The aim Bruce Hood set himself is to demonstrate that the Self does not exist independently of the person having the experience, and it is certainly not what it seems. The emphasis on self-illusion found in Hood explains at the very least why it has been proved well impossible for autistic people to interact with others in the world. (I refer, of course, to people with classic autism. Not with a diagnosis of Asperger which I would not describe as autism.)
The self illusion, he asserts, is probably an inescapable experience we need for interacting with others and the world, and “indeed we cannot readily abandon or ignore its influence, but we should be skeptical that each of us is the coherent, integrated entity we assume we are.”
The great difficulty in my particular case is that if the self is more a form of hallucination than a reality, and autistic people think in pictures, with pictures, and through pictures, how then can I obtain a pictorial representation of the self-generated activity in somebody else’s brain? That is the question.
It is true that, when talking about the Self, I’ve never had an experience of a self as an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will. We do not have conscious awareness of the present moment that neurotypical people call the “I” But in fact I’ve experienced a self of a different kind that reflects upon who I am in terms of history (both personal, in the memories of my grandma Irma and general in a cosmological context), my current activities and my future plans.
William James called this aspect of the self, “me” which most of us would recognize as our personal identity as part of the whole. In my case, this self has been defined entirely by the author whose book I’ve previously chosen to read. It is the only expression of “free-will” I’ve never known.
Claudia, do you remember when you learned to read?
I learned to read in Spanish at age 2 by repeating words like a parrot. Indeed, there was no difference between myself and a parrot. I also have Savant Talents (like Rain Man). For example I know all the winners of the Four Golf Major Championships since 1860: British and USA Opens, PGA and Masters. This was not ordinary gift. It put my brain together in a different way than other kids.
Having been able to memorize complete children’s books at age 3, I never learned the art of spelling. This is why today I find it almost impossible to spell my last name. I have difficulties pronouncing the Zee (Zeta) in English. Finally I gave up. When asked to spell my last name, I would say, “European children learn spelling differently.” That is true. Italian children don’t say: M-A-Z-Z-U-C-C-O. It is, instead, a syllabic spelling: MAZ-ZUC-CO.
Then, at age 25, I learned English by reading Golf Digest.
When I was eight months old I was poisoned by a bacteria and, it does not matter what, I almost died. Apparently I developed autism right after that. The doctors didn’t know whether or not my brain was damaged, so my mom started by reading stories to be sure I was listening.
Modern psychologists are unanimous in emphasizing the fundamental importance of the initial bond between mother and daughter/son for the child’s mental development and emotional well-being. It takes many forms, but it could not be without the mother: my mom Elena was obsessed with the idea that I may be retarded. Capable mothers are able to channel the neurochemical system of their children.
Excessive contact with illiteracy in her daily job had, as she has always remarked, made her a great educator. She continued reading to me with increased speed and determination. And, in the end, I easily learned savant skills: memorization, intense visualization, concentration, repetition and, eventually, math.
But my parents got a nasty divorce when I was three and my mother left us – my sister Mariela and I – with my grandmother Irma (her mother-in-law) from Monday to Friday and went to be a teacher in the poorest and most isolated towns of Santiago del Estero. She came for us every Friday afternoon and we spent weekends and summer vacations with her.
Your mother was very obviously right in her determination and this was probably not achieved without a lot of love.
I can see how reading might be fundamental to the way your "self" is rigged. I learned to read at five, my own "self" was already pretty much wired (neurotypically :-) by then.
I found a description of an article in which very young children where tested in the mirror self-recognition test (link). There was no difference between neurotypical and autistic kids. Some passed the self-recognition tests, others didn't (remember, we are talking about very young kids, toddlers). The self-recognition test is putting a red mark on the kid's face without them noticing it, and seeing if when they look at themselves in the mirror, they wipe it off. The article also stated autistic children spent more time looking at objects than at people or their own faces, in the mirror.
This is the abstract of the original publication:
Children with autism achieve mirror self-recognition appropriate to developmental age, but are nonetheless reported to have problems in other aspects of a sense of self. We observed behaviour in the mirror in 12 pre-school children with autism, 13 pre-school children with Down syndrome (DS) and 13 typically developing (TD) toddlers. Reliable differences in reflecting actions, social relatedness and positive affect towards themselves, and an absence of coy smiles differentiated the children with autism from the others. The children with DS showed the highest interest in their own faces. These differences were largely independent of mirror self-recognition (MSR), broadly supporting arguments for dissociation between interpersonal and conceptual aspects of self. Mirror behaviour may be a subtle but easily elicited measure of the social quality of a sense of self.