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Intense World: Some Further Ruminations

I wrote an article back in July of 2021 about the Intense World theory of autism, a fascinating framework that neatly and convincingly explains just about every aspect of autism via insights gleaned from the analysis of brains of autistic and neurotypical rats (rats were used in place of humans due to the procedures used to study the brains not being permitted for use on humans). Needless to say, reading the paper that first introduced this theory was one of the most mind-blowing moments of my life, ranking up with discovering that I was autistic in my adulthood due to how accurately it explained the mechanisms of how and why my brain works as it does.

In the months that have passed since then, I've spent a lot of time analysing my own behaviours, as well as many anecdotes I have read online from other autistic folks, through the lens of the Intense World theory, and have made a number of potentially enlightening observations as a result that I felt were worth sharing. Rather than clutter up an already fairly long page and force anyone interested to re-read the whole thing, I decided to write a follow-up article on the subject.

Here, I will go over how the Intense World theory's postulations can explain dyspraxia, which was never touched upon in the original article, and offer a new, more helpful model for defining the autism spectrum through the lens of the Intense World theory.

On Dyspraxia

When I originally wrote my article on the Intense World theory, one of my biggest concerns was how this otherwise immaculate framework seemed to provide no explanation whatsoever for dyspraxia, which is very common among autistic people. At first glance, having a hyper-connected and hyper-active brain seemingly provides no insight as to why autistic people, especially children, tend to have difficulties with anything involving motor skills. As it would turn out, this was not due to any hole in this theory, so much as my own lack of a sufficient understanding of dyspraxia at the time.

We rely on sensory information, such as the sensory information that informs us about the position of each part of our body (proprioception) and its motion and balance (vestibular) in order to accomplish the everyday tasks that people with dyspraxia have problems with. Because autistic people have hyper-connected brains and have to process far more information through their senses than neurotypicals do (approximately 42% more according to one study), that sensory information can be very difficult if not nigh-impossible to accurately process (at least in a sufficiently timely manner) depending on where on the spectrum an autistic person is (more on this later) due to how much additional input it is competing with.

Most people do not put much, if any, thought into the machinations behind tasks such as handwriting or shoe-tying, yet these tasks require a complicated and accurate understanding of where every part of one's body currently is in space, along with just how and where they need to be moving and how much force they need to apply in order to accomplish a task. Processing, organising, and using incoming sensory information to properly respond to one's environment is known as "sensory integration", and can perhaps be thought of as a military general being given intelligence about the events occurring in the land they are deployed in, and using them to formulate an ever-evolving plan for their troops to follow to win the battle.

Dyspraxia then, is what occurs when the metaphorical general is so flooded with endless papers chock-full of information, both highly relevant and utterly inconsequential, that they do not have time to read through them and make properly educated decisions in time, causing them to make constant blunders.

Incidentally, the same metaphor works perfectly for explaining why autistic people struggle so much with social situations. In contrast to mainstream beliefs, autistic people in general do not struggle with reading other people, so much as we struggle with processing all of the information we take in from eye contact, people's tone of voice and body language, and so forth, while simultaneously processing their words and trying to modulate our own tone of voice, eye contact, and body language.

Just as autistic people may often avert their eyes from their conversational partner in order to help process everything else that is going on, even neurotypicals may instinctually avert their eyes from their conversational partner when they need to think heavily on something that comes up in the conversation.

One very important point to remember about dyspraxia is that, while it may cause a person to appear very cognitively challenged, there is absolutely no correlation between dyspraxia and a lack of cognitive intelligence. An autistic person who struggles with tying their shoes or buttoning their shirt isn't struggling due to a lack of intelligence, but instead due to an inability to filter out all of the information going through their head in order to have a lucid grasp of the task at hand. The autistic brain is essentially viewing life on a much higher and more resource-intensive graphical setting in spite of having the same hardware as the neurotypical brain, so to say.

Most people have had a moment in their life when they suddenly became clumsy while having to interact with someone they're nervous around, such as a crush, or upon hearing some stressful and unexpected news. Autistic people simply tend to have a vastly lower threshold for when this sort of phenomenon can occur.

While dyspraxia may never truly go away, it does improve dramatically by the time a person fully ages into adulthood, presumably due to the brain maturing and having more resources to spare.

Revising the Autism Spectrum

I've mentioned this before, but the "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" labels are generally considered archaic, unhelpful, and even downright offensive these days because they are a harmful oversimplification of a very complicated phenomenon. Autism is an infinitely diverse spectrum, and attempting to boil it down to what basically amounts to either "perfectly able" or "utterly disabled" is as preposterous as dividing every computer in the world between the labels of "good" and "bad".

