I decided to hit one topic that LOTS of aspies and other spectrum-dwellers talk about a lot: Star Trek.
In Temple Grandin’s autobiography “Thinking in Pictures,” as well as the posts and conversations of myriad aspies, the subject of this spectacular body of fiction seems to come up often. I’d like to explore why, and how Star Trek has been my #1 influence in life.
The “Alien” Mentality
It occurs that most aspies and others “outside the box” can be exposed to a human world that seems strange, even in childhood. Other children play while an aspie studies. Kids compete over toys, competitive games, and social order, while an aspie is likely to stand aside and watch. In the simplest terms, other kids (and adults) will seem to be able to describe this type of person as “strange,” “shy,” or simply “nerdy.” I remember people in my own family, peers at schools, or teachers informing me that I seemed like an alien, unrelated to those around me. No one meant any offense I’m sure, in most cases, but it’s an external reminder of what’s being felt inside. Surely, “I am not like you,” though describing exactly how eludes counselors, family members, and oneself.
I believe many aspies latch on to Star Trek as making sense because it is in some theoretical future in which humans do make more sense, but there are many alien characters to choose from as well that seem to represent humanity through metaphor, even as many of the humans in Star Trek’s money-free, post-racial, science-based future seem to also represent some heightened sense of ethics or morality.
Spock is the most obvious example. A Vulcan, Spock participates fully, is respected by the crew, but is obviously apart, if nothing else, because he is not fully human. His blood is green, he thinks in logic instead of competition, and he raises an eyebrow often at the quizzical metaphors and emotional amusement of those around him. Spock is indeed a character who knows how to have “fun.” He plays 3-D chess, he plays the Vulcan harp/lyre, and he even uses a small amount of sarcasm or digging to make others laugh, if nothing else at him. He is ok with this. Without judgment, he simply seems to be in an observational place; he is the one you go to for scientific knowledge and an objective assessment of reality, but is probably last on the list to be invited to a party.
A Vulcan tenant I remember thinking was as valuable as any gold I’d ever find was the notion that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few [or the one].” In Suskind’s book “Life, Animated,” we see a young autistic son who rarely speaks (except in Disney metaphor) take the opportunities he does have when people are actually listening to point out that the world is one in which “sidekicks get left behind.” I believe what Suskind’s son Owen is trying to convey is that in the “normal” world, full of competition for jobs, place, and financial gain, that many of those who are different are simply left behind. Owen is left on many occasions the silent one in the room. Countless professionals, teachers, and family members simply try to figure out how to “fix” him and other children for being either too behind or too far ahead by talking about them, often with the child in the same room.
Meanwhile, it is up to those left behind to fend for themselves. However, an aspie or autistic child rarely thinks in terms of fending for or defending themselves. Instead, their deep compassion and empathy (grossly underestimated by “scientific” assessments of the spectrum) leave him unable to function if anyone is being left behind. Instead, it is more natural to believe in utter fairness, a deep (although often missed) adherence to the Golden Rule, and thinking operationally about how to improve situations rather than simply plug through them.
This “affliction,” an overview of the big picture of life (seen often through focused, specific obsessions), is an easily drawn similarity with Spock and other aliens. Rather than appreciating Kirk’s galactic flirting, Chekov’s youthful energy, or Uhura’s short mini-skirt, an aspie is likely to latch on to the Vulcan in the room. He is simply the one who is external.
It is Spock, at the end of the day, through his objectivity and difference, who often saves the day. He never alludes to himself as superior to any other character, but simply must be patient sometimes while those around him figure out that following rules and logic will often make situations easier.
Klingons (with an obsession with honor), Bajorans (with a consistent adherence to faith), Betazoids (with a telepathic sense), androids (with their robotic thinking), Deltans (with their unapologetic view of nudity and sexuality), and many other non-human characters are likely to make more sense to an aspie. These characters are not worthless for being alien, nor are they purposely outcast. In fact, I believe Gene Roddenberry’s vision with aliens was to metaphorize “parts” of human behavior into more compartmentalized beings whose traits were obvious. To an aspie, humans often seem not fully confused, but just jumbled, by contrast. They build without measure, they play games without regard for fairness, they put each other down in unempathetic ways, they hide their behaviors from each other in the interest of politeness, etc. It is not necessarily wrong to be these things, but the overlap between sexuality and honor, or empathy with logic, etc. can seem confusing to an aspie. We are often wondering “why did you just put on the compassion hat, this is time to be logical?” or “why does the world insist on creating inefficiency for profit?”
