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Intense World: The Autistic Theory of Everything

In spite of decades of hard work by autistic people and our allies to promote the more understanding and tolerant view of autism of being a natural neurotype, the mainstream and academic worlds are still lamentably dominated by the false and hurtful ideas of autism being a "disorder", "disability", or "disease". Something that needs to be eradicated via "treatment", not accepted and accommodated. Yet, in the midst of the medical world's sea of garbage articles demonising autism's characteristics as deficits or disorders however, there lies a true gem of a paper that may be the key to finally understanding what autism is on a fundamental level, and to finally putting an end to the hurtful misinformation about it.

The Intense World theory is something that I personally only had a surface level understanding of until recently, and that I deeply regret not reading up on earlier. To say that reading the paper on it blew my mind is an understatement. I now truly believe it to be autism's version of the vaunted theory of everything that physicists have spent so many decades slaving away to find. A theory that singlehandedly provides a framework for understanding almost everything there is to know about autism, and that sheds much-needed light on virtually all of its mysteries.

Intense World Theory in a Nutshell

The Intense World theory originated in a 2007 paper written by Kamila Markram, Henry Markram, and Tania Rinaldi. Put in simple terms, the theory posits that autism is a neurotype marked by a hyper-connected brain, which begets hyper-perception, hyper-attention, and hyper-memory. Autistic brains are wired in such a way that they are perpetually working in overdrive relative to neurotypical brains and experiencing vastly more activity in response to everything they encounter.

These differences in the autistic brain are both a blessing and a curse. The same hyper-connectivity that can give autistic people unparalleled talent and work ethic can also cause the brain to be easily overloaded and force the person to implement many off-putting coping strategies to shut out the outside world, such as stimming and withdrawing inward from the social world, in order to function. These behaviours are largely what causes autism to so often be labeled a disorder. Much more on all of this later in the article.

A 2013 study showed that autistic brains generate 42% more information when at rest than neurotypical brains, an astounding difference that essentially means that we experience the world in a radically different way compared to how neurotypicals do. Situations that present a pleasantly arousing amount of stimulation for neurotypicals, such as social events or supermarket lights/music, may be highly unpleasant or even crippling to autistic people due to all of the additional information that we have to process. Food odours that neurotypicals don't mind or may not even be aware of may be overpoweringly noxious to an autistic person, and sounds that neurotypicals consider background noise may be physically painful for us to hear.

Consider two computers that have more or less the exact same specifications, and are both being used by someone in order to play a certain computer game. One of those people noticed that their computer is not quite powerful enough to run the game with all of the graphics settings turned up to the maximum and opted to play it on "medium" settings, while the other ignored this and opted to turn all of the settings up to the absolute maximum level.

If you were standing behind these two players and looking at their monitors, you may come to the conclusion that the second person has an inferior computer because of how choppy the performance of the game is on it, yet that is not the case. The computers are identical; one of them is simply experiencing difficulty rendering the game properly because of how much additional information it is being forced to process.

For anyone interested in a visual and auditory example of just how intense the world can actually be to some autistic people, I would recommend watching the UK National Autistic Society's Too Much Information video series, which were made by consulting autistic people and demonstrate just how they see the world. The virtual reality video is particularly distressing.

Although these videos are closer approximations of how low-functioning autistic people (especially children) experience things than how higher-functioning autistics do, I was able to find a number of things that I personally related to, notably the difficulties in hearing people speak over background noises, the extreme and frightening amplification of glimpses of random people's facial expressions, and the stress and anxiety depicted in the job interview video.

According to the Intense World theory, the reason that autistic people shun social interactions, at least in-person, may be because the overwhelming amount of information that comes with them is too uncomfortable and overstimulating. This is backed up by the fact that many autistic people who detest verbal, in-person interactions, can be quite social online where we do not have to deal with a flood of extraneous information such as eye contact, body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. I wrote an entire comedic article on why I believe written/typed communication to be superior to verbal communication, and while the points in that article were largely aimed at a general audience, they ring even more true for autistic people.