One notion that I have seen prop up in the autistic community a number of times, that helps summarise the problems with these labels, is that the "low-functioning" label is used to deny autistic people agency, while the "high-functioning" label is used to deny support.

While there are certainly autistic people that are able to get by in life with little difficulties, the autistics that are labeled "high-functioning" are dishearteningly often the result of being forced to learn to mask their struggles, pains, and natural behaviours in childhood under duress of punishment, ostracisation, bullying, and so forth. This is reflected by the statistic of so-called "high-functioning" autistic people being three times more likely to commit suicide than "low-functioning" autistics, and ten times more likely than the general population.

Were it up to me to formally define the autism spectrum, I would probably define it based on three different variables. Those being the degree of hyper-connectivity present in an autistic person's brain, their overall cognitive capability to manage this information overload, and the environment that they were reared in.

To return briefly to the metaphor of computers running a video game on varying graphical settings, the first variable can be thought of as to how high the graphics are turned up (and even how many extravagant graphics-enhancing mods are installed), the second variable can be thought of as the specifications of the computer, and the third can be thought of as how the computer is treated and maintained. Even the most beefy computer in the world won't be much good at running anything if it's mistreated to the point of its components no longer functioning, to morbidly clarify the third part of the metaphor.

The clear distinction between the mental hyper-connectivity that is the grand hallmark of autism, and actual intelligence, cannot be stressed enough. Even while autism is still officially labeled as a disability, autistic people are significantly more likely to have above-average IQs. Common autistic traits such as struggling with social interaction, being unable to perform tasks that require fine motor skills, having strong sensory aversions, and so forth do not preclude a person from possessing high intelligence, nor from lacking it.

Moreover, every single autistic person is affected uniquely by this hyper-connectivity, both in terms of what degree it exists and in what areas it manifests most. One autistic person may have no issues eating a certain common food, while another may be too nauseated by its smell to bring themselves to breathe in a room where it is present, for instance. Some are very restricted in what sorts of fabrics they can tolerate wearing on their bodies, others are overwhelmed by the sound emitted by fluorescent lights, others yet may inexplicably have a sensitive enough sense of touch that they can clearly feel individual people's fingers on objects they've recently touched (guilty!)

Although accommodations can certainly be made depending on what stressors an autistic person has, both by the autistic themselves and by caring neurotypicals, some demons simply cannot be sealed away adequately enough to allow for a normal life. An autistic that is too overwhelmed by the sounds and scents of people eating, to eat in public can hope to pass as eccentric once they've proven their merit elsewhere. One that is too wholly overwhelmed and frightened by stimuli that most people are not even aware of to function, are essentially stuck playing life on Nightmare! difficulty, only without the respawning enemies (at least, as far as I know).

Regarding the third variable, I wrote an entire depressing article on the countless tragedies and pitfalls that so many autistic people are systematically subjected to, especially in their childhoods. Although that page is littered with many morose statistics regarding everything from systematic, medically-sanctioned trauma-inducing autism conversion therapies to child sexual abuse, the sheer weight that this variable carries can perhaps be even better conveyed by the results of a research study done by the same people who invented the Intense World theory.

To briefly summarise for the benefit of anyone who has not read my previous article, this study compared the behaviours of autistic rats that were reared in an autism-friendly environment, one that was enriching yet stable and predictable, and rats that were raised in two different autism-unfriendly environments. Strikingly, it was revealed that the rats that were provided an environment that accommodated their needs never developed the anxiety and antisocial tendencies that plagued the less fortunate rats, and that half of them never even displayed any outward signs of being autistic.

The fact that such a dramatic gulf emerged between the tendencies developed by the different groups of rats, based simply on comparative minutia such as having a stable and predictable environment (very important for autistic people, but not quite as much as not having a dangerously ignroant parent that will subject their toddler to 40 hours a week of PTSD-inducing "therapy"!), is supremely telling.

One important discovery of the Intense World theory is the significant reduction in fear extinction processes in autistic brains, in addition to the increased formation of fear memories. This means that autistic people are not only naturally more inclined to create fear memories in response to distressing stimuli, but they also do not naturally shed these associations anywhere near as much as neurotypicals do. No doubt a major reason why anxiety, phobias, and personality disorders such as avoidant, borderline, and obsessive-compulsive are so endemic among the autistic population.

The aforementioned rat study seemed to show that anxiety and hallmarks of autism, such as social withdrawal, are often preventable defence mechanisms that are formed during formative years in response to a constant barrage of negative experiences. Much like a traumatised war veteran may respond to unexpected loud noises as if they were back on the battlefield and just had a bomb go off next to them, autistic people with countless painful life experiences under their belt may chronically react disproportionately to a variety of stimuli that is reminiscent of these sordid past experiences, such as by having a meltdown over a minor unexpected change in their routine and/or environment because it reminds them of how badly their boundaries were violated in similiar ways.

