Autism, Aikido, and Systems-Oriented Cognition

September 29, 2014

Steve Silberman is a journalist and wonderful human being who’s done some superb writing on autism and neurodiversity. He’s currently working on a book entitled NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, which I’m certainly looking forward to reading. 

As part of the research for his book, Steve visited me at my aikido dojo, Aikido Shusekai, watched me teach a class, and then interviewed me over dinner afterward. Later on, he emailed me a few follow-up questions. Much later on, I emailed him back with some rather lengthy answers.

One of Steve’s questions was particularly interesting and thought-provoking. I’m posting his question and my answer here (slightly revised from the original, for improved flow and readability). I’m posting it because the question prompted me to articulate thoughts that are central to my work and that I hadn’t previously articulated to my satisfaction, and I don’t know how much of what I wrote will make it into Steve’s book (I’m also posting it in the hope that this taste of the interesting stuff into which Steve’s research delves will encourage you all to check out his book when it’s published). 

QUESTION: How does being autistic inform your method of teaching Aikido? Though Simon Baron-Cohen has come under well-deserved criticism for his Theory of Mind stuff, my own experiences in the autistic community make me think he and others are onto something in talking about people on the spectrum as “systematizers” who extract sets of rules from chaotic experience and have a natural gift for pattern recognition. If you agree with this, how does this system-oriented cognition help you as a teacher and manifest itself in your dojo?

I do agree that a gift for pattern recognition and systems-oriented thinking seems to manifest, in some form or other, in many Autistics.

My chief criticism of Baron-Cohen, apart from his awful “Theory of Mind” garbage, is the false dichotomy that he draws between “systematizers” and “empathizers.”

Outside of Baron-Cohen’s imagination, pattern recognition and empathy aren’t opposites, and certainly aren’t mutually exclusive. This is apparent from even the most casual observation of humanity. Great systems-oriented thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Gregory Bateson, and Edgar Morin are often known for their empathy and compassion, while those who display the least empathy, like Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Bachmann, are often terrible at coherent systematic thinking as well.

I am certainly one of those Autistics who has the gift for pattern recognition and systems-oriented thinking. But I think many people misunderstand what this means, partly because of cultural stereotypes – the same cultural stereotypes that underlie (and are reinforced by) Baron-Cohen’s false dichotomy.

What I mean is that many people seem to wrongly equate systems-oriented thinking with a rigid, mechanistic attachment to superficial order. But the two are not at all the same. In fact, the sort of systems-oriented thinking at which many Autistics particularly excel is in some ways incompatible with the rigid mindset that is addicted to the imposition of artificial and static forms of order.

Autistic systems-oriented thinking, developed to its fullest potentials, means insight into the rich depths of underlying patterns and structures, the beauty of the deeper levels of natural order beneath surface realities, the beauty of the Tao.

It’s not fussy anal-retentiveness, it’s a deep and joyful mysticism, a meeting of the intellectual and the spiritual.

Rigid imposition of artificial order is not the natural domain of most Autistics, although that’s a stereotype that often gets projected onto us, and although some of us can be quite good at it when we need to be. Such imposition of artificial order is, in fact, more the domain of the sort of people who’ve always tried to do away with autism and with Autistic people – the domain of the eugenicists and Behaviorists, the domain of the Eichmanns and Lovaases of the world.

That sort of rigid mindset – the fear of the strange and unknown, and the compulsion to guard against that fear by imposing artificial, mechanistic order – is indeed incompatible with empathy.

But true systems-oriented thinking – the capacity for insight into the living, pulsing patterns and complexities underlying the surfaces of all things – is not at all incompatible with empathy, and indeed requires a similar sort of open awareness. Empathy and systems-oriented cognition are both essential aspects of my approach to practicing and teaching aikido.

Upon hearing that I’m an Autistic aikido teacher, those who think of autism in terms of the conventional stereotype of the rigid “systematizer” – the stereotype promoted by Baron-Cohen and his ilk – might expect that I’d be quite attached to reducing every aikido technique to rigidly choreographed forms. But my experience is exactly the opposite: I’ve found that, by my standards, the majority of non-Autistic aikido teachers are overly rigid in their thinking, overly focused on teaching the superficial choreography of a fixed catalog of techniques. I find that this focus on dogmatic adherence to rigid choreographies limits access to the full depth and potential of the art.

By contrast, my Autistic style of systems-oriented thinking has always led me to go beyond superficial choreography, to feel my way into the underlying patterns and principles, the exquisite complexities of the underlying flow.

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of the art of aikido, said, “The techniques of aikido change constantly; every encounter is unique, and the appropriate response should emerge naturally. Today’s techniques will be different tomorrow. Do not get caught up with the form and appearance of a challenge. Aikido has no form – it is the study of the spirit.”

It’s my Autistic cognitive style that enabled me to remain true to this dictum – to go beyond the superficial focus on the form and appearance of aikido techniques, to find the underlying flow from which the forms and techniques organically emerge, and to find my way into the joy of the cosmic dance that is aikido’s heart and source.



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