Many autistic people do indeed yearn for intimate relationships, at least at one point in their lives, but are held back by how indomitable the porcupine's dilemma is for autistic people. Most autistic people have a long and storied history of being hurt by neurotypicals, both intentionally and unintentionally. Yet for many autistic people, the only people they encounter in day-to-day life are those same neurotypicals. When things as common to neurotypicals as eating in public or having someone come over to your home can be utterly unbearable due to your sensory issues, it may seem wholly futile to even bother pursuing a relationship.

The hurt often goes both ways of course, as many autistic people can unintentionally offend neurotypicals by being too blunt or violating some enigmatic social rule or not using the right facial expressions or tone of voice, thus unintentionally coming off as callous or rude.

Fundamentally Different

One of the most interesting things about the Intense World theory is that, unlike many other theories in psychology that are stabs in the dark based on nothing but observations of human behaviour, Intense World's propositions are consistently validated in actual observations of the major physical differences between autistic and neurotypical brains.

I mentioned earlier that autistic brains produce 42% more information than neurotypicals brains at rest, and the most likely reason for this is because of how hyper-connected autistic brains are. The Intense World theory used data from two studies that used valproic acid, an epilepsy drug, on pregnant rats, which has previously been linked to producing offspring with distinctly autistic traits. Rats were used for this experiment because their brains could be studied in invasive ways that were not allowed to be used on humans.

Researchers observeed that the brains of the autistic rats were both hyper-connected and hyper-active, firing off signals far more often than those of neurotypical rats, and in response to far less stimulation. Their brains formed stronger connections and at a faster rate than neurotypical rats, and worked at a faster rate. This was linked to drastic increases in perception, memory, sensory sensitivty, fear, and emotionality. This radically increased connectivity is likely the reason that young autistic children's brains are 10% larger than the brains of neurotypical children of the same age.

The increased emotionality is something that I should probably take a moment to address here. While sensory sensitivity and hyper-perception are known hallmarks of autism, it may surprise many people to hear that autistic people, often stereotyped as overly logical robots, are prone to being more emotional than neurotypical people.

As mentioned earlier, one of the consequences of feeling everything more is getting overwhelmed and mentally and/or physically withdrawing from the outside world. This is exacerbated due to many autistic people, especially ones who never received a diagnosis during their childhood, having to learn to deal with their daily autism-related distresses on their own and hide their feelings because no one else seems to understand or care. This, coupled with the bullying and ostracisation that occurs to most autistic children, can also often lead to permanent trauma (up to and including even full-on PTSD in some cases), which can make the autistic person appear to be even more emotionless in spite of their inner pain.

Regardless of how autistic people may appear outwardly, the increased connectivity means that inside, we feel just about everything that we have to process more deeply than neurotypicals do, because there is more information being fired through the brain in response to it. Sounds or scents that provoke little or perhaps even no reaction in a neurotypicals brains can trigger a painful overload of information inside a highly connected autistic brain. Just the same, a melancholic story that provokes minor sadness in a neurotypical person can drive an autistic person to tears.

The wholly false notion of autistic people being emotionless is often accompanied by the equally incorrect notion that autistic people are incapable of empathy. I wrote an entire article on the Double Empathy Problem which addresses this, so I will not go into it any further here. Claiming that autistic people lack empathy because we may be too overwhelmed by emotion to show it, or not know the socially appropriate way to show it, is as illogical and ludicrous as claiming that our often-overwhelming sense of hearing proves that we are deaf.

The hyper-connectivity in autistic and neurotypical brains can perhaps be attributed to the fact that autistic brains do not prune their synapses like neurotypical brains do. Synapses are structures that the end of neurons that allow neurons to transmit signals to each other. Neurotypical brains prune their synapses as time goes on, apparently in the interests of maintaining efficiency as the brain acquires more information and makes more connections. Synapses that are used often are strengthened while ones that are used rarely are pruned. This process lasts until a person is somewhere in their late 20s.

