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Sunday, 27 July 2014

Pleasingly pedantic

I dislike labels. I don't mean luggage labels, because they can be very useful, although how my bag flew on to Orkney, many years ago, while I alighted for submarine field tests at Wick Airport, leaving me to mingle with spotlessly starched Royal Navy officers, in shirt and socks so ripe you could make cider with them, I have no idea.

No, I'm talking about people labels. Twice recently I've been called autistic and I don't know what they meant by it. I'm not saying I don't know what the word means. But I'm not sure what these people meant when they used it.

The dictionary definition of a word almost never tells you exactly what people mean for two reasons: 1) words are connected in our heads to a cloud of nuances, subtleties, emotions, assumptions, memories and prejudices, collectively called connotations; 2) those in my head are never identical to those in yours, for any particular word.

Dictionary definitions are all about denotation, the object a word points to. But the meaning of a word is much larger than its denotation, in the same way as an atom is larger than its nucleus. And for similar reasons. A nucleus has a fuzzy, shifting cloud of electrons around it. A word has a fuzzy, shifting cloud of connotations. 

This is most obvious with snarl words such as "weed", "vermin" and "gook" that have almost no denotation but a dark cloud of connotation, which includes "I hate your type" and "It's good to kill you."

I suspect people now use the word "autistic" in a similar but milder way, with meanings that include "You're annoying", "You think differently to me" and "You are too logical."

So when I bump into my old pal Yarrum, a very smart guy who was told he had Asperger's many years ago, it gives me the chance to get some advice from him.

"Hello, wise one," I say and just manage to bite off "How you doing?", a question Yarrum always answers way too literally and in too much detail.

"Greetings," he says, studying my shoes.

"Buy you a beer?" I say.

"That would be unwise," he tells me. "The temperature is 26° and alcohol is a diuretic. Our brains could become dangerously dehydrated." 

"You could always pour the beer straight in your ear," I say, and he looks puzzled. "Coffee?" I suggest. 

He shakes his head again and taps his watch. "Not if you want to sleep tonight," he says.

"Listen, pal," I say, trying not to get exasperated. "I'd like to pick your brains and was hoping we could go somewhere pleasant to do it."

"How about the Botanic Gardens?" he says. "We could sit on the grass."

"And look at scantily-clad women," I say. "Nice one."

"You said you wanted to talk," he says.

"We could do both," I say.

"No," he says. "There is some evidence that testosterone improves the cognitive functioning of the ageing brainBut that is a long term effect. In the short term it weakens intellectual focus."

"And that's the last thing we want," I say, as we head up Byres Road to the Botanics, where we park our bums on the greensward and I try not to look at women or straight into Yarrum's eyes, which he's found uncomfortable since we were boys together. 

Grass fails to grip me, so I'm struggling to know where to look, until a dopey bee bumbles into my forehead and falls to the ground between us. "Until the early 20th century they were called 'humble bees'," I tell Yarrum, as we watch the creature check itself out with a shake of its back legs, a shimmy of its abdomen, and a little waggle of its diaphanous wings.

"That is interesting," he says. "No doubt owing to the noise they generate rather than any presumed inadequacy of self-regard."

"I guess so," I say. "Do you think I'm autistic?"

The silence stretches for longer than most people could stand. But I know how Yarrum works. If I speak again it'll send his train of thought back to the station. 

"I don't know," he says eventually. "It is a possibility."

"Gimme more than that," I say. "Please."

"Well, neurotypicals - 'normal people' - suffer from three impairments," he says. "One. They are unable to think independently of their social group. Two. They find logical or critical thought difficult. Three. They cannot form in-depth special interests, other than social activities.

He pauses and I wonder what's coming next. "Does any of that sound like you?" he says.

"No," I tell him. "It does not."

"In that case you may have a brain wired in the way herd creatures call autistic," he says. "Although the two sets - autistic and neurotypical - while disjoint, do not cover the whole space."

He scratches his chin and I wonder what's coming next. "I must admit, from my own observation, I had formed a different working hypothesis to explain your personality and proclivities," he says.

"You had?" I say, waving goodbye to the bee, who has taken off in the direction of a fortysomething blonde with suntanned legs and a blue top that matches her eyes. "What was it?"

"That you are an onanistic narcissist with a nanosecond attention span, egotistical, self-indulgent tendencies and a cerebrum equipped with only the most primitive of poorly developed and unreliable executive functions."

"Wow!" I say. "Is there a word for all that?" 

He smiles but still doesn't raise his eyes to mine. "There is," he says.

"What?" I say.

"Wanker," he says.

"Good luck getting an opinion out of a neurotypical when you really need one."

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