Paradigm-Shifting Study on Autism: Intense World Theory

My greatest strength: my brain. Greatest weakness: my brain. I can remember saying this as far back as middle school.

I think too much, too many things, all at once. The simple and the complex all together. The brush of a shirt against my chest, the long-spanning oppression of the working-class, this or that task, one hair out of place brushing my shoulder, a rush of panic brought on from Blue Jays shrieking their Hawk Alarms, all at once. It’s chaos in my head, always has been. A muddled meld of ideas, characters, positions, reactions.

Things are too intense, have always been too intense, and no doubt will always be too intense.

What I sense around me in other beings, human animal and otherwise: too intense.

What I feel: too intense.

What I’m thinking all at once: way too intense.

How I make conversation: deeply, intensely.

How I react: much too intense.

What single word would I use for myself to describe my experience: intensity.

Any hint of negativity and I turtle up, but at a run, burrowing inside myself as I actively move on to greener grounds. Prolonged punitive experiences early on have shaped the Desert of Aversion into or near which I do not willing tread.

I’ve always felt alien around other people. There were obvious simple sources of that difference until they didn’t make sense anymore: Not all gay men are like me. Not all folks with AD/HD are like me. I realized eventually the difference is much deeper.

And the masks I’ve worn! A series of masks, one atop the next, pulled off in turn. First a Not Gay mask, a Neoconservative mask, a Not An Artist mask, and others still, most prominently a No AD/HD Here mask. All of them depleting, but none more so in the longterm than the Not Autistic neurotypical mask I wore for so many years, the majority of them without knowing it.

As for the weakness…. Over the years I’ve amassed a number of problematic fears, only a few being classically ‘irrational,’ but all based in a firm survival instinct: no legless slithering MFer was gonna stick me with its venom; no eight-legged fiend was going to attack me! No thank you!! I’ll never be ok with snakes and reptiles that look like legged snakes; but I have gotten over most of my arachnaphobia thanks to the Black Widows of Tucson and the one who nested outside my front door who came out to smoke my cigarettes with me on my stoop (she’d throw an absolute hissy fit if any of my ashes got on her web; lol she’d set her whole mess of webbing vibrating violently over it and everything!).

Even as my ecological phobias seem to abate over time, other experientially acquired social fears have grown and have altered my course in so many different ways. I’ve witnessed myself learn over and over that anything involving another person is a very serious risk: Relationships, of course, but also academics, and careers; also, to my horror, academia and art, where one’s work must have an audience to be a work of scholarship or art, where knowledge and beauty share in common their subjectivity, impermanence, and interpersonal existence, where facts are only true if accepted by sensible people as Fact and something is only art if those who encounter it regard it as such. Other people get in the way. Other people are always actively in my way. An offhanded comment can demotivate me entirely, and any rejection or critique from those whose opinions I value leads to an inevitable spiral of reactive emotion. An unjust attempt to dismiss me from my chosen career path, despite its ultimate failure, nonetheless irrevocably altered my view of where I had been headed to the point that it is now more a dreaded last resort than an eager desire.

Each of these fears and trauma-responses stand as blocking figures in the way between me and the world around me. What is my greatest strength is, in my case, also the source of its own limitation.

But these days the question hasn’t been whether I have complex PTSD or autism, but whether I’m autistic in addition to the obvious complex traumas, a vast lake fed by many springs.

I think of my long history of stimming, rather restrained compared to many, but I suspect that is more to do with the specific forms of trauma I once experienced as a daily reality. The bizarre beep-boops and other noises that were a mix between a dial-up modem and a ‘futuristic computer’ in a 1970’s sci-fi movie. Making the noises gave me a sense of blowing off steam, although I didn’t think of it that way at the time. It was just a kind of humorous quirk of mine, especially whenever I was stressed out. Also, I’ve also been a long believer in ‘shaking it off’ literally, as if I were a human-sized Etch-A-Sketch and I could just wiggle my arms around my sides, shaking them loosely, to unstick myself from whatever I was focusing on. It usually works.

There is one remaining question in my mind, my verbal abilities, namely whether my lexical talent is rather a defensive skill, or a talent deployed as a mask. But this isn’t really a question that can speak to autism, since autism involves verbal differences, not the capacity for languages itself, however defined according to each individual’s communicative modes. I’m better on the page, to say the least. There is too much going on in my brain during most verbal encounters to be as articulate as otherwise I would be, and the cumulative effort necessary to maintain verbal interactions, particularly in-person, depletes all my energy, on hand and in reserve.

