Could Superman be Autistic?

February 14th, 2014 Brain World, Features

While critics and audiences railed at Superman’s reckless disregard for the thousands of innocents killed in the wreckage of Metropolis in Man Of Steel last summer, there was another aspect of his character that was far less discussed.

In an early flashback sequence, the young Clark Kent is trying to concentrate in school, but the world around him is overwhemling. Clark can hear the sounds of the flag ruffling outside and the heartbeats of his classmates. He can see through everything, including the rooms nearby through the walls, the organs of his classmates as they work and the bones in his own hand.

He’s under assault, unable to shut the deluge of over-stimulation out, running out of the classroom to lock himself in a closet and fending his teacher off by heating up the doorknob with his eye-lasers when she tries to enter.

Later, Superman (Henry Cavill) is grown up and in control of his amazing powers after learning how to filter the flood of sensory input. It gives him a distinct advantage when General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his soldiers threaten the world – with heightened sensory awareness that’s evolved in an environment of much higher gravity, air pressure and wave mechanics, they’re similarly crippled by sensory bombardment, special masks blocking it all out so they can see straight.

A new line of enquiry in neuroscience indicates Clark, Zod and the other Kryptonians might have displayed the symptoms of something actually very familiar to us on Earth – autism.

Henry Markram is the man behind the Blue Brain Project, an effort at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, to build a software-based brain in-situ in a computer – one neuron and synapse at a time. Markram was partly inspired by his own autistic son, who by age five showed aberrant social behaviour, threw ferociously violent tantrums and needed constant supervision, and today he has a new theory of what it’s like to live in an autistic brain.

Called the ‘intense world’ syndrome, it’s based not on the notion of cognitive deficits but cognitive over-performance. Intense world, the theory goes, is a constant barrage of sensory overload you can’t even keep up with, let alone discriminate between, filter out and action like non-autistic cognition can.

Taking in too much too fast – sights, sounds, experience and emotions, including their own – autistics can simply lock themselves down against it, leading to the emotionlessness and lack of empathy the condition is infamous for. And the anti-social, almost unconscious behavioral melt-downs might be no more than the equivalent of Clark Kent locking himself in a closet against the bombardment.

In the movie, Clark’s mother Martha (Diane Lane) is called. Through the door of the closet, she tells her terrified son to imagine her voice as an island to swim towards. Giving him something comfortable and familiar to focus on in her voice, Martha causes the torrent to fade away, and he emerges – exhausted and relieved – into her arms.

We’re built to look for, discern and process patterns and what they mean. However accurate it is, autistic people are usually portrayed as being gifted with complex systems, numbers and structures (think of the Rain Man-esque Vegas card-counting cliché).

Maybe that’s because when an autistic sees the same patterns we all do they latch on tight, what they see giving them not just a single focus but a much deeper appreciation and understanding of it than the rest of us.

In autism experiments with rats – made possible because of Markram’s work with neurochemistry – novel situations paralyse the subjects with uncertainty, while repetitive and familiar material cause improvements in general cognition. Autistic children might similarly revel in predictability, the uncertainty and lack of focus offered by the world around them simply swamping them.

Autism isn’t easy to manage in today’s world, but as we come to understand it better, it might be the upper layer of true human superpowers that are much more useful than leaping tall buildings in a single bound…

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