I have previously mentioned how autistic brains are all incredibly unique, so much that scientists are unable to even find a way to categorise them, and the hyper-connectivity caused by the absence of synapse pruning is a very likely explanation for this. To quote an interview with Dr. Kamila Markram and Dr. Henry Markram themselves: "The microcircuits that are mostly affected will depend on genetics, toxic insults during pregnancy and the kind of environmental exposure after birth. Each autistic child will therefore be unique because different microcircuits are hyper-functional and they dominate the idiosyncratic pattern that emerges."

Autistic people are often praised for our striking attention to detail, and just as often scolded for our inability to see the big picture. Having so many connections in our brains and receiving so much information in response to every little thing is likely responsible for this as well. Just as we pick up far more information from tiny details than neurotypicals do and are able to notice things that go over their heads, the situation or system as a whole can go right over our own heads due to how much information we have to process in order to do so.

Another striking difference between autistic and neurotypical brains can be found in the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that handles emotion, memory, anxiety, fear, and fight-or-flight response. Its job is essentially to analyse input, determine whether it is a threat, act accordingly, and create memories based on the event. In autistic people and rats, it appears to be significantly more hyper-functional and hyper-connected than even the rest of the brain. This in turn makes the autistic person perceive the world as being significantly more frightening and leads to increased formation of fear memories based on less levels of stimulation.

On top of the hyper-active amygdala, it was found that fear extinction occurs significantly less in autistic brains. Fear extinction is a process where a mental link between a certain stimulus and danger is weakened or culled after it is discovered that it is no longer dangerous or was not actually dangerous to begin with. The significantly decreased fear extinction, coupled with the intensity of the outside world, the overly skittish amygdala, and the increased likelihood of having negative experiences with other humans, are likely why autistic people are far more likely to suffer from anxiety and phobias and are likely to develop personality disorders such as borderline and avoidant.

A New Perspective on Autistic Eccentricities

"Everything understood is everything forgiven", to quote an old Russian proverb, and the many off-putting behaviours that are common to autistic people become far easier to understand when viewing them through the lens of the Intense World theory.

Self-stimulatory behaviour, or stimming is a common autistic activity that involves engaging in repetitive behaviours such as finger-flicking, hand flapping, pacing, rocking, etc in order to soothe stress. According to Drs. Kamila and Henry Markram,, this phenomenon is a way to shut off the outside world and create a "secure bubble" to take refuge in. In more extreme cases, or when the autistic child is forbidden from engaging in stimming by ignorant adults, they may resort to self-injurious behaviour to accomplish the same result.

In an unpredictable, chaotic, and frightening world, it can be very soothing to engage in a familiar, predictable, and controllable activity. The same principle likely explains our strong obsession with and attachment to our special interests, something that anyone who has ever taken a long walk around this website has surely noticed about me. (:

Much as predictable and familiar activities can be very therapeutic to autistic people, unexpected routine changes can conversely be utterly soul-shattering, especially to autistic children and low-functioning autistic adults. I have had numerous violent meltdowns as a child myself due to unexpected events such as unannounced trips or vacations, because the sheer onslaught of stress that all of the unexpected variables that such changes bring can feel like a fundamental violation of our very selves to our hyper-active brains.

As I mentioned on the Autism Terminology page, a meltdown is not the same thing as a tantrum. A tantrum involves deliberately acting out in order to manipulate someone to one's will, while a meltdown is an instinctual and often involuntary reaction provoked by sheer overwhelming stress.

The autistic tendency to have a very restricted diet, sometimes going as far as to subsist on the same meal every single day, can be explained via the Intense World theory in two separate ways. The most obvious one, in light of the discussion in the previous paragraphs, is that eating the same meal on a regular basis provides much needed comfort of sameness and routine. The other issue however, is that the extreme sensory sensitivity that our hyper-connected brains cause us to have can also make the tastes, textures, and odours of many common foods completely unbearable. As a result, we latch on to the rare foods that we do enjoy for dear life and refuse to let go.