Profit and Loss
Another aspect of Star Trek lore that often escapes many fans until they think about it is instantly obvious to an aspie viewer. There is no money here. Star Trek represents the ultimate in Marxist thinking. After World War III, and after enough technological advance, plus a hint of diversity added, money seems no longer to make sense.
I believe that most aspies are not wont to compete because they see most participants in any game losing. Look at football. Millions of American high school students will focus endlessly on sports in order to be in the small percentage that moves on to college sports, while that group gets whittled down to an even smaller group of people who become the best of the best. Meanwhile, millions of fans would rather watch the tiny group of “successfuls” play the game rather than wanting to play the game themselves, or acknowledge the fact that our school teachers get paid pennies by comparison. None of these unfortunate statistics are lost on an aspie, who will often reject the concept of sports as a whole because it seems to be leaving massive amounts of people behind for financial gain. Instead of people playing a good game, it often seems an oppressive industrial complex that exists more for profit than to prove anything in and of itself.
Advertising, the constant barrage of bright colors, in your face announcements of what you should be buying, or the American capitalist basis for selling, rather than making anything of artisan value, seems totally lost to most aspies, who would just rather lock themselves in a room than be exposed to the lie. We can also acknowledge that capitalism carries with it some obvious success; no one is blind or dumb to this “fact,” yet we will always question if there is another, fairer way.
In Star Trek, there is no poverty or homelessness. To tell a 2015 human that getting rid of poverty or homelessness is plausible seems to always garner the following statement: “well, that’s idealistic.” Indeed. Conversely, I wonder if accepting poverty or homeless in the name of Manifest Destiny, the raping of Africa for its people and resources, or the need to have children in another country make more t-shirts for us so we don’t have to make them ourselves seems not only greedy but mathematically unsustainable, illogical, and unethical. While the age of Star Trek is not upon us, aspies often wonder why the focus seems to be so intent on creating an environment that is unfair on purpose. Why would humans delay what is right, just to build gold castles in Rome or technologically advance, leaving others behind? Many humans say “well, we had to do that to get to that goal of fairness that’s coming someday,” “we’ll fix the planet later while having more kids than ever,” or “well, the numbers will just wash out” seem to ignore the fact that the loss of millions of lives, species, and fairness didn’t need to be sacrificed along the way so that the British imperial idea of “civilization” could become the general rule whether anyone liked it or not.
I believe this is why the unemployment rate amongst aspies and autistics is sky high. I can almost guarantee that putting an aspie in charge of beta testing, order management, organizational structure, or wildlife management would yield above-average results, but it is tough after years and years to keep up the front that the “way we do things around here” is acceptable. We are wont to make things better, but think in ways that are described as either too scientific or too idealistic to succeed (even though these seem contradictory), and we are likely to receive both pieces of feedback simultaneously. Despite most aspies knowing exactly what to do to make profit, they will often show that reducing waste or price is the best way to make more money…meanwhile, the paradigm of American business seems to have become that raising prices while reducing quality is the way to go, especially where public investors are involved. If we are not thinking in ideals/goals, some mathematical correctness, then why do things?
What Race Am I In?
In a recent on-line discussion, I found that many aspies I knew or don’t know shared that in their inability to fit in to humanity in general, they almost missed the fact that concepts like race, gender, or age mattered in hiring, attractiveness, etc. We just often don’t get it.
Think about the bridges of Star Trek ships. They seem populated by a mix of people from different races, genders, and age, and it is rarely discussed that a military officer could be better or worse than someone else. Again, by placing a non-human in each crew, we instantly latch on to that character as the “other.” In the 60’s, having a black, female officer sitting behind a Japanese officer, next to a Russian was indeed avant garde, but when Star Trek came out, more fans had problems with the fact that a white guy on the bridge had pointy ears and looked like a demon.
Interesting. I call this a smokescreen, and part of Roddenberry’s genius. He took the attention away from what, at the time, was natural: to involve race or gender in our assessment of people’s worth didn’t make any sense. After all, in a world after discovering aliens, it would be the aliens who didn’t belong.
In my year 1 autobiography, I mention that I needed glasses for a long time before I got them. Teachers and family members alike missed that I couldn’t see very well (missing faces, chalkboards, and people’s ethnicities completely). Sitting in front of the TV, I don’t remember thinking, ever, that the humans in the show looked any different from one another, nor did they in real life. Discussions about “what Mexicans think,” or “how black people act,” or “what that white girl did” took me a long time to figure out. Add to the mix that I went to the most diverse high school (at the time) in America, ended up with an extended family that includes people of all “races,” and couldn’t see people anyway, I thought of race like my two deaf friends think of race: Isn’t everyone just a little bit pinkish-brownish-tan on some human spectrum? Are there really any defined differences?
