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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

A moving affirmation of the power we have to affect one another simply by being ourselves. Warning: this may not be safe for work, unless you don’t mind crying at your desk.

(via Upworthy)

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The Power of Theater
by Chris Heagle, technical director
This snapshot of a performance report from Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis has been floating around my Facebook feed. Created by the stage manager following every performance, it’s usually a pretty mundane document — a basic communication tool for people working on the current production to let everyone else in the company know how the show is going. This one, though, is remarkable and speaks to the power of art and story to reach beyond the edifice of our everyday. It reads:

"It was generally agreed by all that the show was ‘kind of rough’ (tech wise). But after the show we learned that there was a 5 year old autistic child in the house. He had never spoken. But as the lights went down, he began to talk. In full sentences. He called the teacher by name. She had no idea he even knew her name. He was engaged in the show — at one point commenting to the teacher that if there is a dragon then there will be fire. And there was fire. He talked all throughout the show. When the lights came back up — he quit talking and returned to his world. So, yes, I could list all the little things that wrong today but that is not what this show is about. And that little boy certainly didn’t see those things as he sat talking in the dark theatre watching Harold and his Purple Crayon."

And of course, I couldn’t help think of our interview with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder in "Autism and Humanity."

The Power of Theater

by Chris Heagle, technical director

This snapshot of a performance report from Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis has been floating around my Facebook feed. Created by the stage manager following every performance, it’s usually a pretty mundane document — a basic communication tool for people working on the current production to let everyone else in the company know how the show is going. This one, though, is remarkable and speaks to the power of art and story to reach beyond the edifice of our everyday. It reads:

"It was generally agreed by all that the show was ‘kind of rough’ (tech wise). But after the show we learned that there was a 5 year old autistic child in the house. He had never spoken. But as the lights went down, he began to talk. In full sentences. He called the teacher by name. She had no idea he even knew her name. He was engaged in the show — at one point commenting to the teacher that if there is a dragon then there will be fire. And there was fire. He talked all throughout the show. When the lights came back up — he quit talking and returned to his world. So, yes, I could list all the little things that wrong today but that is not what this show is about. And that little boy certainly didn’t see those things as he sat talking in the dark theatre watching Harold and his Purple Crayon."

And of course, I couldn’t help think of our interview with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder in "Autism and Humanity."

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We think of love as things like oxytocin, which bind us to other people. But in the figurative sense, I would say that love is an unselfish attachment to another person in that you’re attached to somebody both for what they do for you, but also mostly for what you can do for the other person.
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Kirsten Lindsmith, from "Navigating Love and Autism"

The college student’s relationship with Jack Robison, who also has Asperger’s syndrome, is the subject of Amy Harmon's fascinating New York Times feature. The piece reveals how Lindsmith and Robison’s love grows out of their shared experience of autism while the struggles and tensions in their relationship are also amplified by their Asperger’s.

~Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

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Taking Another Person’s Perspective: A Spatial and Social Skill

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Amy Shelton in her lab with tools of her experimentAmy Shelton with the tools of her work. (photo: Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins)

Psychologists who study learning and memory have a special interest in how people navigate reality in a three-dimensional world. There is a huge variation in abilities for spatial learning among adults, and some of these skills don’t even appear until adolescence. How you interact with other people has a lot to do with how well you are able to literally take their perspective.

Johns Hopkins scientist Amy Shelton has found that strong social skills may be an important factor in your spatial skills. That is, people who are very good at taking on the visual perspective of another person also test well on social abilities. And these abilities only appear when the participant is asked to take the perspective of a person — not that of an object.

The paper’s authors suggest this ability to take another perspective is important because it requires Theory of Mind, something that is often found lacking in persons on the autism spectrum. Simon Baron-Cohen describes Theory of Mind as “being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.” Of course the author notes that there are a number of factors that influence social ability like “interest, comfort, and savvy in social situations.”