Another consequence of the intense nature of sensory input in the autistic brains means that we are often incapable of filtering through extraneous information and focusing on what we want to focus on. Many of us can have extreme trouble making out what someone is saying to us when in a crowded area because the voice of our conversational partner is being forced to compete with the voices of everyone currently speaking around us, as well as all of the little background noises that are occurring. We may also find eating in public to be unpleasant in the extreme because of how overpowering the stench of other people's foods and the loud sounds of them chewing are.

The original paper on the Intense World theory mentioned that the famous autistic aversion to eye contact can be explained by the extreme amount of stimuli that is taken in via making eye contact with another person, which I am inclined to agree with. The eyes have been called a window into a person's soul for a reason. Many of us will sometimes recoil away involuntarily while making eye contact with someone as if we suddenly have motion sickness due to the sheer amount of information overload, coupled with how unnatural and awkward eye contact already feels for us. One study actually showed that autistic brains display signs of receiving too much information and not being able to sort it all when making eye contact with a conversational partner.

The intense information overload that accompanies eye contact is only further complicated by the fact that autistic people have noticeably better peripheral vision than neurotypicals do. Since looking into someone's eyes can almost feel like staring into the Sun for us, we can sometimes not even be aware that we're not making eye contact because even looking into someone's eyes through our peripheral vision is very unpleasant. Try to stare somewhere close to the Sun without actually staring directly at the Sun (just don't do it for long!) and you may understand the sensation.

Speaking for myself, I can perfectly read people's eyes and expressions without having to actually be looking anywhere near directly at them. I actually came up with the "staring into the Sun" metaphor when I was forced to attend a company event where we were all seated in rows and called on by higher-ups to ask questions if we wanted to. My manager was sitting somewhere in-between me and a woman with a very intense stare, and when I was turned towards him to watch him speak, I was completely overwhelmed by her stare despite not even looking at her and at one point began to genuinely wonder if I was looking at her or at my manager.

It's probably also worth mentioning here that non-aggressive eye contact is an aberration in the animal kingdom, and neurotypical humans likely only consider it natural because they are desensitised to it from a very young age. Autistic children shy away from eye contact due to how overwhelming the sensory input is, and never experience this desensitisation.

Having ruminated on the subject, I have come to believe that the distinct lack of synapse pruning also serves as a very convincing explanation for our tendency towards nonconformity. The synapse pruning that goes on in neurotypical brains causes them to sever connections that enable behaviour that they learn is socially inappropriate, which causes neurotypicals to essentially mold each other's brains in the same similiar ways. This lack of this pruning, coupled with the autistic child's tendency to shun the often overwhelming or even outright hostile social world and retreat inward, leads to us all molding our brains in our own unique and creative ways.

As an example, if I had been born neurotypical, it is likely that whatever structures in my brain made me fall in love with the colour pink would've been pruned long ago after my brain was exposed to the fact that this is an unpopular and socially inappropriate colour for a male to associate themselves with. Even if there were no other reasons for me to love my autism, this one would have been enough.

Acceptance, Not "Treatment"

While autism obviously confers a number of disadvantages, that does not in any way change the fact that it is a perfectly natural neurotype with many objective benefits, and not the disability, disorder, or (Bast forgive me for repeating this word) disease that it has been stigmatised as. Autism research is far too often focused on demonising all of autism's differences and treating them as something that needs curing, even when the difference is ostensibly positive. I have quipped before that if it was discovered that autistic people possess the ability to levitate or fly, studies would describe this phenomenon as "disordered movement".

Moreover, the Intense World theory provides solid evidence that the undeniably negative traits of autism can actually be lessened or even outright prevented by simply providing autistic children with calm, autism-friendly environments and accommodating their sensory issues and other eccentricities instead of forcing them to adhere to neurotypical norms.

