The Struggle of the “Little Professor”

I didn’t “fit” in society. That isn’t a problem of society. Setting aside moments of petulance, I viewed it as a plain fact. There it was. What to do about it? Ask society to adapt to me? Hah! — The suicide note of Will Moore (a high functioning autistic political science professor)

As I’ve mentioned in my first article An Antidote to Autism that people with a form of autism don’t find it very easy to fit in society and it wasn’t easier before 1938. Before Hans Asperger gave a name to the developmental disorder, they saw people with autism (or all learning disabilities) as creatures that should not reproduce (in the form of castration) or even worse, that should not live (in the form of eugenics).

In a book by Edith Sheffer, she sheds a light on Asperger’s contribution to the Nazi eugenics program. By referring children with disabilities to Am Spiegelgrund clinic, Asperger was complicit in the killing of these children. I am by far not the best person to describe these horrors which occurred in the 20th century, but many are, including Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychopathology and a Director of the University’s Autism Research Centre. He talked about the subject of eugenics and euthanasia which you can find here and a paper about the involvement of Hans Asperger in these incredibly disturbing acts.

As someone who has experienced the struggles of fitting in as a high functioning autistic student (and teacher) and who has obtained a fair amount of knowledge about autism in general over the last few years, I would like to paint a picture of these struggles and why they occur to a lot of autistic people. These struggles could maybe shed some light to the reasons why many people preferably don’t interact with someone with a developmental disorder. By giving a name and a way to diagnose these people with autism, Asperger hasn’t taken away the societal and social struggles that come along with it.

In a lot of these struggles, the main cause for them is the absence of Theory of Mind (ToM) as described by Baron-Cohn, Leslie & Frith. Before we continue we need a clear description of the term ‘Theory of Mind’. In their book ‘Theory of Mind in Autism’, Francesca Happé and Uta Frith put forward the following:

Human beings are essentially social creatures. In what does this social ability lie? In the ability to love, to feel sympathy, to make friendships? Or, is it in the ability to cheat, deceive, and outsmart opponents? In fact it is these unpleasant abilities that reveal the extent of human social understanding. These abilities demonstrate our special human ability to think about thoughts, and hence to “out-think” one another. It is this ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others that is captured by the phrase “theory of mind.” Of course, a theory of mind also has positive effects; it allows us to empathize, to communicate, and to imagine others’ hopes and dreams.

This cognitive theory is not just an additional screw or bold that you find in an Ikea assemble box of some kind, just in case you lose one. This is a fundamental building block that people (who are able to) use every day in their social interactions.

Positive & negative encounters with others

Let's paint the following picture; you just graduated from a four-year study that you worked very hard for. You’re full of joy and excitement and you go around telling people about the accomplishment you’ve made. The reaction you expect from other people is the same kind of enjoyment that you are experiencing because other people usually have the ability to put themselves in your shoe lets say, which results in a reaction that can be anticipated.

If you tell the same story to a person with a lack of ToM, they will often give a reaction that is not expected. They struggle with putting themselves in your situation and reading your emotion of such a state of excitement. That is not to say that people with a lack of ToM can’t feel emotion and or feel empathy towards others but it is difficult. This makes these interactions (positive or negative) very hard for such a person and the next time you have a story or announcement of some sorts, you’ll probably think twice before telling it to them. I’m not saying everybody is like this or that you do it on purpose, but it happens quite often.

A while ago a geography teacher/colleague announced that she was pregnant while all the teachers and staff were in the teachers’ lounge. Everyone was very excited for her and started hugging her and congratulating her. I kept seated not doing much to be honest besides thinking about two questions:

  1. How can someone be this excited about someone else’s pregnancy? It’s not theirs? And it is also not the case that they have had any part in making the pregnancy possible, right?
  2. In what way does this announcement affect me which can cause me to (go and) congratulate her at this moment? Sound pretty selfish right?

I eventually did congratulate her, but it wasn’t easy. But this isn’t a cry for sympathy for people who have a certain developmental disorder where showing empathy is not the usual ‘mode’ of being.

Imagine a toolbox full of tools, where the tools that u use often are laying at top of the box and those who you rarely use at the bottom. These tools can resemble the emotions that you use. Unfortunately, it’s not the case that the emotions that you have to use often, are actually at the top of the box, at least not with people with a lack of ToM.

Neurodivergent speech

Geoffrey Miller wrote an article almost a year ago about the imposing of speech codes and the effect on neurodivergent brains on these regulations which I found very interesting. Miller describes how it’s incredibly difficult for neurodivergent people to calculate which speech is acceptable and which isn’t. It’s like walking in a field of landmines, experiencing a constant state of fear;

Given restrictive speech codes and speech norms, neurodivergent people know that at any time, they might say something ‘offensive’ that could lead to expulsion, firing, or denial of tenure. They live in fear. They feel a chilling effect on their speech and behavior. They learn to self-censor.