For this experiment, researchers focused on the question of perspective. They asked participants to describe the perspective of different objects placed near 22 Lego buildings. The variable that changed: one of the objects was person-like, a faceless doll, and the other two were not (a toy camera, colored plastic triangles). Participants were asked which figure had the view of the building displayed on the computer screen and tried to match them.

Tools to test perspectivephoto courtesy of Amy Shelton/Johns Hopkins

What they found was that one group of participants were much better at correctly identifying the views from the perspective of the faceless doll only. This group also scored low on “the Autism Quotient,” a questionnaire designed to assess the degree to which adults of normal intelligence show five different traits associated with autism spectrum disorders: social skill (higher score = poorer social skills), perseveration (higher score = more difficulty shifting attention), attention to detail (higher score = greater focus on details), communication (higher score = poorer communication), imagination (higher score = less imaginative).”

Amy Shelton says there are some interesting implications for thinking about empathy and viewpoints of an “other”:

“Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this research is that it emphasizes a ‘whole person’ approach. We tend to think of ourselves as being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at certain skills, but these results suggest that different skills really do interact and have an impact on each other. For instance, I might be good at giving directions to another person because I have good spatial skills, but I might be even better at it if I can also empathize or embody the other person’s perspective.”
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What Might Autism Teach Me about What It Means to Be Human

by Krista Tippett, host

Paul Collins's bookPhoto by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr, cc 2.0

The Centers for Disease Control report that 1 in 110 children in the U.S. is now diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum of autism. In other words, this is a condition that affects many lives, many families.

General reporting and publicized controversies tend to focus on the physiology and neurology of autism, or on possible causes and cures. As I’ve followed such stories, I’ve longed to understand something about the inner world of people with autism and those who love them. I’ve wanted to hear about autism in terms of spirit, intellect, and human nature. And when I discovered Paul Collins’ warm and erudite book Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey into the Lost History of Autism, I knew I’d found a way in.

During a routine checkup, his beloved son Morgan was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and a half. Paul then went searching for understanding in history and literature. He traced the winding process by which 20th-century physicians finally diagnosed autism after centuries in which it was conflated with very different conditions, such as schizophrenia and Down syndrome. He had previously written about eccentric characters and forgotten inventors in history, and he began to find evidence of autism in some of these figures who had already captured his attention. In his travels, he also experienced how the spectrum of autism quietly reaches into centers of contemporary invention — such as Microsoft.

Some of our programs feel like an “experience” in the making. This one did. Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder have opened my imagination about what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be autistic, without for a moment downplaying the debilitation that life with autism also entails. I had imagined this condition to be thoroughly isolating and inscrutable.

The very word “autism” comes from the Greek for “self” — autos — connoting a state of being in which a person seems quite literally to live in his or her own world. And yet Paul and Jennifer help me grasp that autism is not one thing but a spectrum on the vast continuum of human personality. Autism has deepened their understanding of disability and of intelligence, curiosity, and accomplishment.

Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, are their stories of how life with Morgan has imparted a new generosity and respectful good humor to their dealings with each other and their families of origin. There is a documented correlation between autism and families with achievement in fields like engineering, music, mathematics, science — professions that require an aptitude for logic and a capacity for intense, solitary focus. You can read a beautiful essay by the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould about his son with autism.

Paul writes this:

"Autists are described by others — and by themselves — as aliens among humans. But there’s an irony to this, for precisely the opposite is true. They are us, and to understand them is to begin to understand what it means to be human. Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. But autism is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an overexpression of the very traits that make our species unique. Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result."

There is more in this hour of radio than I can evoke in these paragraphs. And if you enjoy it, I’d encourage you to listen to my original, unedited two-hour conversation with Jennifer Elder and Paul Collins. It is full of illumination and warmth, and I didn’t want it to end.

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Autism and Being Human, Another Take

by Krista Tippett, host

Dancing with Max by Emily ColsonOur show on autism with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder remains one of my favorites. And I’ve been enjoying a wonderfully written and moving memoir by Emily Colson about life with her son Max, now 19. Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free has a prologue and an epilogue written by Charles (Chuck) Colson. Colson, of course, served in the Nixon White House and went to prison for the Watergate scandal, then went on to found Prison Ministries International. He is now something of an Evangelical Christian elder statesman, whom I met and interviewed several years ago together with two Evangelicals of different generations.

