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From “Black and White” to “Spectrum” Thinking:
The Thought Revolution of the Twenty-First Century
[with thanks to friends John Frohnmayer, Dan Johnson, and David Kenagy who commented helpfully on an earlier draft of this essay]
Introduction—A Personal Experience
From 2006-2016 I was a consultant to the oldest, and one of the largest, autism organizations in the country. This experience not only brought me into close contact with children and adults with autism, but it forced me to try to understand the nature of this condition that now affects more than one in one hundred newborns.
What fascinated me almost as much as the people were the categories that clinicians and scholars used to describe what they were observing. I learned that autism only received its first official notice in a 1943 paper by Leo Kanner, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Classic autism,” as described by Kanner, identified at least three features that made up this condition: social isolation, repetitive activity, and rigidity in schedule and temperament. But then, in 1944 in war-weary Vienna Austria, another professor, Hans Asperger, described people who had some of the same features as Kanner’s six subjects but seemed to have unusual abilities to focus, remember and recall things. Dr Asperger called them his “Little Professors.”
Because of the ravages of WWII and its aftermath, Asperger’s work didn’t make it to the States and wasn’t translated into English until the early 1980s. But then, when placed next to Kanner’s work, it seemed both to overlap and be different. How could one account for this new phenomenon, that seemed to be the same phenomenon described both by Kanner and Asperger, but at the same time seemed so different?
Enter Dr Lorna Wing, a psychologist at the London Institute of Psychiatry. In 1981, pondering both of these men’s work, she suggested a way to try to explain that their subjects both partook of the same phenomenon but were very different. The means by which she chose to explain it was to suggest what she called an “autism spectrum,” along which Kanner’s autism and Asperger’s autism were like two weights on either end of the barbell.
What Wing’s suggestion of an autism spectrum did was to reorient how one thought about autism. Rather than being what one might call a “black or white” phenomenon, autism was something that might have a core component but whose many features might shift or be in different intensity among many of the people one might designate as autistic. Now, nearly forty years after Wing’s work, not only is the concept of the “autism spectrum” universally accepted but Asperger’s name has been bequeathed to a syndrome which generally is now associated with “higher-functioning autism.” The positing of a “spectrum” of autistic behavior was the key in moving from a “check the box” mentality, where one looked for defined features, and to a more fluid understanding of the phenomenon of autism. As was often said in the “Autism movement” when I was associated with it, “If you have met one person with autism, well, you have met one person with autism.” A spectrum philosophy was needed to explain autism.
Of course, the move to “spectrum” brought problems of its own. If autism isn’t just Kanner’s classic three features, and if one can “mix and match” features, including Asperger’s features, to come up with a more complex autism mix, can’t we start to expand the numbers of autistic people by saying that everyone has some features of this syndrome or disorder? The struggle for a common definition is a real one, but that shouldn’t obscure the major point that the concept of “spectrum” rather than a “black and white” definition of autism is what has propelled the field in the last 40 years.
Two Other Fields
As I was thinking about the experience with this rather new phenomenon called autism, it dawned on me that this concept of a “spectrum” is not only defining the nature of many academic disciplines, but also informs the way we now talk to each other. First, the academic disciplines. The academic field that most touches everyone’s life on this “spectrum” issue now is gender studies. Ever since the 1960s, gender scholars have emphasized the distinction between sex (a biological issue) and gender (a social construct, with “male” and “female” roles or certain things that are “masculine” and “feminine”). The major insight of gender scholars, accepted now by more than 50% of millennials, is that gender is a “fluid” or a “spectrum” phenomenon. It is much more complex than that, but the implication of much gender work in our day is to continue to erode the simple categorization of people into the two sexes/genders that I was taught were all that existed.
Spectrum-thinking is popping up in unusual places. A 2017 paper in biology talked about the “altricial-precocial spectrum” of social behaviors among newborn animals, that is, to what extent are they dependent and to what extent independent of parents as their life unfolds. Other fields, no doubt, are affected by this new way of thinking.
How this “Theoretical Stuff” Affects How We Talk About Things
But what is most impressive to me is that the concept of “spectrum” thinking is informing the way I present material when I teach or speak with people. Instead of asking people for “the answer,” as if phenomena I was considering was “black or white,” I will ask them “spectrum-like questions.” That is, I often ask people to “plot themselves along a spectrum” of various things (e.g., how patient they are with other people; how prone to worry they might be). Or, I may say, “From one to ten, with one being low, how intense is your attraction to X? How great is your pain?” We realize that the best way often to describe the way we relate to the world is in degrees of intensity, in numbers from one to ten, in a spectrum rather than in an “either-or” fashion.
It would both be unwise and wrong for me to suggest that “black and white” thinking or “clear answers” aren’t important in life. After all, I was a math-oriented person and a math major well before fields of religion, history, philosophy, psychology and literature ever entered my ken. I am not very open at this point to making 2 + 2 anything other than 4. But what this new mode of thinking is forcing us to consider is that more fields and aspects of human living may be better handled in our day by “spectrum” than by “black and white” thinking.
One may grant that there is an autism spectrum or an “altricial-precocial spectrum. One might even grant that the concept of a gender spectrum makes sense. After all, I often say to a man, “You are manifesting a traditionally feminine characteristic in responding this way. Are you offended by my saying so?” Most answer, “No.” Or, to a woman, “Your approach to life is 20% guy.” But to me the big question is to what extent religious faith is best explained using a “spectrum” philosophy? If so, then, one might have to leave judgments about truth and falsehood aside and simply plot one’s belief and action tendencies on spectrums. Wouldn't that be interesting?