Future

Autism From The Inside - Living With My Brain In Overdrive

In his own world
In his own world
Laura Rethy and Lorenz Vossen

BERLIN - The traffic on this German road moves along in a neat pattern, changed only when a car makes a right.

When it does, Markus Behrendt turns to look out the window. He may only have seen the turning car – a change in pattern – out of the corner of his eye, but it requires his complete attention. His brain is in high gear. He says: “My memory is filled with nonsense,” by which he means all the unnecessary sensory stimuli around him.

The 38-year-old man takes everything in unfiltered: a radio playing, the rattling of dishes, the rustling of newspaper pages – and all traffic noise. All voices sound equally loud, all stimuli equally important. His brain must sort everything it absorbs. That takes a lot of energy.

Markus is autistic. Doctors diagnosed him with Asperger’s Syndrome five years ago. Until he was 33, those around him just thought he was odd. Doctors had always told his parents: "He’ll grow out of it, like other boys." But since he found out about his Asperger’s, many things have become a lot clearer for him.

Five hundred kilometers away, the day is beginning with a potential catastrophe. As she does every Thursday, Maria Meier, 28, was supposed to go riding – except today the stables are closed. Luckily there’s an attractive alternative: going to the mall to buy a new coffee machine.

On a bulletin board, Maria re-plans her day: work, go on a drive, buy coffee machine, drink coffee. In the office upstairs sits Alexander Lietzke who heads the live-in center for autism patients called Wohnstätte Moltke-Haus, in Potsdam near Berlin. He had prepared Maria early for the fact that there would be no horse riding today. The patients here have all been diagnosed with early onset autism; a deep-set developmental disturbance mostly accompanied by intellectual disabilities and impaired speech development.

Photo: Becky Wetherington

One of the ways autism manifests itself is that any change in routine can become a huge problem. Maria is also deaf. In sign language she keeps asking Lietzke about the organization of her day. "This asking the same thing over and over is stereotypical behavior, but it’s really a way of communicating and it gives her a feeling of security," he says. Some days, Meier asks the same question up to 50 times.

Even as a child Markus was very different from this. He would sit for hours in a kind of trance. "I remember those situations. I know what I was thinking in those moments – and it was a lot," he says.

Things took a turn for the worse when he started school. His parents remember that they all went through hell. It started with the walk to school. "My parents walked with me, over and over, for months," – out the door, straight ahead, turn twice. For Markus managing this walk was nearly impossible. He would focus on details and forget the larger situation. If something changed – like the way a bush was pruned – he lost track of where he was. Today he knows that "the autistic brain recognizes differences rather than similarities. It’s called ‘weak central coherence.’" The brain doesn’t register what something is if its appearance changes even slightly.

Back in Potsdam, Maria is attending a birthday party and sits with the others around a table. Her concentration is fixed on the coffee cups at the other end of the table. When the celebration is over, she wanders down to see if there’s any coffee left in the cups. Along with household chores, drinking coffee is her favorite thing.

Like a “secret society”

"Many people think that all people with autism are like the character in Rain Man. But it manifests differently in everyone. Even people affected by early onset autism. They may have similar symptoms but they require individual support," says Lietzke.

Markus did not get such support. When somebody has Asperger’s you can’t see it. By the time he finally got to school he couldn’t find his classroom. Since he can’t tell faces apart, he would follow the wrong kids, sit down in the wrong class, with no idea how to get to the right one.

"Looking back, I can see the funny side of it, but on-going it’s just so difficult," he says – particularly as he had no friends, because he didn’t know how making a friend worked.

So from a safe distance he would watch the other kids in the playground – how they would approach each other and say hi. "But there were so many variables, it just seemed like something I’d never figure out." He had the feeling, he says, that all the kids belonged to a secret society and he’d been left out.

In Potsdam, Maria has checked off “work” and removed the work picture from her day’s schedule. She had spent a half hour with Lietzke working on letters and numbers, and they also practiced some sign language. The home’s carers encourage her regularly to interact socially. She has learned over time to understand what a smile means, but only as part of a kind of vocabulary. The same goes for empathy. Says Lietzke: "We can ask her repeatedly not to be so loud, but she can’t really empathize when she disturbs others."

And yet Maria’s story is a success story. When she came to the home age 21 she self-harmed – another symptom of her autism. Lietzke says that figuring out she needed something to look forward to – like cards that count the days to Christmas or Easter – went a long way to ridding her of this.

Markus has figured out how to deal with the secret society. Not that it was easy trying to learn what emotions are from pictures because real faces only reveal them for a few seconds. Later, when he worked in a chemistry lab, he saw how his inability to interact made people insecure.

When he was 21 Markus fell in love with another Asperger patient who also hadn’t yet been diagnosed. Meeting this man was the greatest piece of luck in Markus’s life. "For me there are two groups of people: my partner, and the rest," he says. From the start he allowed his partner to touch him – something he allowed not even his parents to do. His partner was also the one who helped get through the loss of his job, in his early 30s. Suffering from depression, he for the first time learned about Asperger’s – and at first rejected the idea. He too was full of Rain Man clichés.

Today he sees the positive sides of the diagnosis. He works as a volunteer with the Technische Hilfswerk, a civil protection organization, and he’s often more effective than the others because he keeps a cool head. He says he has something to give that others don’t, and believes society should learn to accept more variables, just as he has.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

"The truest hypocrisy": the Russia-NATO clash seen from Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale. Here's Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan writing for Kommersant:

The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped to strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan / Kommersant

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today."

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

\u200bQueen Elizabeth II talks to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a reception for international business and investment leaders at Windsor Castle during yesterday's Global Investment Summit. Today, the 95-year-old British monarch was advised by her doctors to cancel a two-visit to Northern Ireland, although she is reportedly "in good spirits". \u2014 Photo: Pool/i-Images/ZUMA

Queen Elizabeth II talks to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a reception for international business and investment leaders at Windsor Castle during yesterday's Global Investment Summit. Today, the 95-year-old British monarch was advised by her doctors to cancel a two-visit to Northern Ireland, although she is reportedly "in good spirits". — Photo: Pool/i-Images/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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