Wrong Planet Syndrome

by Dinah KC Murray BA MA PhD

This is a story about autistic creativity, guts, and resourcefulness.
Some diagnostic criteria for neurotypicality emerge from the discussion.

The phenomenal website referred to, which everyone who reads these words probably knows, is a theme which runs through this discussion, partly as a stunning example of autistic creativity
[this graphic is by Ralph Smith, of whom more below].

Ooops....Wrong Planet! Syndrome

From "the autistic underground"

"We’re OK. The world…!?"

The author of this site, Janet Norman-Bain, known round the world as jypsy, found the phrase "Wrong Planet Syndrome" in use in what she refers to as "the autistic underground". That is, it was in use among people on the autistic spectrum who were communicating with each other on the internet. It implies, of course, that their problem is in the world rather than in themselves, a view succinctly stated in a recent letter to The Observer newspaper:

People with autistic spectrum disorders are not victims of autism (News, last week), they are victims of society. They do not suffer from their developmental differences, they suffer from prejudice, ignorance, lack of understanding, exploitation, verbal abuse - all this and more from that sector of society which considers itself socially able. Grace Hewson Clevedon Somerset UK May 20th 2001

Please note a couple of quotations from the Ooops home page. One is from Thoreau [1817-1862]: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured, or far away."

The other is from Einstein [1879-1955] - who many people think, had he been growing up today, would have got a diagnosis of an autistic spectrum disorder - : "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality."

Please also note that jypsy says of her wonderfully helpful site, that it "illustrates my own obsessive interest in autism information gathering and a desire to share what I know". As such it is an illustration of monotropic creativity, see below. We believe monotropism is central to the autistic condition.

Each of these quotes illustrates a main theme, underlying or explicit, of this piece.


Monotropism = One interest active at a time

Polytropism = Many interests active at a time

Not having lots of interests co-active and thus informatively accessible, ie being monotropic, means having difficulty with context, scale, and intention in a changeable and multiple universe (see Lawson 2001). It can make figuring out what’s going on very hard work indeed. That in turn means that the dominant emotions much of the time for monotropic individuals tend to be interest, fear, or unrefined dysphoria. Ecstasy and awe also appear to be emotional states associated with monotropism. Any of these emotional states may also occur in polytropic individuals.

Creativity and Imagination in Autism & Asperger Syndrome is the title of a paper by Jaime Craig and Simon Baron-Cohen. Above are the foam rubber shapes from which the children in their study were encouraged to generate ideas.

This is Craig and Baron-Cohen’s summary of the "Torrance test" - a well-known instrument used by psychologists to assess creativity.

"3 dimensions of creativity…

- number of responses, minus repetitions

- number of different categories

- number of [novel] responses…" p.321

And this is a summary of Craig and Baron-Cohen’s conclusions. "Children with autism and AS generated fewer suggestions involving attribution of animacy to foam shapes, compared to controls, instead generating reality-based suggestions of what the shapes could be."(from abstract, op cit)

On the basis of these findings they infer that the children with asd are "creatively and imaginatively impaired".

But the production of fewer responses overall is a long recognised typical pattern in children on the autistic spectrum, cf eg Hutt, Hutt, Lee & Ounsted, 1965, Journal of Psychiatric Research ...

The Torrance test is not well suited to detecting monotropic creativity. Here are some more examples of that.

This and the next three images are from a series of paintings by Peter Myers sold as postcards in aid of the free magazine by and for people with Asperger Syndrome, Asperger United , available through the National Autistic Society in the UK


More monotropic art by Peter Myers


. http://www.sentex.net/~nexus23/myers04-600x.jpg

Click here to run a short animation by Ferenc Virag,
an artist who has a diagnosis of Kanner type Autism
rather than Asperger's Syndrome.

More monotropic art by Andy Warhol

. . .
© Andy Warhol


Is creativity being assessed by the Torrance test ? It is a quantitive difference being measured. Polytropic people tend to have multiple interests aroused and accessible at any time. When the Torrance Test is applied in this study, it is polytropism not creativity which is being measured… Autistic creativity will tend to be monotropic and thus missed by such measures.

The contrast found is

polytropic - not polytropic


creative - not creative.

The other contrast found is also not well described: they label it a difference between imaginative and not imaginative. I propose that a more helpful description is:

fantasy-based imagination - reality-based imagination


imaginative - not imaginative

It is a matter of the uses to which an individual’s imagination is put; not a matter of some individuals having an imagination which other, defective or impaired, individuals do not have. Please visit the work of Temple Grandin on humane livestock handling at http://www.grandin.com for professional, expert, autistic, reality-based imagination. See also the discussion of imagination in her book Thinking in Pictures, the first chapter of which can be found at http://www.grandin.com/inc/visual.thinking.html.

Craig and Baron-Cohen’s account conflates imagination with fantasy, which I believe is a mistake.

Recall that in dealing with monotropic children we are dealing with individuals who may be working constantly and hard at the task of basic comprehension. They are baffled and frightened a lot of the time.

Fantasy-based imagination is

Play emerges from a sense of safety. Even the most playful animal won’t play when frightened or angry.

Furthermore, much play has a theatrical element to it which is dependent on steps towards awareness which it will usually take monotropic children much longer to take. I propose that theatricality is the distinctive quality that is lacking from the productions of the children on the autistic spectrum in Craig and Baron-Cohen’s study.