Chuck Colson and his daughter have created a searching and sometimes surprising exploration of what autism may teach us about what it means to be human, written from a devout and searching Christian perspective. It is an important addition to our literary and cultural encounter with autism, and I recommend it.

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What It Means for Me to Be Human

Krista Tippett, host

Being Autistic, Being HumanThe Centers for Disease Control report that 1 in 110 children in the U.S. is now diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum of autism. In other words, this is a condition that affects many lives, many families. General reporting and publicized controversies tend to focus on the physiology and neurology of autism, or on possible causes and cures. As I’ve followed such stories, I’ve longed to understand something about the inner world of people with autism and those who love them. I’ve wanted to hear about autism in terms of spirit, intellect, and human nature.

Not Even Wrong: A Father's Journey into the Lost History of AutismAnd when I discovered Paul Collins’ warm and erudite book Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism, I knew I’d found a way in. During a routine checkup, his beloved son Morgan was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and a half. Paul then went searching for understanding in history and literature. He traced the winding process by which 20th-century physicians finally diagnosed autism after centuries in which it was conflated with very different conditions, such as schizophrenia and Down syndrome. He had previously written about eccentric characters and forgotten inventors in history, and he began to find evidence of autism in some of these figures who had already captured his attention. In his travels, he also experienced how the spectrum of autism quietly reaches into centers of contemporary invention — such as Microsoft.

Some of our shows feel like an “experience” in the making. This one did. Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder have opened my imagination about what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be autistic, without for a moment downplaying the debilitation that life with autism also entails. I had imagined this condition to be thoroughly isolating and inscrutable. The very word “autism” comes from the Greek for “self” — autos — connoting a state of being in which a person seems quite literally to live in his or her own world. And yet Paul and Jennifer help me grasp that autism is not one thing but a spectrum on the vast continuum of human personality. Autism has deepened their understanding of disability and of intelligence, curiosity, and accomplishment.

Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, are their stories of how life with Morgan has imparted a new generosity and respectful good humor to their dealings with each other and their families of origin. There is a documented correlation between autism and families with achievement in fields like engineering, music, mathematics, science — professions that require an aptitude for logic and a capacity for intense, solitary focus. The late scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a beautiful essay about his son with autism.

And, Paul Collins writes this:

"Autists are described by others — and by themselves — as aliens among humans. But there’s an irony to this, for precisely the opposite is true. They are us, and to understand them is to begin to understand what it means to be human. Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. But autism is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an overexpression of the very traits that make our species unique. Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result."

There is more in our hour of "Being Autistic, Being Human" than I can evoke in these paragraphs. And if you enjoy it, I’d encourage you to listen to my original, unedited two-hour conversation with Jennifer Elder and Paul Collins. It is full of illumination and warmth, and I didn’t want it to end.

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Asperger’s, Autism, and Parenting

by Andy Dayton, guest contributor

Here’s a four-minute animation from StoryCorps with a touching conversation between 12-year-old Joshua Littman and his mother, Sarah. Joshua has Asperger’s syndrome, which is related to autism. His mother describes it as “born without social genes.” We get a sense of Joshua’s unique perspective and perceptiveness by the questions he asks his mother, including this weighty one:

Joshua: Did I turn out to be the son you wanted when I was born? Did I meet your expectactations, and …

Sarah: You’ve exceeded my expectations, sweetie. Because — sure you have these fantasies about what your child’s gonna be like — but you have made me grow so much as a parent, because you made me think …

Joshua: Well I was the one who made you a parent.

Sarah: You were the one who made me a parent. That’s a good point. But also, because you think differently than, y’know, what they tell you in the “parenting books.” I really had to learn to think out of the box with you, and it’s made me much more creative as a parent and as a person. And I’ll always thank you for that.