In another fascinating study that Drs. Kamila and Henry Markram were involved in, three study groups of autistic and neurotypical rats were set up. One group was treated in a standard fashion and housed in a standard environment while the other two groups were provided with an "enriched environment" that included enlarged cages and provided with a number of toys, fancier food, and additional rats to play with. One of the two enriched environments was kept completely stable, while the other one was periodically modified.

The results of the experiment exposed just how much the negative aspects of autism are a response to the hostile environments that autistics are forced to live in, as opposed to symptoms of a disability or disorder. While the autistic rats in the dull "standard" environment and the "unpredictable and enriching" environment demonstrated numerous signs of autism, including stimming, antisocial behaviour, and persistent anxiety, the autistic rats in the "predictable and enriching" fared extremely well and did not demonstrate anxiery. Moreover, half of the rats did not even demonstrate any outward signs of autism!

The revelations of this study are truly astounding. After decades and decades of ignorant psychologists, doctors, and hateful groups such as "autism speaks" denouncing autism as a disorder or disease that requires curing, it is revealed that the negative traits that autism was blamed for are instead only symptoms of the systematic mistreatment that autistic children are exposed to! All while parents and other authority figures were (and still are!) subjecting autistic children to trauma-inducing "therapies" such as applied behaviour analysis, which is the autistic equivalent of gay conversion therapy and was invented by a loathsome piece of worm excrement that openly considered autistic people to be subhumans, to mask their autistic symptoms. This is quite literally the equivalent of torturing a terrified and scared person in order to force them to hide their fear better.

While autistic and neurotypical people share a desire for both novelty and sameness, the Intense World theory suggests that autistic people have a much stronger need for sameness and a much lower tolerance for novelty due to the amount of input that our hyper-active brains have to process from any changes to our environment and routine. The Markrams have thus suggested that autistic children should be raised in a rich and diverse, yet well-structured and filtered environment with predictable routines, with changes being predictable and presented in a gentle way.

If autistic people are accepted and accommodated instead of being treated like the metaphorical square peg being brutally forced into a triangular hole, it's quite likely that even the socialisation issues that neurotypicals find so off-putting about us would be absent. While autistic people tend towards being undersocialised due to withdrawing from social interactions to avoid the onslaught of stimuli that comes with them, there is also a strong aversion to social interaction develops as a result of being mistreated or excluded due to autistic behaviours such as stimming, behaviours that could perhaps be prevented from developing via raising autistic children in a friendlier way.

It's worth noting that even with how ignorant of and hostile the world has been towards autistic people, numerous autistic people from Isaac Newton, to Michelangelo, to Charles Darwin have gone on to become some of the most brilliant and renown minds in human history. Most autistic people (myself included) have not and will not reach the intellectual peaks that the three aforementioned titans did, but that is beside the point. When we consider the accomplishments of autistic people throughout history in spite of how much anyone with this neurotype has the deck stacked against them, then it is unfathomable what we could do in a world willing to understand and accommodate our differences.

I have some additional thoughts related to reworking the definition of the "spectrum" of autism based on the Intense World theory, but I'm afraid that that will have to be for a future article as this one has already dragged on for longer than I intended it to. I'll close this article out with a quote from the conclusion of the Intense World paper that this article inspired, simply because the writers of the study put my sentiments into words far better than I could hope to do myself:

"The Intense World Syndrome suggests that the autistic person is an individual with remarkable and far above average capabilities due to greatly enhanced perception, attention and memory. In fact it is this hyper-functionality, which could render the individual debilitated. This perspective of hyper-functionality offers new hope for pharmacological as well as behavioral treatments. For example, while most the commonly prescribed medication try to increase neuronal and cognitive functioning, we conclude that the autistic brain needs to be calmed down, learning needs to be slowed, and cognitive functions need to be diminished in order to re-instate proper functionality. In terms of behavioral treatments, the hyper-plasticity offers an immense scope for rehabilitation therapies that are based on excessive positive reward and comforting approaches and that avoid direct punishment, which may lead to a lockdown of behavioral routines. It may well turn out that successful treatments could expose truly capable and highly gifted individuals."