[edit: on my lexical abilities, see now Hyperlexia, or “I was a ‘precocious’ child”]

Thankfully, this study from 2010 just clarified so much for me. It used language and concepts that I’ve often used in the past to describe my experience, even way back before I had any names for what I was experiencing. They call their theory the Intense World Theory. Hyper-functionality (characterized by hyper-reactivity and hyper-plasticity) in the brain, not a deficit, produces what has appeared to be a deficit to inattentive researchers predisposed to look for deficits. The core is characterized by hyper-perception, hyper-attention, hyper-memory and hyper-emotionality. All of the hypers. But if the amygdala is much activated, then there will be detrimental fear-responses: all of these hypers are hyper-strengths in a conducive environment, but in a detrimental environment become profound impediments: hyper-fear. The strength can become a weakness, but is not automatically a weakness unless certain thresholds for trauma are surpassed as the brain is developing.

Here’s the full abstract:

Autism covers a wide spectrum of disorders for which there are many views, hypotheses and theories. Here we propose a unifying theory of autism, the Intense World Theory. The proposed neuropathology is hyper-functioning of local neural microcircuits, best characterized by hyper-reactivity and hyper-plasticity. Such hyper-functional microcircuits are speculated to become autonomous and memory trapped leading to the core cognitive consequences of hyper-perception, hyper-attention, hyper-memory and hyper-emotionality. The theory is centered on the neocortex and the amygdala, but could potentially be applied to all brain regions. The severity on each axis depends on the severity of the molecular syndrome expressed in different brain regions, which could uniquely shape the repertoire of symptoms of an autistic child. The progression of the disorder is proposed to be driven by overly strong reactions to experiences that drive the brain to a hyper-preference and overly selective state, which becomes more extreme with each new experience and may be particularly accelerated by emotionally charged experiences and trauma. This may lead to obsessively detailed information processing of fragments of the world and an involuntarily and systematic decoupling of the autist from what becomes a painfully intense world. The autistic is proposed to become trapped in a limited, but highly secure internal world with minimal extremes and surprises. We present the key studies that support this theory of autism, show how this theory can better explain past findings, and how it could resolve apparently conflicting data and interpretations. The theory also makes further predictions from the molecular to the behavioral levels, provides a treatment strategy and presents its own falsifying hypothesis.

Markram and Markram 2010, “The Intense World Theory – a unifying theory of the neurobiology of autism,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 4.

One problem with the study, rather minor but not unimportant, is that it seeks a solution in autistic individuals themselves individually rather than their broader communities, even as it aims to implicitly shift the discourse of the medical conversation from hypo to hyper models. The intent of ‘treatment’ is to intervene in the development of hyper-reactive fear-based shutdown. They hypothesize that a course of glutamine to inhibit hyper-reactivity in the receptors specific to the fear-development process during specific phases of neural development would allow an autistic individual to mature past the critical fear-development phases of neural development into adults who are enabled to experience full lives without traumatic burdens.

To my mind, however, such an individualistic treatment is a pharmaceutical intervention that stands in for a social/environmental intervention aiming for whatever is specifically conducive to each neurodivergent individual’s unique development. A sentence from the post on Trauma Geek from which I found this study sticks out in my mind:

I know of autistic parents who are raising autistic children in low stress, sensory friendly environments who cannot get a diagnosis for educational accommodations because their child is not stressed enough.

Janae Elisabeth, “Discovering a Trauma-Informed Positive Autistic Identity”

I’ve wondered for many years what accomplishments would already be mine had I not endured so much destructive trauma in my youth.

Aside from my one major issue with it, the Markrams’ study has impressed itself upon me for how entirely it captures my experience of too-much-ness, raw intensity, the need to limit the stimuli of my environment, not so much as a trauma-response (those are different, I’ve learned), but as a means of keeping my ship steady, so to speak, to keep the gears turning and the factory churning out results.

Needless to say, I related to this study in so many ways at nearly every turn. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a study by a neurological researcher that is actually representative of my experience. It makes me hopeful that there will be far fewer neurodivergent folks growing up as deeply traumatized as so many of my peers and those before us.

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