Does Superman Help Explain the Experience of Autism?

While critics and audiences railed at the portrayal of Superman in the fight scenes of his return to the big screen in “Man Of Steel,” there was another aspect of his character that was far less discussed in that film.

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

He is under assault — unable to shut the deluge of overstimulation out — running out of the classroom to lock himself in a closet and fending his teacher off by heating up the doorknob with his heat vision when she tries to enter.

Later in the film as Superman (portrayed by Henry Cavill), Clark is all 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 other Kryptonians, led by General Zod (played by Michael Shannon), come to threaten the Earth, who have not learned to navigate this new environment as Clark has.

A new line of enquiry in neuroscience suggests that this “strange visitor from another planet” 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 5 threw ferociously violent tantrums that needed constant supervision. 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 overperformance. Intense world, as the theory goes, there is a constant barrage of sensory overload you cannot even keep up with — let alone discriminate between — to filter out and action like nonautistic cognition can.

Taking in too much too fast — sights, sounds, experience, and emotions, including their own — autistic people can simply lock themselves down against it, leading to the perceived emotionlessness the condition is known for. And the almost unconscious behavioral meltdowns might be no more than the equivalent of Clark Kent locking himself in a closet against the bombardment.

In the film, Clark’s mother Martha (played by 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 (as the “Rain Man” Vegas card-counting cliché suggests).

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

In experiments with rats — made possible because of Markram’s work with neurochemistry — novel situations paralyze 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 is simply swamping them.

While it would be fun to be “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” the real supermen (and superwomen) are the researchers who help us understand autism better, which helps those on the spectrum to better thrive here on earth.

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