The Pony Problem

The other week, this happened…

The Internet—the global system of interconnected networks that’s become an increasingly central means of commerce and communication capable of bringing far-flung civilizations together—reached its apex this week, after a man claiming to be the fiancé of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic character Twilight Sparkle contacted a user of online community DeviantArt to demand he stop drawing sexual pictures of his imaginary pony-bride. The request was made in a letter that was then published in full on the Internet, which no longer has any reason to exist, having achieved everything it has ever set out to do.

My initial reaction to this was to track down a ‘Brony’ and yell STOP IT!! JUST STOP IT!! NOW!! at them for a while, but on reflection I think I can offer some explanation on just what is going on with this person, and perhaps light the way to reintegrating them into sane, non-cartoon-pony-marrying human society.

I would guess that our pony fancying friend is autistic. Yeah, not so much of a leap given that he’s intending to share his life with the plushy version of a cartoon pony, but bear with me. What I’m intending to explain is why to the autistic brain, sharing one’s life with the plushy version of a cartoon pony might seem like a good idea.

It is my contention – based on reading lots of articles in New Scientist and on that fact that I’m an autistic person myself – that the autistic brain doesn’t draw a distinction between people and non-people. I suspect that neurotypicals have some kind of system in their brains that detects when the thing they’re looking at/dealing with is a person, and places it into a privileged mental category – a category that says ‘this is a fellow human being with whom you can have some kind of social relationship’. This system isn’t perfect of course, but generally it does a good job of dividing the world into two classes – people (eligible for social relationships) and things (not eligible for social relationships).

We autistics lack this system. For us the world is made up entirely of things – it’s just some of those things happen to walk and talk. For us a person is – on a fundamental neurological level – no different to a telephone pole, so we have to learn how to tell what things are suitable for social relationships. A useful starting point is ‘Is it animate?” Another is “Does it talk?’ Yet another is ‘Does it appear to engage in social relationships with others?’I think you can see where I’m going here…

Up until the 20th century this probably worked pretty well. The only animate, talking, social things around were human beings. But throw in film and  suddenly you’re exposed to animate, talking social things that aren’t actually people – they’re recordings of people. And then throw in animation and you can be exposed to animate, talking, social things that plain don’t exist – like magical ponies. Show this kind of thing to an autistic person whose method for identifying people isn’t robust enough, and the stage is set for all kinds of inappropriate weirdness.

Interesting, you may say, but it’s just a theory. Well I speak from more than just a theoretical perspective. Many years back I myself fell prey to this particular social-neurological trap and developed a particularly strong attachment to a fictional TV character (not, I am relieved to relate, a cartoon pony – or for that matter a cartoon anything). I never reached the levels of delusion required to refer to her as my fiance, or to write letters to random internet people defending her honour, but I did spend a substantial amount of time daydreaming about our ‘relationship’ and building up a fairly detailed mental dossier of our ‘time together’. It was all mad as a meat axe, sure, but years later I still think of her fondly.

And the truth is that an imaginary relationship has a lot of advantages – particularly for the lonely,  socially inept autistic. All aspects of the relationship are entirely under your control. Your ‘partner’ has no hard to understand emotions, they have no need for time or attention you don’t feel like providing, they’re always up to hang out, and conversely don’t get upset or offended if you’re not in the mood to see them, you don’t need to buy them gifts or take them out on expensive dates – it’s all so simple!

And while the ‘affection’ you get from them isn’t as good as the real thing (not, in fact, being anything at all) it’s better than nothing. Hell, if you’ve never had a real relationship it’s the best affection you’ve ever had! And the opportunity to express affection to someone, and have them accept it – even when they don’t technically exist – is just as intoxicating. It’s a nasty, addictive and unhealthy trap to fall into – regardless of whether you make a fool of yourself professing your love for a cartoon pony or not.

So I get where this guy is coming from. I think I understand it. But, seriously, dude, dump the pony and try to get out there and find a real person. You might fail, but at the very least you’ll no longer be the poster boy for internet mediated pony based insanity.

