Lisa D. (chaoticidealism) wrote,
Lisa D.

Cats, Dogs, and Asperger Syndrome

There are cat people, and there are dog people; and they seem to fight just like the cats and dogs they love. And then there are people like me, who over-analyze the whole situation for their blogs.

People anthropomorphize their pets--that is, they see in their pets their own human nature. It's all part of having a "Theory of Mind"--assuming that other people are basically like us, basically have the same motivations for their actions, basically look at the world just like we do. That "theory of mind" works out just fine when applied to people who are more or less like you--but it doesn't work so well when you apply it to people who are very different from you (like a different culture, or a different neurological arrangement). And it hardly works at all when you apply it to animals.

I can put myself in someone else's shoes, think about what they must be thinking; but for me, Asperger Syndrome made the process of obtaining such a "theory of mind" more difficult, less intuitive. My theory of mind is more abstract, more intellectual, more learned. It is, in fact, something which I revise for every person I meet.

What other people learn to do easily while they're children--that is, group people into a mental "set" and know what to expect of them because they expect them to be like themselves--I never learned to do. So, when I relate to someone else, I assume they are themselves, different from me, and that there are many factors that must be taken into account before I can understand them. It is an arduous process; but, while slower and resulting in some socially unpalatable actions, it is less likely to make incorrect assumptions than the typical approach taken by an NT. It is also why social relationships are hard for me: To do what an NT does easily, I would have to know a person so intimately that the contact is almost threatening. I have to process consciously what is intuitive for everyone else.

So, back to cats and dogs.

When an NT--most of the people in the world--meets an animal, his "theory of mind" immediately kicks in. He sees that animal in the same way that he sees just about any other creature; he interprets its actions the same way he interprets human actions. The only difference between the way he sees animal and human is that he sees the animal through the lens of a stereotype--the assumptions he has made about its species, which he then applies to the animal and uses in interpreting its actions.

(Not all NTs see animals like this, of course, especially those who work closely with animals and their behavior, or who study animal behavior. I'm describing the usual, average reaction.)

But when a person like me--an Aspie or autistic--meets an animal, we don't have a set "theory of mind" to apply to that animal. For the most part (Aspies are, of course, individuals, and some differ) we do not assume that the animal's motivations are the same as our human ones; we do not have a schema into which to put that animal's actions. We simply take the actions as facts, without expectations.

This lack of expectations, rather than hindering us as it does when we interact with people, now actually helps us relate to animals. Humans are not hard-wired to relate to animals; but we are hard-wired to relate to each other. When you get a human who's not hard-wired to relate to anyone--i.e., an Aspie--you get a human who has learned to interact with individuals he's not hard-wired to interact with; and those individuals include animals. Aspies aren't any more wired to interact with animals than NTs are; but we've had to learn to interact despite the lack of such wiring--something most NTs haven't needed to learn.

Here's how cat and dog lovers see cats and dogs. Notice the connotations and anthropomorphic language.

A cat lover says cats are...But a dog lover says they're...A dog lover says dogs are...But a cat lover says they're...
Intelligent, because they learn to do things independentlyDiabolical--they figure out how to do things to annoy youIntelligent, because they learn to do tricksStupidly following every order they get
Instinctive huntersCruel to small animalsFascinated by how things smellJust sticking their noses into disgusting things
Fastidiously cleanVainEnthusiasticDestructive
Never smell badLitter boxes smell up the houseDon't mind playing in the dirtWill roll in anything smelly they can find

What you see in that table is that so very many of those things are character judgments people usually make about each other: Vain, enthusiastic, stupid, dependent, loyal, lazy. When people look at their favored animals, they project human characteristics onto them--and give those characteristics positive connotations. And when people look at animals they don't like, they project negative human characteristics onto them.

Dogs and cats are very different. They're both companion animals; they're both mammals; but that's just about all they have in common. It's very easy, if you do not look at them as the animals they are and instead project human motives onto them, to see one of them in a very positive way, and the other in a very negative way.

It seems hard for most people to see that things may be just different--not better, not worse; just different. But that's what cats and dogs are: Just different.

When you look at cats as cats, and dogs as dogs, you see that you cannot judge a cat by dog standards, nor a dog by cat standards, nor either by human standards. They are what they are.

A cat is a solitary hunter. It does not have many social relationships beyond kitten-raising (which only the mother participates in); when social relationships between cats do emerge, they are usually between mother and grown kittens, or in a household where all needs are met and the cats have leisure time to engage in those relationships. A cat does not need social relationships to survive and be relatively happy; so, when a cat chooses to be with a human, it is because he likes that human and sees benefit in the relationship--food, physical comfort, mutual grooming. A cat is also very territory-based: Instead of being attached primarily to the other cats in his area, he is attached to his own territory. Constancy and predictability in his environment are important to him.

But a dog is different. Dogs are pack animals; the pack gives them all their needs. They are wired to know their places in the pack: Alpha male, alpha female, et cetera. A dog's sense of security comes from his relationships: He knows where he is in the pack, and he can depend on his pack-mates.  When you live with a dog, you are his alpha (or, at least, you should be his alpha--many behavior problems come from dominant dogs). He will attach himself to you, depend on you, whether or not you treat him well--but if you treat him well and keep a consistent set of laws, he will love you, because security, for a dog, comes from knowing his place and being able to predict those around him. Submissive dogs, unlike submissive humans, are happy dogs.

Cats don't need other cats; but once their needs are met, they will reach out. Dogs are made to work in a pack, as a team; but their happiness depends on the consistency and kindness with which that pack operates. A cat obtains food by his own skill; a dog obtains food by cooperation with others. Cats must be silent while they hunt; dogs use noise to communicate and to chase prey to hidden packmates. For cats, territory is everything; for dogs, pack is everything. Cats work for food because food is what directly motivates them; dogs work for praise because approval from the other dogs in the pack is vital to them. Without a pack, a dog cannot easily survive; without other cats, a cat can survive just fine.

All those differences, and hardly a similarity. To understand either species, you must see the animal on its own terms--indeed, you must see each member of each species as a separate individual; dogs and cats have individual personalities at least as distinct as those humans have.

When I was nine years old and had my first cat, a little female named Tiger, I knew very little about cats. But as I observed Tiger, interacted with her, and began to read what she was saying, I began to understand her. Tiger taught me how to speak Cat--how to see in a cat's tail, whiskers, ears, and posture, what a cat was feeling and communicating. Each cat is different--speaks its own dialect--but as I learn more about cats, I am slowly forming a "theory of the feline mind". And, by learning how each cat deviates from that picture, I understand each new cat much more quickly.

So, despite liking both cats and dogs, I consider myself a "cat person" because I understand cats more than I understand dogs; thus I prefer to spend time with cats. I am more like a cat than most human beings, because, like cats and unlike dogs, I do not depend on a social structure for happiness. But cats are indiviuals; and I have loved some individuals of the species, while only tolerating others.

Now I am living with three roommates, and each of those roommates has a dog; so I am learning to speak Dog, just as I learned to speak Cat from little Tiger, so long ago. So I may soon be able to report that I am part of that rare kind of human being: A cat and dog lover.
Tags: asperger syndrome, cats, stereotypes
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