Theatrical Imagination is

I am proposing that neurotypicality is distinguished by the early appearance of the theatrical imagination, usually well before the age of around four, by when it may be established as primary mode. For example [in Hutt et al, op cit]:

In four different conditions, the largest increase in actions for the non-autistic children was between condition B, blocks to play with, and condition C, blocks plus a passive onlooker. For the children on the autistic spectrum, the striking increase in play was between having a passive adult in C or an actively engaging adult in condition D.

What I am here calling theatrical imagination is, I believe, identical with what in Lorna Wing’s original diagnostic criteria for autism is referred to as "social imagination."

Interests active in theatrical imagination




[self] esteem


In one way or another all of these interests are functional: typical children may be highly skilled in pursuing all of them well before the age of four [see eg Peter 2000, and Newson 1984]. Monotropic children, however, will initially have no such interests, though step by step full awareness may emerge later on in life: how much later will vary greatly.

Before interests such as these can come into play, much progress with reality based imagination must first take place.

Interests active in reality based imagination

accurate recollection

consistency across time

sound method construction

sound model construction

reliable belief system


Monotropism makes interests of this sort highly motivating but very hard work. Putting it all together so that one is not being constantly shocked may take decades longer for a severely monotropic individual.


The theatrical imagination is involved in:

When the imagined audience is "the generalised other" as George Mead put it, then there may be no dissonance between theatrical imagination and the goals of reality based imagination. On the contrary, these theatrical imaginative resources can be deployed in aid of reflection, evaluation, and "executive function". And they can help modulate emotional states.

When theatrical imagination is primary mode the dominant considerations may be:

Although the theatrical imagination may be useful, as just described, when these are the dominant considerations, then truth may cease to be of interest.

Developmental steps can happen any time

When all these steps have been taken in the first two years of life, then the individuals in question are likely to be at the severely neurotypical end of the spectrum. In such individuals, the theatrical imagination is may become the dominant mode before the age of four.

As such, then their commitment to the scrupulous honouring of obligations, and their dedication to the truth, may sometimes be outweighed by more theatrical considerations. However, once these developmental steps have been taken then the individual is in a position to choose between (potentially overlapping) imaginative modes:

- reality-based

- fantasy-based

- theatrical

Triad of neurotypical impairments
I propose that theatrical imagination appears to be closely associated with the other two crucial members of the triad of neurotypical impairments, however beneficial it may be when scrupulously used. A person who tells one that a foam rubber shape is an animate creature is being neither truthful nor trustworthy.

I am now going to give a very brief case study to support the thesis that the first two neurotypical impairments may be intrinsically connected with the third. It is of a case of internet plagiarism, of which the brief history can be found on the Shame Page [ http://www.sentex.net/~nexus23/shame_2304.html ].

As jypsy has built up her website over the years, she has given hundreds of people and organisations permission to link to her page. Jypsy had given the same courteous permission to the outfit named on the Shame Page as she had to all the others. She had of course NOT said they could use her links page - but they did, stole the whole thing and reproduced it with failing internal links, with a smug introduction about having "conveniently brought you these links…", and with no reference to OWPS. For the evidence of this, please visit the Shame page mentioned above, created by one of OWPS’s supporters.

The site had, and still has an award in "Honor of those who have put forth the time and effort to make the below website links OUTSTANDING." (Compare this, by the way, with OWPS’s eighteen similar awards…)

Whose time and effort?

Who was getting the glory?

NYFAC was approached, by jypsy, by myself, and by autistic artist, activist, and co-organiser of this symposium, Ralph Smith. Their spokesman’s response was to tell us that jypsy had given him permission. He even claimed so to jypsy herself, indicating that leaving off credit had been a mistake. Anyone who thinks that might be a sufficient account of events is referred to the Shame Page.

That was followed by what was presumably intended to put matters right: The links, which had previously not even mentioned either jypsy or her site, were attributed. And gratitude was expressed "for her permission…" which had not, of course, been granted.

Why was this chap suffering from such impaired trustworthiness and truthfulness in these matters? I propose that it was a consequence of prioritising theatrical imagination. The evidence for this is in the eventual triumph of jypsy, and its timing.

The spokesman’s initial attitude was as I have described. Jypsy let him know that she was poised to notify all the email lists etcetera about the plagiarism, and she told the organisation which had presented the website’s award. He made that dishonest change in response. Next, the lists were indeed notified - and this classically neurotypical human began to discover that the audience from whom he customarily received applause was not immune from the information about his so-called mistake. He started to receive angry emails from around the world, and was contacted with some questions by the people who had awarded the medal.

At last he capitulated...

This is a story about frailty and strength

Autistic potential

self advocacy



gutsiness in extreme adversity

creativity and imagination

capacity to put on a good show

What follow in conclusion are some graphics by Ralph Smith, which in their different ways expand on the themes of this submission. For further proof of autistic creativity, please visit http://www.sentex.net/~nexus23/art.html

Border of Lorien


Wrong Planet Syndrome...


Craig Jaime and Baron-Cohen Simon (1999) Creativity and Imagination in Autism & Asperger Syndrome” 1999 Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 29,4; pp319-326.

Goffman, Erving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Penguin Books.

Hutt, S.J., Hutt, C., Lee, D., & Ounsted, C. (1965). A behavioral and electroencephalographic study of autistic children. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 3, 181-197.

Lawson Wendy (2001) Understanding and Working with the Spectrum of Autism, an insider’s view. Jessica Kingsley; London and Philadelphia.

Lesser Mike and Murray Dinah (1999) Mind as a Dynamical System: Implications for Autism

Mead, George H. (1934/1968) Mind, Self and Society, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.


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