

    Aspies are all different and no two are alike because Asperger’s Syndrome is on a sliding scale. However there are characteristics most Aspies share:

    1) Clumsy, they avoid sports and dancing because they know they look foolish

    2) Poor social skills partly because they don’t read body language

    3) Poor communication skills as they assume everyone can read their minds

    4) Excellent at making excuses as they’ve spent a lifetime developing this skill

    5) It’s never their fault; everybody else is a jerk

    6) They gravitate to working with things rather than people so the trades and engineering have a high percentage of Aspies

    7) They lose themselves in a hobby or skill as an escape from a world that doesn’t understand them

    8) They take everything literally and have little understanding of sarcasm, irony or spoofing

    I know several Aspies. The easiest ones to deal with are those who admit they’re Aspie and are self-aware of their condition. They’ll hesitate before responding to ensure their response is appropriate. If they’re lucky and have an understanding partner, they rely on their partners to give them appropriate cues. There is no cure, but self-awareness goes a long way to amelioration.

    The most difficult Aspies are the ones who refuse to admit their condition and therefore do nothing about it. Even though I know they mean well, they’re draining. People avoid dealing with these difficult ‘Asperjerks.’

    • Don Duncan

      At 75 I just learned I am partly Aspie. My favorite fictional character was Science Officer Spock who I considered more human, more in touch with what it is to be the ideal human, than any other person, human or alien, even if he did mistakenly equate emotions with irrationality. He was emotionally repressed because he was taught from childhood that feelings were a disability to be conquered. I was also, but I learned that was not true in my early teens. I don’t fit all the 8 characteristics, e.g., 1. Yes. 2. Yes. 3. I had poor communication skill because I assume others think like I do and value reason, truth, and openness. 4. I feel pain when I make a mistake, but making an excuse is lying to myself and others, which is counerproductive, i.e., it prohibits learning. 5. I don’t think of correcting a problem as “finding fault”. It is identification of the root cause. The person/persons responsible may have made an honest mistake or be victims of psychological manipulation from an early age. 6&7. I used a physical game (pool) as an escape, averaging 8 hours a day for about a year, during my senior year in high school. I finally quit, cold turkey, when I used introspection to face my unproductive addiction. Decades later I realized many (if not most) people immerse themselves in a socially acceptable addiction, e.g., overwork (workalcholoics). 8. I had no problem recognizing irony, sarcasm, or spoofing.
      I made a living for 50 years at reading other’s “body language”.

      • northernraven

        Don, you sound like an Aspie I’d gladly break bread with.

        • Don Duncan

          One of my favorite shows is “The Good Doctor”.

      • At 75 you should know there is no such thing as Aspies and realize what is really going on and the many illusions we all live under here in USA today. Age has very little to do with knowledge or understanding many matters these days. I agree it should, but it does not quite often.

        • Don Duncan

          I struggled with the worldwide phenomena of ruler/ruled and victims sanctioning their exploitation/exploiters. I was in my ’60s before I understood how mass delusion instilled by childhood brainwashing could cripple cognition with superstition. It was my ongoing pursuit of an explantion for the sad state of the world that finally satisfied my curiosity. Now I am wondering how to clear delusions.

          I was aware that diamonds were irrationally valued, but couldn’t figure out why. Lately, I learned of a massive 200+ year worldwide ad campaign by Debeers.

          It takes time to get all the facts and piece them together. Keeping an open mind and respect for truth is necessary for learning but some times it still takes decades.

    • Alan Blanes

      Perhaps if society treated health in a far more systematized way, where governments and activist grassroots groups were willing to use our international problem solving initiatives as active opportunities for collaboration, people would have better access to making methodical use of their abilities.

      I see the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 as this exact template for rational engagement of everyone who is interested in reaching the maximum of results by 2030. Goal 3 is upgrading universal health care to result in improved well being. Goal 16 involves overhauling dysfunctional institutional systems and achieving equal justice for all. 193 countries adopted these challenges in 2015, and if we had organizations that actively wanted to build teamwork, people with autism would be valued for their specially adapted abilities..

      • Col. E. H. R. Green

        The 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 is a UN scheme. Like all of the UN’s programs, their goal is to promote and establish global statism.

        Leave the UN (which must be abolished), and government operators, out of it, for the means by which governments fund their involvement in anything is by robbing people via coercive taxation–a massive act of legalized theft, but theft nonetheless–and coercive redistribution, and other coercive interferences in peoples’ peaceful trading and collaborative activities.

        Get the UN and governments entirely out of people’s lives and private property, including their income property, and thus leave them alone and free, as they have the right to be, to conceive of and implement problem-solving initiatives at the individual and “grass roots” levels.

        • Alan Blanes

          Thank you Don and Col. Green for your comments! They encapsulate precisely the feelings of disenchantment that is being whipped up by the forces of oligarchy that seek to keep the public away from the UN.

          I certainly agree that we do not need to allow a statist vision to stand in the way of the people acting to work in a spirit of solidarity to enable local sovereignty and self determination to be reinforced as a compact between peoples. We do not have to tolerate the dysfunctionality that has been poisoning civilization over the decades – such as allowing policing to be detached from its social harmonizing purposed from the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act that actively transformed the King’s Constabulary from an arbitrary mob of brutal intimidators to – after 1929 – a peace force. A lot of this history is being obliterated by para-military anti-democratic forces. The UN could be an organizing tool of the public to correct many injustices.

          Eleanor Roosevelt went on a world tour in 1949 and spoke in places like Edmonton Alberta – about how important it is for the public to make up half of the operations of the UN – and with her inspiration, the United Nations Association in Canada UNAC got formed, and the Edmonton Branch is still active and healthy. I will be using your comments as examples of just how cynical and jaded some people are about UN related projects – and I hope to keep in touch with you on Disqus to see if you can begin to accept the potential for good that the 17 SDGs project offers.

      • Don Duncan

        The “methodical use of abilities”, i.e., problem solving, is obstructured by lack of freedom due to worldwide faith in force as expressed by the universal support for the political paradigm of coercive govt. in every state, i.e., worldwide statism (authoritarianism).
        No matter how good an idea, it can be corrupted by govt. to serve special interests at the expense of the masses. Then failure is blaimed on capitalism, i.e., economic freedom. They politicians propose more control for them, i.e., less freedom to empliment real solutions. Good intentions can’t overcome statism, bring justice, peace, or prosperity. But society is willfully blind to that fact.

  • Mark

    I saw this on I cannot thank you enough for writing this article. It explains ALOT!

  • Nmnb

    People donate to charity mostly to show off? Not true ! And how in the world can you know that?

    • Col. E. H. R. Green

      You can know it when you see people wear their charitable acts on their sleeve, the ones who make a concerted effort to bring everyone’s attention to their philanthropy.

    • KeepOnLearning

      As in most uses of the generality “people,” whatever follows can’t be all true.
      People know this implicitly.

  • Charlie

    This is a very insightful article. I am seeing that being as Aspie pretty much disqualifies one from the corporate management jungle. You will be chewed up and spit out before you know what hit you…often for no reason but someone’s idea of fun, or feeling threatened by ability.

  • Anon.

    Some good points were made but without mentioning most autistics have severe nutritional deficiencies or toxicity problems at the root of their “condition” the picture given is very misleading.

  • Katzenjammer

    Excellent. Food for thought – scintillations of champagne and caviar. Thank you Shanu.

  • Samarami

    Doing this from government (“public” ha ha) library, so none of the links I want come up. But you can read this:

    I, too, am one with a “strange mind”. I’m anarchist.