To quote the aforementioned study:

The results show that [autistic] rats reared in an enriched but predictable environment, do not develop autistic-like hyper-emotional behaviors, while those exposed to enriched but unpredictable environments or to standard environments develop a range of hyper-emotionality and other autistic symptoms, to an extent that depends on individual neurobiological correlates. This suggests that individuals exposed to an autism risk factor may become more neurobiologically sensitive to unpredictable environmental conditions than animals without risk factor exposure, and that rearing in a predictable, enriched environment could prevent the development of detrimental behaviors.

Withdrawal from the social world is a known hallmark of autism (the name for the neurotype was actually derived from the Greek word for "self" - "autos" - back in 1912 when it was mistakenly postulated to be a form of schizophrenia), and is one of the more common off-putting behaviours that autistics often develop due to phobias and aversions forged from constant mental overwhelm, along with stimming.

Prolonged social withdrawal, especially during childhood, can also lead to one being severely undersocialised, which will exacerbate the already nigh-indomitable burden of attempting to mimic neurotypical communication behaviours (eye contact, "proper" tone of voice, facial expressions, body language), making one function that much less regardless of actual cognitive intelligence. Having to spend every public moment putting on an uncomfortable facade is enough of a strain when one at least has a good idea of what the facade entails instead of stumbling around in the dark and constantly falling, exacerbating fears of social situations and digging an ever deeper hole in the process.

Furthermore, a learned strong aversion to social interactions can be damaging to career prospects in cultures where building connections via social events, having good so-called social "skills", and being liked by co-workers and bosses as a sociable and extroverted "team player" is often more important for hiring and promotion than actual skill and competence. Although this reality varies depending on the country and the culture, China and Japan being two countries that hold a far more positive view of introversion and that put somewhat less of an emphasis on social "skills" to the detriment of merit.

An inability to communicate in a socially acceptable manner due to undersocialisation is not a malady that is exclusively in the domain of autistic people of course, and can and does occur in neurotypicals for a myriad of reasons, but it is certainly a vastly more common phenomenon among autistics, just as anxiety, personality disorders, and phobias are. Although I do not believe that statistics exist to definitively prove or disprove this notion, I suspect these issues combined could be the number one cause of why autistic people today often cannot function in society.

A Serener World

As of this writing, this new attempt at organising the spectrum is nothing more than my personal opinion based on my research, ruminations, and personal experience, but I daresay it is still quite a lofty step above attempting to distill the incredibly complicated spectrum into unhelpful, black-and-white labels such as "high-functioning" or "low-functioning". The real meat of the matter is how intelligent and capable an autistic person is, and how much and what sort of accommodation they would need in order to function in day-to-day life.

By envisioning the autism spectrum via the three aforementioned factors, a clearer picture seems to emerge on how to solve the many problems plaguing the autistic community, including how to help better include and integrate autistic people into society.

The percentage of autistics that may perhaps be truly ill-fated to be unable to contribute to society or live without support is not infinitesimal - approximately 19.1% of autistics are estimated to have IQs below 85, over 3% more than among neurotypicals - and I do not wish to push the struggles of these people and their families/caretakers under the rug with this article. Ultimately however, IQ is only one factor to keep in mind when analysing a person's prospects. The aforementioned 85% unemployment statistic for instance, was derived from looking at college-educated autistics, a group that almost certainly has little to no overlap with the 19.1% who have IQs below 85.

The hyper-connectivity that defines autism can be quite challenging to autistic people regardless of their cognitive capabilities, but can be sufficiently managed and suppressed in many, if not most cases. I wrote a full article detailing various accommodations for autistic people, both ones that an autistic can make for themselves and ones that can be made by society and/or an employer or school staff members.

As mentioned there, I can say that I have experienced fantastic improvements in my quality of life since I started using a few accommodations, mainly noise-cancelling headphones and a weighted blanket, to manage my own issues. Wearing active noise-cancelling headphones to shut out offensive external noise while at work or in other public spaces has been a boon for my anxiety issues and for helping me focus. I would almost compare the difference in loud environments such as a grocery store to, in some strange way, feeling like putting on glasses to assist with poor eyesight, due to how much more lucid everything around me feels without the flood of extraneous input. I even wear them at home now while working on creative projects or reading.

My weighted blanket continues to amaze me, and I only recently noticed that it also helps quiet down external noises that would cause me trouble with falling asleep and staying asleep. Presumably because the more amped-up the nervous system is, the more energy it expends towards analysing every corner of its environment to glean information on potential threats, thus making all sounds appear to be prominent. The whole-body pressure that weighted blankets provide simulates a firm yet pleasant hug, which releases oxycontin, allowing the nervous system to relax and the outside world to de-intensify, in turn.