It made me think of SOF's program "Being Autistic, Being Human" — a conversation with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder, whose son Morgan is autistic. The show forever changed my understanding of the words “autism” and “Asperger’s’” — a conception that, for me, is now more of a sliding scale and includes many talented people that, if they lived today, may have been diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism. Here’s Collins on some of what he’s learned from his son:

Krista: Yes. I mean, how does living with Morgan and the way you’ve had to think about autism — how does that change the way you think about some of these great existential questions or, you know, what it means to be human? How does it change the way you live — think about yourself?

Paul Collins: I think I’ve become — I would hope, at least, much more patient and empathetic with other people when they’re acting in ways that I don’t understand. I think that in the past when someone seemed to be acting oddly or seemed to be sort of very socially awkward or just doing things that seems kind of unnerving or didn’t make sense to me, I would think, ‘Well, what’s that guy’s problem?’ and, you know, maybe avoid them. That’s, I think, a natural reaction for anyone to have.

Krista: Yes.

Paul Collins: But at the same time, when I see that now, I actually find myself asking that as a genuine question. ‘What is that person contending with, you know? Or what is it like for that person?’


Andy DaytonAndy Dayton formerly served as associate web producer for On Being. You can follow him on Twitter or read his blog.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page or simply share a photo of your garden.

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Outhumaning the Humans

by Rob McGinley Myers, associate producer

In our show this weekend, "Being Autistic, Being Human," Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder point out that not all people with autism have savant-like abilities. I think we’re drawn to those stories of extraordinary talents, in part, because they suggest the nearly limitless possibilities of the human mind. As Paul Collins writes in his book Not Even Wrong:

"Autists are described by others — and by themselves — as aliens among humans. But there’s an irony to this, for precisely the opposite is true. They are us, and to understand them is to begin to understand what it means to be human. Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. … But autism … is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an overexpression of the very traits that make our species unique. Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result."

This video is a clip from a German documentary series about savants called Beautiful Minds: A Voyage into the Brain. The subject of the clip is a man with autism named Stephen Wiltshire, who can draw an entire cityscape from memory after a single helicopter ride.

As I watch him draw, I can’t help but wonder at the origin of our uniquely human desire and ability to depict the world through art. Somehow, that ability emerged and was woven into our genetic code thousands of years ago, passed down from the cave painters to subsequent generations until the present, when even my own 4-year-old daughter can produce drawings that vaguely resemble things in the real world. But here we can see it rushing out of this man’s hand with such breadth and precision as to seem almost impossible. I’m not sure what it means, but it makes me feel proud of my species.

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Hitchcock’s Rope, Music for Our Autism Program

by Mitch Hanley, senior producer

Frame from Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope"

When we first produced our autism program a little over a year ago, I had just watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, a fascinating movie that was shot more like a play than a movie. All of the scenes take place across two adjacent rooms and were shot with one camera, meaning all of the edits were just end-to-end, joining edits, without any cutaways to other angles, etc. So, it is as if you are watching a play without any set changes.

There is a scene in the film where Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) is playing Poulenc’s “Perpetual Motion” at the piano and Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart) is asking him sensitive questions, with metronome in hand, intermittently dialing up the tempo with Morgan in lock step, playing this same piece faster and faster, the tension building.

That setting of the tune is rather anxiety-inducing, but I found the piece to be light and jaunty, with a tinge of melancholy, which reminds me of this time of year. I found James Campbell’s recording of that piece for piano and clarinet and set it into the autism program and it took on a whole other mood than was presented so cleverly by Hitchcock. You can hear the piece on the Being Playlist.

I tried to find the scene at the piano on YouTube, but I could only find the trailer in which you can faintly pick out an arrangement of the Poulenc piece for orchestra, in the background.

Hitchcock’s Rope — great movie, even if it is a bit grim. Check it out! Incidentally, if you rent the DVD, make sure you watch the additional “behind the scenes” segments; they explain the challenging shooting process (during one of the shoots, a member of the crew had his foot broken by a camera dollying across the floor!)

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