Star Trek talks a lot about real science through metaphor. As a child, I understood the concept of genetics very early (along with particle and temporal physics, constitutional law and ethics, etc.), and the minute I began studying it, the concept or race fell apart completely. I cannot sit idly by while people near me speak in racist terms. Rather than feeling like there are differences between us, I simply recognize that no such science exists, and I will proudly say so. I can’t let people speak in incorrect terms, it is intolerable to an aspie to have to overhear something that is “wrong” factually, and we will often be perceived as “Debbie Downer” for wanting to avoid conversations about these subjects, when we think we are being incredibly hopeful and helpful.
Following the Rules
While aspies are masters of the art of plausible deniability, we rarely lie outright. Nor do we believe that constitutions or charters are that arguable (or they wouldn’t exist). We also look up at shiny boards showing mission statements, core values, or tenets with wonder…wondering why they’re up there if in the daily motion of companies or countries, they are ignored as needed to get something done or to win some unfathomable contest.
By the way, nearly every company on Earth seems to list the same core values, then acts like they are unique. At the end of the day, it is the tenet regarding profitability that wins automatically, not the one about environmental stewardship, team member success, or taking care of the customer. An aspie would love to accomodate all rules at all times, and finds this mathematically feasible, while others say “well, if we help this customer too much, it’s not worth the money,” or “just throw that in the trash because recycling is hard.” Well, it must seem that way in an inefficient system.
Watching endless political debates defining our first or fourteenth amendments to the US constitution, or the suspension of the rules of war, or watching mission statements or charters adjusted to favor one person’s viewpoint seems inane. In Star Trek, we are exposed to the “Prime Directive,” a rule that is occasionally broken only to save millions of lives (and it still comes with a court martial hearing). Watching Kirk arbitrarily break such a rule just to save Spock’s single life garners an obvious response in an aspie (and Spock): “you should have let me die.”
While this seems negative and unfortunate, the obvious statistical choice is always there: the mathematics aren’t arguable. If infighting and arbitration yield a great many good people getting left behind, or a quick decision NOW equals a detrimental result later, then it wasn’t worth breaking the rule. Watching power override logic and carefulness is difficult for an Aspie to swallow.
My on-line friend Brandon Williams (a personal hero) is currently trying to convince the Canadian government, for example, that there is an unquestionably strong link between HIV and autism. I can also find statistics that LGBT people are more likely to be homeless, that African-Americans on the whole have never been allowed to succeed since their enslavement, or that deaf people can definitely, definitely be mis-perceived as having a drug habit for waving their hands and making noise in front of a cop (something that led to one of my deaf friends being “taken down” by cops lacking education in human diversity.
In each case, the “normal” paradigm seems resistant to what is simple math. “Hmm, I’m not sure I’m seeing 2+2=4 here, please show me again and again.” To an aspie, the numbers are so obvious that the answer itself is intrinsic. We just feel that something is wrong; after all, it’s humans who made us take standardized tests in math (which we don’t believe in), so why don’t they use the math later to look at what is obvious.
Luckily, Brandon is making headway…in 2015…after much heartache and stress, while the math involved is beyond elementary and is a simple cross-referencing of data from two different agencies that bother not to interact in their egotistical need to prove only one point or the other, not the two point and how they intersect.
So, Star Trek is awesome. It’s nerdy, sure. There is a reason our first space shuttle is named Enterprise. Star Trek does show us how to accept those who are different. In a future Federation of almost 200 different intelligent species, it’d be really hard to maintain religious or racial inequality. After all, one could be talking to an intelligent plant, a scary looking spider-thing, or a robot, right? So, what’s so bad about a guy with an afro? Star Trek gives us something to aspire to, but as scientists broach the idea of warp-drive, AI, etc., why are we still pursuing genetic modification as the “only answer” to feeding the planet…perhaps it is careful planning, not taking over continents mindlessly, and not overpopulating a planet that was the actual answer.
Let’s not choose the one way path. We have an opportunity to make society more fair, not exist in a 2015 where economic disparity between San Francisco and Oakland is worse than any seen on the planet ever. Beam me up, I’m different, and proud of it.