A Dark Place

So, am I sailing the ocean blue, heading for adventures in New Zealand?

No, I am not. I am sitting in my apartment in Perth wallowing in a nasty combination of embarrassment, humiliation, disappointment, anger and worry about how much money I’ve wasted.

Turns out I hate cruising. After two days on board the boat I felt so wretched that my only option was to jump ship at Melbourne and fly home. So I’m not going to New Zealand, I’m not seeing all the cool stuff I was looking forwards too, and I’m pretty pissed off at the world and myself for not realising that life on a cruise ship would be hellish for an Aspie like myself.

So, I need to cancel all my reservations in New Zealand, alert my bank that I’m back in Perth so they won’t block my card and get in touch with my travel insurance to see if there’s any way I can get any of my money back. I’m not hopeful on that last one, but I’ll try.

I’ve also got to try and reconcile myself to another magnificent failure at living. If American sit-coms are anything to judge by, this is the kind of thing best treated by consuming vast amounts of alcohol and going to a strip club, but that’s not going to happen, so I’ll need to figure something else out. Give me a week or so and I should be coming out of this horrible funk. I hope.

Man I suck.

That’s better…

OK, my blog is now starting to look more like I want it to. Need to get that header sorted out, and rearrange the sidebar a bit, then I might finally be satisfied.

In my perambulations around the net the other day I stumbled over this quite remarkable page –The Neanderthal Theory of Autism. It’s a page outlining a theory that Autistic spectrum disorders are actually the legacy of breeding between modern humans and Neandertals in prehistoric Europe, and that the symptoms of autism are actually Neandertal traits.

It’s an interesting idea and there’s some interesting evidence in there (the much higher rate of autism in European as opposed to African populations for instance) but there’s also a lot of absolute fruit-loopery of the highest order dressed up in the garb of science.

The basic methodology seems to work like this…

1) Neandertals may have done things this way
2) Some Autistics do things this other way
3) The first way and the second way are kind of similar
4) Therefore Autistics must be Neandertals! It all fits!

For instance, this piece of crystal clear logic…

Most of the finds of Neanderthals are from caves. It’s possible that Neanderthals spent a lot of time in caves, or maybe they hibernated there during winter. Autistics have a fascination for caves. Many autistics are afraid of the sound of a motor-bike. A motor-bike sounds similar to a bear. It is possible that the instintive (sic) reaction of autistics when they hear the sound of a motor-bike triggers an ancient fear for cave-bears.

Uhhhh…. OK, let’s look at this bit by bit. Yes, most Neandertal finds do come from caves, but this has less to do with the habits of Neandertals and more to do with the fact that caves are very good at preserving old bones, so that’s where we tend to look for them. I mean sure, Neandertals may have been hanging out in caves all the time, but you can’t build a hypothesis around the fact that we’ve gotten very good at narrowing down our search for archaeology over the last 200 years.

Autistics have a fascination for caves“. We do?! No one told me this!? I shall have to start looking for a cave to be fascinated by right away!!! Honestly…

Motor-bikes, well, yes, the sound of a motor cycle does freak me out a bit, particularly if it comes tearing around a corner at full roar without any warning. But that’s not because it sounds like a bear, it’s because it’s a loud, sudden noise. Autistics don’t like loud sudden noises of any kind, be they engines, thunder, gunshots or – yes I suppose – cave bears. You might as well argue that Autistics are scared of the sound of motor cycles because the people who ride them tend to be large and hairy, and hence resemble cave bears.

The entire work is full of this kind of stuff. Particularly annoying (or laughable, depending on how you look at it) is the chain of supposition which will state tentatively that Neandertals might have behaved in a certain way, or might have had a certain trait, and then roll on into the next sentence on the confident assumption that they definitely did. That’s not science, that’s wish fulfilment.

So yes, an interesting theory, but let’s try and find some real evidence to back it up before we go riding off into the sunset clinging to the fur of a mammoth (which is apparently why Autistics like climbing over things…)