The ultimate way forward, for dealing with the third variable, is prevention via societal acceptance of autism as being a natural neurotype with its own host of advantages and disadvantages, which is a subject I will get to shortly, in the conclusion to this article. The issues that autistic people wind up developing as a result of woeful childhood experiences are far too numerous and complicated (I wrote a 10,000 word article just on the subject of autism and personality disorders, while kicking myself under the table at numerous points for the sake of brevity!) for me to provide anything that passes as a solution, and it is up to every autistic person and how they feel the need to treat their maladies.

For my own part, beyond relying on heavy escapism, I have found it to be endlessly helpful to learn as much as I can about autism and psychology in general, including the other issues with my own brain. It has certainly not helped that hyper-emotionality and sensitivity are core parts of autism (and I do suspect that I am a particularly severe example of both of these phenomena) and I cannot always control my own tendencies, even when I realise that I am being irrational and understand the psychological reasons for my feelings. Nonetheless, knowing just how and why one's metaphorical car will periodically veer off the road does wonders towards preventing it from doing so, or at least anticipating it and minimising damage.

Returning readers know that I push autistic pride a lot on this website, and the main reason is because I want to counter hurtful, negative mainstream views of autism as something inherently negative, with facts about the many positives of the neurotype. Many autistic people were taught to hate themselves and to view their mental wiring as something to be ashamed of, which is an obvious recipe for creating and sustaining all sorts of debilitating mental issues.

Some people may propose that my model for the spectrum requires at least one additional one variable, taking into account autistic people's ability to mimic socially acceptable communication methods. To that, I will say that I believe the onus should be placed on both autistic and neurotypical people to meet each other halfway. Despite autistic people's ways of communicating being considered "deficient", the double empathy problem has made a convincing argument for this being a natural difference, and not a deficit, since autistics have no trouble empathising with and understanding each other, while studies have shown that neurotypicals are no less bad at empathising with and understanding autistics, even when they are their own family members.

A far more helpful and productive (for everyone) avenue would be a greater push for acceptance of autistic people for who they are. In this day and age, it's not entirely uncommon to encounter people from different cultures or who speak a different primary language, and autistic people can easily be thought of as a different culture with a somewhat different language and cultural norms. Quite a number of autistic people have actually found acceptance and inclusion by uprooting themselves to a faraway country (here's one anecdote that's been lurking in my "Autism" favourites folder) where they will at least have the benefit of others expecting them to behave and communicate differently.

I mentioned earlier that masking as neurotypical is very harmful in the long-term due to the stress it places on an autistic person, often culminating in autistic burnout and even suicide in more dire cases. Beyond these human tragedies, it also makes people-centric jobs largely inaccessible for autistic people who do not have mental breakdowns on their New Year's resolutions lists, which is unfortunate in its own way.

Although many people would not consider working in retail or customer service as their grandest career dream, many autistic people enjoy helping people and would be as home in people-centric jobs such as therapy and psychology, if they could be accepted by society in spite of their quirks. As an INFP to whom psychology is a major special interest, I find the prospect of such a career to be quite tempting, to say the least, especially given my well above-average abilities at reading other people face-to-face, and helping others talk through their problems and feel better about issues that are plaguing them.

Final Thoughts

I'll end this article by linking back to my article that thoroughly debunked the widespread myth of there being an "epidemic" of autism cases in the past few decades. As I explored there, autism isn't some menace that sprung into existence in modern times due to vaccines or any other phenomenon, but a neurotype that has been a part of humankind for a very, very long time. I plan to create an article on the topic of suspected historical autistic people to further back this claim up, but the neurotype could well date back into prehistory for all anyone knows, as interesting arguments exist for why it would have been more advantageous in that era than at any other time since.

Although there exists some rather disturbing evidence tying autism to the so-called "Changeling children" that were abused and murdered by their superstitious parents, many if not most cases were never made into a big deal until the Industrial Revolution swore in an increasingly loud, bright, and extroverted world. A world where autistic people by large could no longer get by working in a quiet village where everyone accepted their eccentricities due to knowing them since childhood, and where their ability to make a living depended on constantly convincing everyone around them that they were perfectly "normal" and "safe" members of society.

The first two variables that define this model of the autism spectrum are immutable physical differences that are here to stay, for better or for worse, but the aforementioned rat study showed that the third variable can often be prevented in many, if not most, cases with some societal and environmental changes.

To put forth one final metaphor: the goal for dealing with forest fires should be recognising the threat and striving to prevent them, instead of blaming trees for catching fire and treating their existence as a problem to be solved.