These speech regulations don’t make speech any easier for people with a form of autism. Temple Grandin writes about how autistic people (usually) access information in the form of pictures. Every written or spoken word has to be ‘translated’ into something visual, or else it’s like Grandin describes, a second language to them. Another great example is this 13-year-old boy with Asperger syndrome called Cameron, who is also a math genius. He is great at giving the answers to complicated mathematical questions, but when he has to describe in a University assignment (as I’ve said, he is a genius) how he got to the solution, he freaks out.

Setting rules to regulate speech is not only a vigorous attack on progress and truth itself but you’re also beating a dead horse by putting guidelines on something as abstract as speech, which is already a very difficult thing to use for neurodivergent people. Neurodivergent people often don’t notice when they are being offensive, so the best option for them is to just stop talking.

Need for individualism ≠ accepting exclusion from the group

I have a hard time wrapping my head around a paradox of exclusion, which I see as an individual who has the intrinsic need to belong to a group while keeping his own thoughts and ideas. At the same time, these thoughts could create some kind of collective resentment which can result in exclusion from the group. The point I made in my last article, is that being excluded is almost inevitable for neurodivergent people:

A lot of times in your life you’ll feel excluded and you’ll feel horrible about not being like other people, but by acting like everybody else by lying to yourself will make it worse in the long term.

I think it has to do with the collective aim of the group, where the (in this case) neurodivergent individual could be a danger to that particular aim. This aim is the fundamental building block of the group, the part that unifies it and that gets manifested in the group’s unconsciousness, hence why it’s difficult to articulate why the individual could cause some kind of harm. Erich Neumann describes in his book The Origin and History of Consciousness the ‘spirit’ of the group as a transferable ‘object’:

The collective unconscious of the group manifests itself by taking possession of the individual, whose function it is, as an organ of the group, to convey to it the contents of the unconscious.

If a certain individual can’t act this out (consciously), the individual has to accept some kind of descend within the hierarchy of the collective. Neumann states that this lowest place is occupied by the ‘Great Individual’ who is only a passive carrier of projections:

“One whose conscious mind and personality stand in no kind of relationship with what is projected upon him.”

The collective thoughts can be of great value to the individual. Especially if they struggle with some sort of developmental disorder, they can gain a lot just by interacting with a particular group. But in the same way, the novel thoughts of the individual can be a crucial puzzle piece of great importance. This can only be the case if it isn’t eaten by the dog or thrown in the garbage bin just because it has “weird” attributes which don’t seem to fit in the ‘group puzzle’.

Archaic strangers

This idea of antagonism towards neurodivergents has been around longer than yesterday. As a stranger of a neurotypical, you are full of scary and unpredictive tools with the possibility to harm someone’s belief system. As Jordan B. Peterson states in his book Maps of Meaning The Architecture of Belief:

Arrival of the stranger, concretely presented in mythology, constitutes a threat “to the stability of the kingdom”, metaphorically indistinguishable from that posed by “environmental transformation”

Within a well-formed group, each member has gained a predictable feature which makes the threat of a “fallen kingdom” less likely. It is the case that the ideas that the stranger brings with him are only threatening if it touches a fundamental concept within that group or society. Usually not a personal one, but a collective concept. A concept that hurts everyone within a certain group when it gets challenged.

The value of the misfit

You could say, being a misfit is a pretty western and privileged idea… people have it worse. You’re probably not wrong, but the same goes for cyberbullying and we are not ignoring that right? Regardless of what I described in the first part of this article and Edith Sheffer in her book (which still is of exceptional importance and can’t be justified by this), Hans Asperger noticed the value of these people, that's why he gave them the name ‘Little Professors’. It’s like a translator, who translates your struggles and gifted traits to the other world. Such a translator is needed in the lives of a neurodivergent just so he/she doesn’t end up nihilistic.

One of the reasons Will Opines (the quote at the beginning) gives for not being able to fit in society was his frustration with understanding others and the (unconscious) failure of others to understand him. I think many (neurodivergent people) recognize this feeling, including myself. This feeling of alienation can be experienced on every social level; family, friends, colleagues, study groups, strangers, etc. (Un)fortunately we have to face these struggles because closing yourself off from all social interactions and getting to a point of extreme loneliness is not a viable option.

There is something about the struggle of not being able to give the ‘right’ amount of affection towards the people that interact with you in a loving and caring way, something hateful about yourself — an ideal out of reach. It has to be articulated before you are able to comprehend it. To be able to convert your struggles into words, you have to crawl deep down the snake lair and confront those who are pulling you down. Only there lies the value of being a Little Professor.

— Alessandro




A BA in general economics and studying psychology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Previously written for Areo Magazine and Merion West

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Alessandro van den Berg

Alessandro van den Berg

A BA in general economics and studying psychology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Previously written for Areo Magazine and Merion West

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